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Avalanche Deaths On The Rise This Season, But Why?

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From Mother Nature Network's John Platt:

Dutch Prince Johan Friso remains in a coma and may never recover after an avalanche at a resort in Austria left him cut off from oxygen for 15 to 20 minutes, the BBC reports. It's a headline-worthy example of a growing trend.

The avalanche that struck Friso and his companions was just one of several deadly events around the world in the past few weeks. Avalanches in Utah last week killed a snowboarder and injured a snowmobiler, the Associated Press reports. Four skiers and snowmobilers were killed in Washington state two weeks ago, and two snowmobilers died in two Montana avalanches last week. The Feb. 23 death of a snowboarder in Utah brings this season's avalanche deaths in the United States to 25 people.

Prince Friso, 43, was the only person injured after a 100-foot-wide struck his four-person skiing party on Feb. 17. The group was skiing "off-piste," referring to backcountry skiing done without the benefit of marked trails composed of compacted snow. The prince was rescued by helicopter, although it took nearly 50 minutes to revive him.

Doctors told the media last week that the prince experienced brain damage and a heart attack caused by oxygen deprivation. "We cannot say today with certainty whether Prince Friso will one day regain consciousness," said Dr. Wolfgang Koller, head of the trauma unit at Innsbruck's University Hospital. "In any case, a neurological rehabilitation will be required that will take months, if not years."

Prince Friso is married with two children. The second son of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, he is not in immediate line for the throne.

Some disturbing numbers
The Denver Post compared this year's avalanche fatalities to previous years and found some disturbing numbers. So far this year, six people have been killed by avalanches in Colorado, compared to seven all of last year. Country-wide, there were 36 avalanche-related deaths in the 2009-2010 season. Colorado has issued a warning that conditions remain dangerous throughout the state. The Utah Avalanche Center also warned of high risks in much of that state.

According to the website Climate Central, warm weather may be responsible for the high number of avalanche fatalities this year.

"While it may seem like more snow would lead to more avalanches, experts say that in many areas, the high avalanche danger this year is tied to the thin, weak snowpack that was established earlier this winter, and is now failing to hold on to new snow that falls," wrote the site's senior science writer, Andrew Freedman.

The problem isn't limited to the U.S. At least 17 people died in Kashmir after avalanches hit two Army bases on Feb. 23. Several people are still missing following the deadly events.

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