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date: 24 February 2024

Assessment Principles for Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountain Regionslocked

Assessment Principles for Glacier and Permafrost Hazards in Mountain Regionslocked

  • Simon Allen, Simon AllenDepartment of Geography, University of Zurich and Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva
  • Holger Frey, Holger FreyDepartment of Geography, University of Zurich
  • Wilfried Haeberli, Wilfried HaeberliDepartment of Geography, University of Zurich
  • Christian Huggel, Christian HuggelDepartment of Geography, University of Zurich
  • Marta ChiarleMarta ChiarleResearch Institute for Hydrogeological Protection, Italian National Research Council
  •  and Marten GeertsemaMarten GeertsemaMinistry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations, and Rural Development, BC, Canada


Glacier and permafrost hazards in cold mountain regions encompass various flood and mass movement processes that are strongly affected by rapid and cumulative climate-induced changes in the alpine cryosphere. These processes are characterized by a range of spatial and temporal dimensions, from small volume icefalls and rockfalls that present a frequent but localized danger to less frequent but large magnitude process chains that can threaten people and infrastructure located far downstream. Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have proven particularly devastating, accounting for the most far-reaching disasters in high mountain regions globally.

Comprehensive assessments of glacier and permafrost hazards define two core components (or outcomes):

1. Susceptibility and stability assessment: Identifies likelihood and origin of an event based on analyses of wide-ranging triggering and conditioning factors driven by interlinking atmospheric, cryospheric, geological, geomorphological, and hydrological processes.

2. Hazard mapping: Identifies the potential impact on downslope and downstream areas through a combination of process modeling and field mapping that provides the scientific basis for decision making and planning.

Glacier and permafrost hazards gained prominence around the mid-20th century, especially following a series of major disasters in the Peruvian Andes, Alaska, and the Swiss Alps. At that time, related hazard assessments were reactionary and event-focused, aiming to understand the causes of the disasters and to reduce ongoing threats to communities. These disasters and others that followed, such as Kolka Karmadon in 2002, established the fundamental need to consider complex geosystems and cascading processes with their cumulative downstream impacts as one of the distinguishing principles of integrative glacier and permafrost hazard assessment.

The widespread availability of satellite imagery enables a preemptive approach to hazard assessment, beginning with regional scale first-order susceptibility and hazard assessment and modeling that provide a first indication of possible unstable slopes or dangerous lakes and related cascading processes. Detailed field investigations and scenario-based hazard mapping can then be targeted to high-priority areas. In view of the rapidly changing mountain environment, leading beyond historical precedence, there is a clear need for future-oriented scenarios to be integrated into the hazard assessment that consider, for example, the threat from new lakes that are projected to emerge in a deglaciating landscape. In particular, low-probability events with extreme magnitudes are a challenge for authorities to plan for, but such events can be appropriately considered as a worst-case scenario in a comprehensive, forward-looking, multiscenario hazard assessment.


  • Avalanches
  • Mass Movement
  • Glacial Lake Outburst (GLOFs)
  • Climate Change
  • Policy and Governance
  • Landslide

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