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date: 21 April 2019

Challenges for Natural Hazard and Risk Management in Mountain Regions of Europe

Summary and Keywords

European mountain regions are diverse, from gently rolling hills to high mountain areas, and from low populated rural areas to urban regions or from communities dependent on agricultural productions to hubs of tourist industry. Communities in European mountain regions are threatened by different hazard types: for example floods, landslides, or glacial hazards, mostly in a multi-hazard environment. Due to climate change and socioeconomic developments they are challenged by emerging and spatially as well as temporally highly dynamic risks. Consequently, over decades societies in European mountain ranges developed different hazard and risk management strategies on a national to local level, which are presented below focusing on the European Alps.

Until the late 19th century, the paradigm of hazard protection was related to engineering measures, mostly implemented in the catchments, and new authorities responsible for mitigation were founded. From the 19th century, more integrative strategies became prominent, becoming manifest in the 1960s with land-use management strategies targeted at a separation of hazardous areas and areas used for settlement and economic purpose. In research and in the application, the concept of hazard mitigation was step by step replaced by the concept of risk. The concept of risk includes three components (or drivers), apart from hazard analysis also the assessment and evaluation of exposure and vulnerability; thus, it addresses in the management of risk reduction all three components. These three drivers are all dynamic, while the concept of risk itself is thus far a static approach. The dynamic of risk drivers is a result of both climate change and socioeconomic change, leading through different combinations either to an increase or a decrease in risk. Consequently, natural hazard and risk management, defined since the 21st century using the complexity paradigm, should acknowledge such dynamics. Moreover, researchers from different disciplines as well as practitioners have to meet the challenges of sustainable development in the European mountains. Thus, they should consider the effects of dynamics in risk drivers (e.g., increasing exposure, increasing vulnerability, changes in magnitude, and frequency of hazard events), and possible effects on development areas. These challenges, furthermore, can be better met in the future by concepts of risk governance, including but not limited to improved land management strategies and adaptive risk management.

Keywords: mountains, hazards, risk management, prevention, dynamics, exposure, vulnerability, risk governance, adaptive management, Europe


During the past decades, natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods, storms, wildfires, and droughts have caused major loss of human lives and livelihoods and the destruction of economy and social infrastructure worldwide. The increasing number of natural hazards and associated losses has also highlighted the paramount importance of protecting the environment and citizens in Europe (Barredo, 2007). Throughout Europe, the majority of events and resulting losses were of meteorological (winter storms, hail) and hydrological (river floods, flash floods, landslides) origin. Apart from the ongoing discussion on the effects of climate change, socioeconomic developments in hazard-prone areas, such as increasing concentrations of values, rising population figures, and the settlement and industrialization of exposed areas (Fuchs, Keiler, & Zischg, 2015) highlight the vulnerability of societies to natural hazards. Focusing on mountain regions of Europe in this context adds further challenges, since risk from natural hazards and mountain development is inherently linked (Zimmermann & Keiler, 2015). Depending on the definition, up to 40% of European territory is designated as mountainous area, with high variation in spatial extent, elevation range, and topography. Consequently, a sustainable use of mountain areas must include the analysis, assessment, and management of natural hazard risk due to the relative lack of development areas.

The historical shift of a traditionally agricultural society to a service industry and leisure-oriented society is reflected by an increasing use of mountain areas for human settlement, industry, and recreation (Fuchs, Röthlisberger, Thaler, Zischg, & Keiler, 2017b). Accordingly, a conflict between human requirements on the one hand and naturally determined conditions on the other hand, leads to an increasing concentration of tangible assets in certain regions, in particular with respect to agglomerations along the larger valleys and in the mountain forelands. In the 21st century, around 20% of Europe’s population inhabits mountain areas, which results in natural hazard risk. Natural hazard and risk management strategies have existed for centuries in European mountain regions, but with different emphases and key aspects, from technical and engineering approaches to eco-based disaster-risk reduction and from land-use planning regulation to societal adaptation. The main challenge of natural hazard management and risk reduction, however, is rooted in the inherently connected dynamic systems driven by both geophysical and social forces. Consequently, there is a strong need for an integrative management approach based on multi-disciplinary concepts that take into account different theories, methods, and conceptualizations. In the 21st century there has been a growing amount of scientific results addressing these challenges, and the public perception has also been directed toward these issues due to the broad media coverage of events that occur in the European mountain ranges. As a result, scientific results are increasingly acknowledged in the political debate and converted into natural hazard and risk management practice in many European countries.

European Mountain Regions

Europe is characterized by a variety of different mountain regions, spanning from high to low mountain ranges: thus, most European countries share a proportion of them (see Figure 1). However, European mountain ranges such as the Alps, the Carpathian Mountains, the Pyrenees, the Scandinavian Mountains, or the Scottish Highlands are diverse in terms of topographic conditions, geology, climate, ecology, population, and economy. The mountain areas of Europe are important from an ecological and biophysical perspective: concentrated in the mountains are most of the biodiversity hotspots, and they provide essential ecosystem services and function as water reservoirs for Europe (European Environment Agency, 2010; Gløersen et al., 2016). The high geodiversity, the variation of steep gradients and high variability in the hydro-climate systems, topography, and ecosystems within the European mountains also lead to a high variation of triggers and preconditions for natural hazard processes. Accordingly, societies in mountain areas are prone to geophysical processes (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions), landslides (rockfall, debris flows, slides), glacial and snow avalanche hazards, as well as floods and other hydro-meteorological hazards. Often the preconditions lead to multi-hazard situations, including those involving the simultaneous occurrence of multiple hazard types in the same place or the subsequent occurrence as cascading events (Kappes, Keiler, von Elverfeldt, & Glade, 2012; Kappes et al., 2012). The key drivers for natural hazards in mountain areas are the high relief, the hydroclimate, and also human activity (Slaymaker & Embleton-Hamann, 2009). It is known that mountain regions are exceedingly prone to changing environmental conditions, which also resulted in multiple action programs and coordinated activities for their protection (Wymann von Dach et al., 2017). Thereby, mountain geosystems are not exceptionally fragile, but they show a greater range of susceptibility to disturbance than many other types of landscapes (Slaymaker & Embleton-Hamann, 2009). The European mountain ranges have in common that they are also cultural landscapes reflecting long-term interactions of individuals and societies with biophysical systems (Nordregio, 2004) and thus, the societies were challenged by natural hazards and had to develop appropriate hazard and risk management strategies. Furthermore, socioeconomic factors, particularly demographic changes and land-use dynamics, influence vulnerability and exposure to the different types of natural hazards, and thus the risk of mountain communities (Fuchs, Keiler, & Zischg, 2015; Röthlisberger, Zischg, & Keiler, 2017).

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Figure 1. Overview of mountain areas in Europe.

Depending on the definition of mountain areas, they cover up to 40% of the total land area of Europe, and almost 20% of the total population of Europe inhabits them (for different definitions of mountain areas in Europe see chapter 2.2 in Nordregio, 2004) but with considerable variation in population density both within and between mountain areas (Mitchley, Price, & Tzanopoulos, 2006). The ratio of mountain areas differs considerably (e.g., in Slovenia 76% of the territory is mountainous, and 51% of the population lives there (Price, 2016), while countries such as the Netherlands and Estonia do not have any mountain ranges. European mountain regions therefore provide a significant proportion of human settlements and areas used for economic purpose and recreation: at the same time, the higher the proportion of mountain areas, the scarcer the area suitable for development is. Taking countries in the European Alps as an example, only 38.7% of the territory is suitable for development in the Republic of Austria, while in the western part of the country (Federal State of Tyrol) it is only 11.9% (Statistik Austria, 2008). In Switzerland, 26% of the territory is classified as non-productive, and approximately 68% of the territory is classified as an area for agriculture and forestry purposes; as a result only around 7% is suitable for settlement and infrastructure purposes (Hotz & Weibel, 2005). In general, population densities tend to be higher at lower altitudes and on more gently sloping land. Besides the great variation in population density in European mountains, also different dynamics of demographic changes were observed from 1990 to 2005, and population density across Europe’s mountains as a whole increased considerably (Price, 2016). Although in some European mountains, population is increasing (major valleys, important infrastructure lines, economic and tourism centers), in others there is a noticeable significant decrease. As such, Mitchley, Price, and Tzanopoulos (2006) highlighted a connection between a high proportion of employment in the primary sector (mainly agriculture) and a high depopulation rate. However, more recent studies showed for the European Alps a transformation of demographic trends starting from the 1990s, when “more and more communities that suffered traditionally from depopulation have suddenly become in-migration areas” (Steinicke, Čede, & Löffler, 2012, p. 329).

Mountain areas and their specific characteristics were of interest for scientists over centuries (see the section “The Roots of Natural Hazard Research in European Mountain Regions until the 19th Century”), yet in public policies giving specific consideration about mountains only slowly developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1920s to 1960s different states (e.g., Austria, France, Italy, and Switzerland) and later the European Union (EU) addressed mountains with respect to agriculture and rural development as “less favored areas” or since 2013 as “areas with natural or other specific constraints” (Debarbieux, Price, & Balsiger, 2015; Price, 2016). Besides, the increasing importance of mountain areas has been indicated since the 1970s through regional structures for cooperation (e.g., Alps, Pyrenees); and since the 1990s through regional legal instruments of the Alpine Convention and Carpathian Convention (European Environment Agency, 2010). Such cooperation and legal frameworks, so far unique in getting legal instruments alongside development objectives, aim for the sustainable development of mountain areas in Europe. Furthermore, Euromontana, the European association of mountain areas, has the task of promoting life in the mountains, as well as the integrated and sustainable development and a certain quality of life in mountain areas (Euromontana, 2018). Those initiatives and associations share a common characteristic: that particular emphasis is placed on natural hazards and risks.

Natural Hazard Types in European Mountains

Geodiversity, variation in gradient, and a specific hydroclimate are the basis for the distribution of hazard types in Europe. Comprehensive studies on natural hazards focusing on the European mountain areas are missing; however, studies of natural hazards with a specific European perspective exist. Major works include Embleton and Embleton-Hamann (1997), which provided a country-wide overview on geomorphological hazards such as landslides and debris flows, and Schmidt-Thomé (2006), which studied different hazards types in Europe but did not have a specific focus on mountains.

Due to different preconditions some hazard types are restricted in their occurrence to particular mountain ranges or only smaller parts of mountain ranges:

  • Volcanic hazards, including pyroclastic flows, ash eruptions, gaseous discharge, lava flows, and lahars (Heiken, 2016) are concentrated in mountain ranges of Italy, Iceland, the Azores, and the island arc in the Greek Aegean Sea. There is also a strong relationship between mountains and earthquakes due to alpine tectonics; however, earthquakes do not occur in all mountain ranges of Europe. According to the seismic hazard assessment for the European region by Woessner et al. (2015), the highest seismic hazard is located along the main fault systems of Turkey, along the coasts of Greece, along the entire Italian Apennines, and across Iceland. Further moderate hazard spots in mountain ranges are in the Eastern Alps, the Upper Rhine Rift, the Rhone Valley in the Valais, Switzerland, the western Pyrenees, and in the Swabian Alb, Germany.

  • Glacial and periglacial hazards are closely connected to glacial retreat and permafrost degradation in high mountain areas or mountains in high-latitude regions (Huggel, Carey, Clague, & Kääb, 2015). Glacier and permafrost are characteristics of the high-elevation Alps and Pyrenees, the Scandinavian Mountains, and the mountains of Iceland. Furthermore, permafrost occurrence, which is strongly influenced by altitude and aspect in high mountain areas, is common in those areas and was additionally reported from the Carpathians (Harris et al., 2009). Glacier hazards can be distinguished in ice avalanches resulting from collapses and falls from glacier tongues and hazards related to glacier meltwater. The latter can be divided in meltwater floods with a high sediment concentration, such as in mountain torrents, and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs, see Emmer, 2017). Recently, GLOF hazards also received more attention in the European mountains since there may be increasing evidence of new proglacial lakes being formed, such as in the case of Grindelwald glacier in the Swiss Alps (Huggel, Clague, & Korup, 2012) or in some of the high-mountain regions of Western Austria (Emmer, Merkl, & Mergili, 2015). In connection with volcanic eruptions multiple glacial outburst floods (jökulhlaups) occurred in Iceland (Dunning et al., 2013). Mountain regions affected by permafrost could turn into hazardous areas due to warming associated with climate change (Haeberli, 2013; Harris et al., 2009). Hazard types may include gravity-driven processes such as any size of rockfall or rockslide (for the Alps, see Haeberli, Schaub, & Huggel, 2017; on Norway see Blikra & Christiansen, 2014), or changes in debris flow activity in mountain catchments (Sattler, Keiler, Zischg, & Schrott, 2011). Moreover, constructions in the high-mountain areas may suffer from thawing permafrost, such as pillars of cable cars, snow rakes in avalanche-starting zones and buildings (see Arenson & Jakob, 2017). A further hazard type related to the cryosphere is snow avalanches. Avalanche may occur in all European mountain ranges during winter and springtime (see Ancey, 2016, or Fuchs, Keiler, & Sokratov, 2015).

  • Landslides are common natural hazards in all European mountain regions. Different landslides types (see Hungr, Leroueil, & Picarelli, 2014) are connected to various pre-conditions and may be triggered by heavy rainfall, rapid snow melting, earth tremors, slope undercutting, etc. As landslides are strongly correlated with mountains, in Europe national landslide databases provide indications for landslide hazards in different regions; however, they differ in language and classification systems for landslide type and activity (Van Den Eeckhaut & Hervás, 2012), such as reported by Guzzetti and Tonelli for Italy (Guzzetti & Tonelli, 2004). Wood, Harrison, and Reinhardt (2015) provided an analysis of combining different regional landslide databases of the European Alps. Several studies advanced the modeling of landslide susceptibility and associated hazards on a European scale (Günther, Van Den Eeckhaut, Malet, Reichenbach, & Hervás, 2014; Jaedicke et al., 2014).

  • Floods in mountains differ from those in lowlands due to higher sediment supply from hillslopes (Wohl, 2010). In European mountains, settlements and infrastructure are additionally endangered by flash floods (Borga, Stoffel, Marchi, Marra, & Jakob, 2014), debris flows and hyperconcentrated flows along mountain torrents or on their fans. However, detailed overviews of floods in European mountain areas are missing. For a general summary, see Stoffel, Wyżga, and Marston (2016).

To show the high spatial variability, the distribution of hazards in Austria is shown in Figure 2 for hydrological hazards, landslides, rockfall, and snow avalanches. Landslides are prominent along the alpine margins within the Flysch zone composed from sandstones and shale/mudstones. Rockfall and snow avalanches are typical geomorphologic processes in the mountainous part of Austria, while hydrological hazards (river flooding and torrential flooding) are relatively evenly distributed with a peak in the mountain areas of the country. Some of Austria’s hazards can be seen as second-order consequences and can therefore be interpreted in terms of multi-hazards (Kappes, Keiler, von Elverfeldt, & Glade, 2012). As such, the Puchberg earthquake of 1939 can be connected to the Losenheim rock avalanche, and the well-known Italian Friuli earthquake of 1348 resulted in the Dobratsch Bergsturz. Moreover, as a result of the 1976 Friuli earthquake, numerous smaller mass movements (mainly falls and topples) were reported in the southern part of Austria (Grünthal, Mayer-Rosa, & Lenhardt, 1998).

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Figure 2. Spatial distribution of geomorphological hazards causing damage between 1850 and 2014 in Austria. Upper left: hydrological hazards. Upper right: landslides. Lower left: rock fall. Lower right: snow avalanches. The grid cell size is 8,000 x 8,000 meters. Note that the overall number of events and their density differs among hazard types.

The Roots of Natural Hazard Research in European Mountain Regions Until the First Half of the 19th Century

Natural hazards, in particular those occurring in mountain areas such as dynamic flooding and snow avalanches, have been a focus for scientists since the 18th century—long before modern academia (re-)discovered this niche and established a continuously growing and diversifying field of research. If these early works are analyzed, the level of detail and the underlying interpretative framework is astonishing given the academic knowledge of that time. One could even conclude that the results and suggestions provided by these sources still influence the scientific debate in the early 21st century.

The priest and physicist Zallinger zum Thurn (1778), focusing at the local level of the Federal State of Tyrol, Austria, provided a comprehensive overview on causes and effects of flood hazards in mountain regions, including hydraulic and geomorphologic processes influencing the discharge behavior in mountain streams, as well as engineering measures that may be appropriate for decreasing vulnerability and to prevent future losses in the watersheds. Two decades later, Fabre, a French civil engineer, discussed morphodynamics in mountain torrents recommending to stop deforestation and instead to establish reforestation of erosion-prone slopes supervised and supported by governmental authorities (Fabre, 1797). The civil servant Freiherr von Aretin (1808), who at that time was a surveyor for hydraulic engineering and road construction in Austria, described not only the root causes of landslides and torrent processes from a geomorphic point of view but also addressed incurring damage in more detail. Annual direct and indirect losses were estimated to equal one million Gulden.1 This was in the Federal State of Tyrol only, including necessary tax abatements. Furthermore, Aretin addressed already the recent main topics in comprehensive risk research such as vulnerability and the human impact on hazard processes by illustrating the anthropogenic misuse of the mountain environment as an amplifier for vulnerability, above all with respect to agriculture, mining, and forestry. He illustrated the anthropogenic misuse of the mountain environment as an amplifier for vulnerability, above all with respect to agriculture, mining, and forestry. Further causes of considerable damages originated from the imprudent construction of buildings in endangered areas by regularly using inappropriate building material. Aretin demanded legal regulations to better direct land development in areas not prone to hazards. He demanded that these regulations should be backed up by executive authorities such as federal police forces and forest administration. The monograph concludes with a chapter on event management and could therefore be seen as an early technical handbook for natural hazard risk management.

In parallel, the intense development of economy and infrastructures required protection from sediment carried by mountain streams throughout Europe, which also motivated European authorities to react (see Bonaparte, 1860). To limit sediment transfer to downstream fluvial systems, the establishment of institutions responsible for torrent control works in catchments was recommended. Soil erosion control plans through reforestation and engineering structures thus became a subject of interest and were locally implemented in mountains. Duile (1826), working for the Tyrolean and Vorarlberg administration responsible for hydraulic engineering in Austria, focused on ‘the implementation of torrent control works to reduce the susceptibility to hazards. This included the suggestion to retain material disposable for erosion in the upper parts of the catchments, which was also the main conclusion of Streffleur (1852), Surell (1870), and Marchand (1876).

Demontzey, a French forestry engineer, published the first comprehensive technical guideline on erosion and torrent control in the French Alps (Demontzey, 1882). He described and classified geomorphic processes related to (a) torrents with gully systems, (b) torrents with cliffs as sediment production areas impossible to reforest, and (c) torrents with glaciers and moraines in their headwaters in an altitude not suitable for reforestation. Furthermore, he suggested mitigation measures where the costs should not be provided by the provincial administration but should be distributed among the beneficiaries in a socially agreeable manner—an early attempt of cost sharing through awareness building and at the same time an early discussion on social justice in mountain hazard risk management (Thaler, Zischg, Keiler, & Fuchs, 2018). Müller (1857), a Bavarian railroad engineer, simultaneously focused on silvicultural measures to reduce erosion. Further details aiming at damage reduction are given on technical mitigation measures to stabilize the channel beds of torrents and to retain material prone to erosion processes (see Figure 3). Müller’s work was mainly based on studies undertaken during field trips in the Eastern Alps, a tendency that can be observed in the subsequent years. The geologist Koch (1875) and the geographer Lehmann (1879) started to report on torrent events by taking an increasingly modern scientific approach (i.e., by referring to previously published works and by underpinning their arguments with measured data). The forest engineer and Swiss professor Landolt (1886) continued this development by presenting a comprehensive monograph on the assessment of torrent and avalanche hazards. This included information on the release of these processes and the effects in the run-out areas. Concerning the reduction of vulnerability, he suggested—apart from engineering structures in the process areas and afforestation to reduce erosion and avalanche release—that the construction of buildings outside areas affected by hazards were possible as was local structural protection to prevent damage in areas already built up and for exposed road networks. Two years later Coaz (1888) published a monograph on avalanches in the Swiss Alps, comprehensively analyzing the causes and effects of avalanches, avalanche activity, incurring losses, and possible structural mitigation concepts. Toula (1892) emphasized in his Vienna lecture the results of previous studies and highlighted the protective effects of mountain forests for erosion prevention, as also reported earlier by the American environmentalist Marsh (1865). Wang (1901, 1903), associate professor for torrent and avalanche control in Vienna, Austria, provided a detailed compendium on torrent mitigation with a strong emphasis on engineering approaches of stabilization, retention, and silvicultural aspects of erosion prevention. Elements at risk exposed and the question of vulnerability played only a marginal role in his work. This was also the case with Penck’s publication related to mountain hazards (Penck, 1912) and the most recent textbook published by Strele (1950), a former head of the Tyrolean and Vorarlberg branch of the Austrian Torrent and Avalanche Control Service. In contrast, Stiný (1907, 1910), a geologist with a background in engineering and a professor at the Vienna Technical University, pointed out in his monograph related to debris flows that considerable interactions exist between hazardous processes and the anthroposphere. He reported on direct and indirect losses to settlements and infrastructure as a result of debris flows, and he additionally addressed the negative effects of natural hazards on alpine tourist destinations. With respect to the use of alluvial cones for settlement and agriculture purpose, Stiný assumed that the costs that incur in the aftermath of torrent events for reconditioning and the necessary repairs of destroyed buildings will far exceed the benefits created thereby.

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Figure 3. Retention basin in a torrent near Avisio, Italy. Photo taken in 1892.

Source: archive of the Institute of Mountain Risk Engineering, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria.

From the point of view of operational hazard and risk management, strategies to prevent or reduce the effects of natural hazards in areas of settlements and economic activities had already begun in the Middle Ages, and scientific debates date back to Leonardo Da Vinci (“Leicester Codex”) and Benedetto Castelli (Castelli, 1628), both of them suggesting flood protection in the Po and Arno river basins (Southern European Alps). However, official authorities were only extant from the 1860s based on respective legislation, such as in Switzerland in 1876 (Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, 1876), in France in 1882 (Tétreau, 1883), or in Austria in 1884 (Österreichisch-Ungarische Monarchie, 1884).

Development of Management Strategies (Late 19th to Early 20th Centuries)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, protection against natural hazards was mainly conducted by constructing permanent technical measures in the upper parts of torrent catchments to retain solids from erosion and in the release areas of snow avalanches, supplemented by reforestation of higher altitudes. Since the 1950s such conventional mitigation concepts—which aimed at decreasing both the frequency and magnitude of events—were progressively accompanied by mitigation measures constructed to deflect hazard processes into areas not used for settlements or economic activities (Holub & Fuchs, 2009). Since the 1950s causes and effects of natural hazards were systematically studied, while it has repeatedly being claimed that professions worked to a considerable degree in isolation from each other and from the public (Hewitt, 1983). Beginning in the 1960s a much broader interdisciplinary scientific approach to hazards developed, which was strongly influenced by geographers (natural hazards research) and by sociologists (disaster research). This approach, however, has not yet been established in the common practice of mitigating mountain hazards in Europe. To give an example, as stated in the respective law, only degree holders of a specific master’s program offered by the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna are allowed to enter the Austrian Service of Torrent and Avalanche Control responsible for natural hazard mitigation in mountain catchments (Republik Österreich, 1975). In contrast, authorities responsible for flood protection along the rivers have no such restrictions, and regulations in other European countries are more flexible in this way.

With respect to mountain hazards, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries the concept of risk emerged as the leading paradigm (e.g., Borter, 1999; Kienholz, Krummenacher, Kipfer, & Perret, 2004), with roots that can be traced back to the early influential works by the Chicago school in the United States (Burton, Kates, & White, 1978, 1993; Kates, 1962; White, 1964). White (1945) described adjustments to flood hazards as being either structural or non-structural, and he advocated, wherever possible, to adapt to or accommodate these hazards rather than mitigate them by structural and permanent measures (e.g., levees or floodwalls). In particular non-structural adjustments, consisting of arrangements imposed by a governing body (local, regional, or national) to restrict the use of floodplains, or flexible human adjustments to flood risk that do not involve substantial investment in flood control measures, still remain central with respect to the contemporary management of hazards and risk in mountain catchments (Piton et al., 2017). Following Atkisson, Petak, and Alesch (1984), private and public adjustments to reduce vulnerability to such hazard events consist largely of fixed investments (flood control structures, torrential barriers, etc., see Fuchs & McAlpin, 2005; also see Holub & Fuchs, 2008) while others involve primarily recurrent expenses for personnel (on avalanche warning services, see Bründl, Romang, Bischof, & Rheinberger, 2009). While some adjustments are inherently public such as zoning regulations (EC, 2010), others are private such as the case with local structural protection (Loucks, Stedinger, Davis, & Stakhiv, 2008). Some involve physical interference with the natural hazard (technical protection in the starting zones), while others are merely attempts to reduce the effects of these hazards (retention basins with grain-sorting outlet structures), and still others involve only the control of human society (evacuation).

The main challenge of risk reduction is rooted in the inherent connected systems dynamic driven by both geophysical and social forces (Keiler, 2011): it is the need for an integrative risk management approach based on a multidisciplinary concept taking into account different theories, methods, and conceptualizations (Fuchs & Keiler, 2013).

Increasing flood losses throughout Europe have led the European Commission to issue the Directive on the Assessment and Management of Flood Risks (Commission of the European Communities, 2007) as one of the three components of the European Action Program on Flood Risk Management (Commission of the European Communities, 2004). This directive, defining flood hazard in the broadest terms as “the temporary covering by water of land not normally covered by water” requires the member states to establish flood risk maps and flood risk management plans based on a nationwide evaluation of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability (Fuchs et al., 2017a, 2017b). While in the early 21st century considerable efforts have been made toward flood risk maps (Meyer et al., 2012), less information is available so far on respective management plans (Hartmann & Spit, 2016; Mazzorana, Comiti, & Fuchs, 2013). Moreover, there is a particular gap in risk maps and management plans for mountain hazards other than those of hydrological origin. Of particular importance seems to be the paradigm of public participation and societal adaptation in assessing local risks, and the legal and institutional settings necessary therefore (Hartmann & Driessen, 2017; Papathoma-Köhle & Thaler, 2018).

Hazards and Risk Management in a Complex Environment (21st Century Onward)

The millennium change brought a period of increased hazard occurrence in mountain regions of Europe; starting with the 1999 avalanche winter (SLF, 2000; Wilhelm, Wiesinger, Bründl, & Ammann, 2000) triggered by a so-called Bebbers Vb low (a cyclone that forms or intensifies from a preexisting cyclone to the south of the Alps over the Gulf of Genoa, Ligurian Sea, Po Valley, and northern Adriatic; see Gerstengarbe & Werner, 2005) and continuing with several supraregional flood events in 2002, 2003, 2005, and 2013, some of them affecting the entire region of central Europe (European Academies Science Advisory Council, 2013). Also related were earthquakes in the Italien Appenins (such as the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy, and the 2017 one in the Gran Sasso massif, the latter followed by a snow avalanche causing 29 fatalities. Consequently, an increase in hazardous events and associated losses is repeatedly claimed for European mountain regions (a) as a result of increasing number of elements at risk (Fuchs, Keiler, & Zischg, 2015), (b) due to natural fluctuations in hazard frequencies observed in many European mountain regions (Schmocker-Fackel & Naef, 2010), (c) due to the effects of climate change (e.g., Huggel, Clague, & Korup, 2012; Korup, Görüm, & Hayakawa, 2012), and (d) as a result of multi-hazard risk (Kappes et al., 2012; Kappes, Papathoma-Köhle, & Keiler, 2012).

Nevertheless, as shown by Fuchs, Keiler, and Zischg (2015) using data from the Eastern European Alps, the dynamics behind the annual number of events is a bit more challenging (Figure 4). The data for the period 1900 to 2014 is showing the annual number of snow avalanches, torrential flooding, landslides and river flooding, as well as the 10-year moving average. While between 1900 and 1959 an increase in hazard events of around a factor of four is obvious—presumably also due to an improved event documentation—between 1960 and 1964 a decrease of around 50% is traceable, followed by an increase due to the excessive events in 1965 and 1966. Since then, the 10-year moving average is steadily decreasing again, which is in line with the increasing investments into technical mitigation measures (Holub & Fuchs, 2009; Poisel, Hofmann, & Mölk, 2012; Sinabell & Pennerstorfer, 2016). Due to the high number of hazard events in 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2009, however, data is again leveling off to around 440 events per year. Years with an above-average hazard record are with respect to snow avalanches 1951, 1954, 1999, and 2009; for torrential flooding the years are 1965, 1966, 2005, and 2013; and regarding river flooding the years are 1904, 1959, 1966, and 2002. The trend reported in Figure 4 is in clear contrast to those repeatedly presented globally, showing an exponential increase since the 1950s (e.g., Keiler, 2013; Munich Re, 2017).

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Figure 4. Annual number of documented mountain hazard events causing damage in Austria.

Source: Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management, 12/2014, see Fuchs, Keiler, and Zischg (2015).

Apart from hazard dynamics (the natural frequency and magnitude of events), decreasing dynamics in mountain hazard losses may result from (a) increased efforts and investments into technical mitigation (Keiler, Kellerer-Pirklbauer, & Otto, 2012) (b) an increased awareness of threats being consequently considered in land-use planning (Thaler, Priest, & Fuchs, 2016; Wöhrer-Alge, 2013), both leading to less exposure, and (c) a decline in vulnerability (Papathoma-Köhle, Gems, Sturm, & Fuchs, 2017), which will not be further considered here. Apart from the ongoing discussion of the effects of climate change on the hazard trigger (Auer et al., 2007; Keiler, Knight, & Harrison, 2010; Lung, Lavalle, Hiederer, Dosio, & Bouwer, 2013), the effects of dynamics in exposure have so far not been sufficiently studied in terms of their possible influence on dynamics of damaging events suggested by Figure 4. Since spatially explicit data on the dynamics of exposure remain fragmentary in many European countries, conclusions may be misleading with respect to the underlying causes and effects (Pielke, 2007), maybe overemphasizing the influence of climate change (Barredo, 2009).

From Static to Dynamic Risk Management

Hazard and risk dynamics are linked to a trade-off between the memory of hazard events (which makes the community move away from the hazard) and the willingness to maximize economic benefit by moving closer to the hazard (Di Baldassarre et al., 2013).

The main challenge of risk management is rooted in the connected system dynamics driven by both geophysical and social forces: Applying the concept of risk will provide an individual number, expressed either in monetary units as expected degree of loss or in individual fatality rates (e.g., Fell et al., 2008b; Penning-Rowsell, Floyd, Ramsbottom, & Surendran, 2005; Varnes, 1984). Even if this information is an important milestone for tailored management strategies (Holub, Suda, & Fuchs, 2012), the risk concept poses several challenges because of the inherent static character outlined in the introduction (Fuchs, Keiler, Sokratov, & Shnyparkov, 2013). Firstly, the computation of risk is based on the prevailing system conditions, namely the quantity of elements at risk and their valuation, the current land-use regulations, among others. Secondly, the hazard scenarios these elements at risk are exposed to developed based on frequency-magnitude relationships of the processes involved.2 It is broadly accepted, however, that natural processes are subject to changes due to variable triggering factors as a result of climate change effects (Beniston et al., 2007; Stocker et al., 2013), which may alter existing frequency-magnitude relationships for hazard scenarios (Kron, 2003). Furthermore, there is a connectivity between different hazardous processes and elements at risk exposed (Kappes, et al., 2012). As a result, short-term as well as long-term dynamics of hazards are manifest (Keiler et al., 2006; Sattler et al., 2011; Zischg, Fuchs, Keiler, & Stötter, 2005). Additionally, the social system (and therefore land-use) elements at risk and vulnerability are not constant over time and with respect to spatial entities (Elmer, Hoymann, Düthmann, Vorogushyn, & Kreibich, 2012; Fuchs & Keiler, 2008; Fuchs et al., 2013). Consequently, there is a strong need to include these dynamics in the risk concept.

Nevertheless, identifying and analyzing these dynamics of risk is still a challenge in natural hazard risk research, and they have not yet been given the necessary attention in operational risk management, presumably because their complexity has been poorly understood so far. Therefore, mainly static risk concepts were developed and applied with respect to mountain hazards (e.g., Fell et al., 2008a; Jónasson, Sigurðsson, & Arnalds, 1999; Keylock, McClung, & Magnússon, 1999; Kienholz et al., 2004), neglecting any past risk levels and their evolution to the current state as well as to possible future risk levels. As a result, considerable gaps with respect to a possible adaptation of the risk concept remain open: Risk related to natural hazards is subject to spatiotemporal changes, since the risk-influencing factors are variable over time and spatially interact. Therefore, reviews and studies focused on identifying, analyzing, and modeling the spatiotemporal development of hazard processes, elements at risk, and vulnerability are needed.

The Hazard Side

Hazard analyses include future possible scenarios and provide a basis for sustainable land-use and resilient communities; therefore, factors of global change also have to be considered. Future climate change scenarios and downscaled effects highlight regional uncertainties in prediction, in particular for mountain regions (Kohler, Wehrli, & Jurek, 2014; Wanner, Grosjean, Röthlisberger, & Xoplaki, 2006). Modeled predictions of future climate change in European mountain regions suggest rising mean values in temperature with a higher expected increase in summer and autumn and a corresponding increase in precipitation intensities (Auer et al., 2007), the latter may result in a seasonal shift of mean and extreme precipitation values, with more spring and autumn heavy precipitation events than in the outgoing 20th century and fewer in summer (Beniston et al., 2007). As a result, hazard magnitude and frequency will probably slightly increase in the case of those processes triggered by hydrology.

Moreover, there is considerable variation in hydrologic response in catchments, including changes in sediment erosion rates, deposition, and flood extension, both across mountain regions as a whole and within individual catchments, including the transition from headwaters to immediately adjacent alpine valleys (Keiler et al., 2010) and foreland rivers (Barros et al., 2014). Antecedent conditions may be less important in upland catchments, but response is strongly modified by catchment relief and sediment availability, which have the potential to inhibit downstream water and sediment transport.

Consequently, subsequent risk reduction measures will not necessarily provide the most efficient management strategy, and therefore the implemented measures will only be suboptimal (Ballesteros Cánovas et al., 2016). In order to improve risk management and to support decision making, underlying scenarios have to be redefined, in particular with respect to temporal aspects affecting the predictability of hazardous phenomena. So far, the (heuristically gained) information available on past hazard magnitudes is the most reliable indication (e.g., Gaume et al., 2009; Kundzewicz, Hirabayashi, & Kanae, 2010; Rickenmann, 1999).

The Exposure Side

Socioeconomic development has led to an asset concentration over time and a shift in urban and suburban population in the many mountain regions. Thus, temporal dynamics of elements at risk is an important key variable in managing mountain hazard risk.

The significant increase in numbers and values of buildings endangered by hazard processes leads to long-term changes in both urban and rural European mountain regions (Fuchs et al., 2017b; Röthlisberger et al., 2017; Shnyparkov et al., 2012). A detailed and spatially explicit object-based assessment of buildings exposed to natural hazards in Austria and Switzerland unveiled a high spatial variability (Fuchs et al., 2017a; Röthlisberger et al., 2017b). While some regions have shown a below-average increase in assets, other regions were characterized by an above-average increase, which can be explained by the alpine topography leading to different economic activities: as such, commercial buildings as well as buildings used for recreation purpose were found to be extraordinarily prone to river flooding, while hotels and B&Bs were vulnerable to mountain hazards.

In particular temporary variations of persons and of vehicles on the road network result in short-term fluctuations in values at risk supplementing the underlying long-term trend (Leone et al., 2014; Möderl & Rauch, 2011; Schönthal & Keiler, 2016). For example, by implementing a quantifying fluctuation model it was shown that movement of people at risk occurs during the winter season in mountain resorts (Keiler, Zischg, Fuchs, Hama, & Stötter, 2005). Short-term dynamics are evident if traffic lines are considered since traffic volume is variable on different temporal scales, and consequently risk is variable with a high temporal resolution (Hendrikx & Owens, 2008; Kristensen, Habritz, & Harbitz, 2003; Unterrader, Almond, & Fuchs, 2018).

The evolution of risk due to socioeconomic transformation varies remarkably on different temporal and spatial scales. Long-term changes are superimposed by short-term fluctuations, and both have to be considered when evaluating risk resulting from mountain hazards.


Challenges for risk management in mountain areas are diverse compared to other landscapes because of the multi-hazard environment, adjacency of safe and hazard-prone areas, limitation of living space, the remoteness of a high number of mountain communities, the highland-lowland interdependence and climate change (Zimmermann & Keiler, 2015). Due to the previously outlined dynamics behind hazard and risk, several additional challenges emerge for an appropriate management in European mountain regions.

Firstly, and this is maybe an overarching aim of sustainable development of mountain regions, the context of dynamic risks is driving transformation regarding the role of the government in responsibility sharing for risk management and precaution (Adger, Quinn, Lorenzoni, Murphy, & Sweeney, 2013). Emerging risk management strategies should place the lead responsibility on local organizations to determine local strategies to manage local risks, which demands societal transformation (Driessen et al., 2013) in vulnerability reduction (Fuchs, Kuhlicke, & Meyer, 2011). The main reasons for this shift from centralized to decentralized organization is that a local scale may be more efficient in dealing with risk and emergency management (Tacnet, Dezert, Curt, Batton-Hubert, & Chojnacki, 2014). Societal transformation and social adaptation requires adaptive capacities and in-depth knowledge on the perception of hazards and risk within communities. The perception among different parts of the population (i.e., citizens affected and inhabitants of flood plains) may differ and leads to different levels of public participation in risk management strategies (Thaler et al., 2016). Because of the different notion of risk between the general public and the scientific community, those who are responsible for developing and implementing risk management strategies need to understand and to include the individual risk construction of affected societies. Moreover, because of the uncertainties behind climate change prediction, policymakers tend to delay necessary decisions until either uncertainties are reduced or climate change signals emerge from observations (Murphy et al., 2011). Although fear is often used to advocate an increase in risk perception, studies show that this is not a way to promote the desired response within society: both in rural and urban areas (Thaler & Hartmann, 2016). It is repeatedly argued that dealing with mountain hazards and resulting adverse socioeconomic consequences requires methods and concepts rooted both in natural sciences (with respect to hazard assessment) and social sciences (with respect to exposure and vulnerability). As a corollary, there is a strong need of transdisciplinary studies of coupled human-environment interactions (Fuchs et al., 2017a), leading to the introduction of the concept of socio-hydrology as “a new science of people and water” (Sivapalan, Savenije, & Blöschl, 2012) focusing on such interactions (Di Baldassarre, Kooy, Kemerink, & Brandimarte, 2013; Montanari et al., 2013). From a practical point of view, in Europe, risk management plans are becoming increasingly important as these take in both the social factors and physical nature of risk, inherently calling for a coupled human-environment interaction approach. As such, if risk is quantified from a dynamic perspective and using approaches from coupled human-environment interaction, changes in the management strategies become obvious compared to traditional approaches of mitigation and adaptation.

Secondly, innovation is required in managing land use in areas affected by mountain hazards. In most European countries, land-use planning requires hazard mapping in order to reduce exposure. As hazard maps are based on the concept of frequency and magnitude, both of which are dynamic over time, the delimitation of hazard zones is subject to temporal changes, and resulting coping strategies in order to minimize risk have to be variable. Land-use planning, in contrast, requires system stability over several decades; thus, dealing with hazard dynamics is challenging since the required legal stability restricts short-term modifications to a minimum. In particular, building bans and re-zoning of already permitted land development activities remain challenging. Once enacted and approved by the regulatory authority additional prescriptions or prohibitions can hardly be accomplished (Hattenberger, 2006; Holub & Fuchs, 2009). Consequently, the overlap between hazard areas and areas used for settlement purpose and economic activities increasingly provokes conflicts in natural hazard and risk management. Promising approaches to overcome these issues include the implementation of local structural protection: such approaches with respect to legal requirements, and in accordance with local planning regulations, have also proven to be cost efficient and are therefore a serious and promising approach in mitigating natural hazards (Holub & Fuchs, 2008). One major characteristic of mitigation measures is, however, that the private sector does not supply them in a sufficient quantity given the potential economic benefits to society; therefore, mitigation measures have characteristics of public goods or common (pool) resources (Fuchs & McAlpin, 2005). In general, individuals are not aware of their preferences for mitigation measures, which can be partly attributed to the free supply, passive consumption, and governmental subsidies for disaster compensation to individuals affected. This somehow insufficient starting point, tracing back to the non-excludability and non-rivalry in consumption leading to market failure, requires a centralized coordination of the government. However, direct governmental interventions do not offer any explicit incentive for individuals to voluntarily contributing in a sense of risk reduction to a threat and to subsequently provide prevention measures on an individual basis.

Thirdly, innovation is required in managing damage and losses from mountain hazards. Both theoretical and empirical research had shown that with respect to natural hazards the market for risk transfer tends to work imperfectly or even fail completely (Kunreuther & Pauly, 2004). Moral hazard and adverse selection, occurring when individuals behave in self-satisfying ways (and their behavior comes at the detriment of others because they do not bear the full cost), can only partly explain these market imperfections (Jaffee & Russell, 2003). As Kunreuther (2000) reported there is insufficient supply and distorted demand on the market for natural hazard insurance, which he defined as the “disaster syndrome”: individuals tend to under-insure because they underestimate low-probability high-loss events and the expected financial aid by governmental compensation or private donation—the latter being described as charity hazard by Raschky and Weck-Hannemann (2007). This market failure led to different forms of government intervention in the market for disaster insurance (Ungern-Sternberg, 2004), for example like the disaster fund in Austria (Republik Österreich, 1996). In addition to an inefficient amount of insurance coverage, financial assistance from the government rarely meet the needs of the disaster victims and therefore results in an inefficient allocation of public resources, a phenomenon that was extensively observed by Garrett and Sobel (2003) with respect to FEMA disaster aid in the United States, and this can also be traced in European mountain regions (Holub & Fuchs, 2009). To overcome this gap, mandatory insurance is recommended such as is already implemented in some European countries, mainly Switzerland and France.


Inhabiting mountain areas means to live with natural hazards. In European mountain ranges, communities have a long tradition in mitigating mountain hazards: spanning from engineering structures to land-use planning, risk transfer, and risk governance. The need to specifically address these issues is explicit in multiple policy documents, with the Sendai Framework of Disaster Risk Reduction being the most recent one (UN/ISDR, 2015). Among others, the Sendai Framework clearly articulates the need for improved understanding of disaster risk in all its dimensions of exposure, vulnerability, resilience and hazard characteristics; the framework calls in particular for the strengthening of disaster risk governance in terms of delivering people-centered risk management, such as preparedness to “Build Back Better,” recognition of stakeholders and their roles, and mobilization of risk-sensitive investment to avoid the creation of new risks. As such, from the international level of organizations to the European level and further to the national level of affected countries, for decades action has been undertaken and will further be undertaken to better prepare communities for mountain hazards and to decrease losses in the future.

To successfully reduce the high disaster risk in the European mountains the argument here has been that only a combination of management strategies may lead to a reduction of losses in the future. Natural hazard and risk management have to address and adapt to specific geodiversity as well as cultural and governance conditions, thus resulting in diversity of risk management. European mountains are multi-hazard environments affecting not only mountain communities and their economies but also the adjacent lowlands.

Some mountain communities in Europe are characterized by remote and scattered settlement structures, typically with a decreasing population number and high out-migration. In contrast, other regions are densely populated and show a high concentration of economic assets. Beyond classical cost-benefit assessments it is a political challenge to equally distribute investments in hazard and risk management in order to achieve a balanced level of safety and a sustainable livelihood.

One critical issue for European mountain regions is the need to analyze both temporal and spatial scales of hazard, vulnerability and exposure on much deeper levels than research has dealt with to date, allowing the risk concept to become dynamic. The strongly site-specific nature of exposure resulting in variable vulnerabilities and in unequal resilience of different actors, together with the respective institutional settings puts further emphasis on the overall scale dependency of vulnerability and resilience in mountain hazard and risk management.

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(1.) This is not convertible into modern currency.

(2.) In Austria, hazard zoning is regulated by a national act (Republik Österreich, 1975) and an associated decree (Republik Österreich, 1976). Hazard maps are based on a design event with an average statistical probability of occurrence of 1 in 150 years, and an event occurring more frequently with a return period of 1 in 10 years (Republik Österreich, 1976). According to the Decree on Hazard Zoning, red hazard zones indicate those areas where the permanent use for settlement activities and traffic purposes is not possible or only possible with extraordinary investment in mitigation measures. Yellow hazard zones indicate those areas where a permanent utilization for settlement and traffic purposes is hindered by hazard processes. Similarly, in Switzerland it is the responsibility of the Cantons to protect life and property from mountain hazards in accordance with the Federal Law of June 22, 1979, relating to land-use planning (Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, 1979). Further guidelines are laid down in the Federal Law of October 4, 1991, relating to forests and the Federal Law of June 21, 1991, relating to hydraulic engineering (Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, 1991a, 1991b). According to these laws and associated decrees, the responsible national and Cantonal authorities have to compile guidelines for consideration of natural hazards in land-use planning. To give an example, the Guidelines for the Consideration of the Avalanche Hazards in Land-Use Planning Activities (BFF & SLF, 1984) describes how avalanche hazard maps should be designed: Red color indicates areas where pressure from avalanches with recurrence intervals T between 30 and 300 years exceeds a lower limit that ranges from 3 kPa for T = 30 years to 30 kPa at T = 300 years. The entire area affected by (dense flow) avalanches with T < 30 years is also marked in red. Blue color indicates areas where pressure from avalanches with recurrence intervals T between 30 and 300 years falls below 30 kPa. Areas affected by powder avalanches with recurrence intervals T < 30 years and a pressure < 3 kPa are also marked in blue. The run-out areas of powder avalanches with recurrence intervals T > 30 years and a pressure < 3 kPa are marked in yellow, as well as theoretically not excludable but extremely rare avalanches with a recurrence interval T > 300 years.