The snow graphics in ‘Frozen’ can predict the mechanics of real avalanches

When a slab of snow cracks and slides down a slope, the exact size and shape of the resulting avalanche is hard to predict. The sliding slab is denser than the snow underneath it, giving the system a mix of solid and liquid properties.


Chenfanfu Jiang, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science, is an expert on the dynamics involved in porous materials. But unlike most research in applied mathematics and physics-based simulations, Jiang’s work has been seen by millions of people around the world. Before coming to Penn, he developed computer graphics for the entertainment industry; his computational models of snow, sand, and water have appeared in the Disney films Frozen, Zootoptia, and Moana.

The math that power these realistic digital depictions are now set to have a real-world impact. Jiang recently published a study in Nature Communications that leverages these simulations as a way of capturing and predicting the complexity of a slab of snow’s behavior as cracks propagate through it.

Along with colleagues from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of California, Los Angeles, Jiang developed a numerical model that accurately conforms to real-life observations of so-called snow slab avalanches.

Read more at Penn Engineering.