You are here

Accomplishments in mountain safety

In 1995 Ed Hutchins coined the phrase “cognition in the wild” to describe research completed in the natural laboratory of high risk work environments. One ISE student is taking that literally and studying the cognitive work of avalanche forecasters working high in the Canadian coast mountains! Laura Maguire, a 3rd year PhD candidate with Dr. David Woods in the Cognitive Systems Engineering Lab (CSEL), is an avid skier and was curious about how experts make sense of the changing risks of triggering an avalanche while skiing in the backcountry.

As part of this project, she was invited to speak at the College of the Rockies (COTR) in Fernie, BC to a group of professional and recreational backcountry users and also to the Adventure Tourism Business Management students at the campus in Golden, BC. In these sessions she realized the mountain community has a deeply held assumption that a novice is an expert with less experience. “This was a real lightbulb moment for me. I’ve been backcountry skiing for over 20 years and I always tried to emulate what the experts did.

However, based on the work I’ve been doing at CSEL studying expert performance in other domains I realized that experts have different perceptual and attentional capabilities when it comes to being able to recognize what is meaningful changes in the snowpack. So while a novice may be able to follow the same steps an expert does, they are less able to integrate what the findings mean in terms of stability and likelihood of triggering an avalanche.”

But when she went looking in the literature she recognized a substantial gap in studies of expert performance. “There has been a substantial body of research into the technical knowledge needed to understand snow science. But understanding the technical knowledge requirements is only one aspect of mapping what it means for experts to have successful performance in dynamic, uncertain mountain environments.”

So she partnered with a ski resort on the west coast to study the expertise of a team of professional avalanche forecasters. The work won grants from the Cora Shea Memorial Fund and the International Snow Science Workshop (ISSW) Fund from the Avalanche Canada Foundation and the paper was selected for a podium presentation at the ISSW in Innsbruck, Austria.

Since then, Laura has received invitations to speak at the Sierra Avalanche Center Bill Foster Memorial Professional Development Workshop in Squaw Valley, California, the Wyoming Snow and Avalanche Workshop and the Bend Snow & Avalanche Workshop. She has published works in the Canadian Avalanche Journal (fall 2018), the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review (April 2019), the Italian mountain safety journal Neve & Valange (where her work was translated to Italian) (forthcoming, fall 2019), has been invited to be a reviewer for the Cold Regions Science & Technology and was asked to be a part of a multi-year research project with an international snow science consortium led by the Norweigan Avalanche researchers.

“The work we are doing at The Ohio State University - a place far from the steep slopes of the world’s highest mountain ranges - is directly applicable to the real world problem of how to keep people, infrastructure and transportation corridors safe from avalanche hazards. I’m proud to be a part of CSEL’s ground-breaking work and am excited about the possibilities of international collaboration around a problem that is deeply important to me!”


Laura’s dissertation research focuses on the cognitive costs of coordination and is funded by the SNAFU Catcher’s Consortium, an industry based group of critical digital infrastructure companies exploring resilience engineering and safety in digital systems.

Tags: Student