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Source: University of Canterbury – statements

02 December 2020

Alpine avalanches, viewed from afar, are spectacular but can be extremely hazardous for anyone in their vicinity. Funded by a 2020 Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, University of Canterbury (UC) researcher Dr Leighton Watson hopes to build a better understanding not just of avalanches but also of their volcanic cousins, lahars and pyroclastic flows.

Volcanic eruptions and snow avalanches may not seem to have much in common but the deadly flows of material they produce travel across terrain in somewhat similar ways. Scientists know these flows collectively as particle-laden gravity currents (PLGCs) and, given their inherent dangers, have traditionally relied on using geological deposits, lab experiments and computer simulations to study them. More recently, seismic and acoustic wave observations have been used to safely and reliably detect these sorts of extreme events.

The next step for researchers is to combine and compare seismic and acoustic signals with real-time visual observations in the field. In his two year Rutherford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship research, Dr Watson plans to do just that by intentionally triggering snow avalanches along safe and predictable slide paths, as well as capturing data on naturally occurring events.

Having spent several years studying overseas, Dr Watson is keen to commence his research fellowship in Aotearoa New Zealand, with UC’s School of Earth and Environment, comparing simulated avalanche geophysical signals with field measurements.

“As we build our understanding of the processes governing flow dynamics, we may also gain new insights on how to manage these events in New Zealand such as monitoring lahars on Mount Ruapehu or avalanches along Milford Road,” he says.

Dr Mark Stagg, Director Research Funding for the Royal Society Te Apārangi, was pleased to congratulate Dr Watson on his fellowship success, noting the standard of applications was very high.

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