Snow- and ice-related hazardous processes threaten society in tropical to high-latitude mountain areas worldwide and at highly variable time scales. On the one hand, small snow avalanches are recorded in high numbers every winter. On the other hand, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) or large-scale volcano–ice interactions occur less frequently but may evolve into destructive process chains resulting in major disasters. These extreme examples document the huge field of types, magnitudes, and frequencies of snow- and ice-related hazardous processes.
Mountain societies have learned to cope with natural hazards for centuries, guided by personal experiences and oral and written tradition. Historical records are today still important as a basis to mitigate snow- and ice-related hazards. They are complemented by a broad array of observation and modeling techniques. These techniques differ among themselves with regard to (1) the type of process under investigation and (2) the scale and purpose of investigation. Multi-scale monitoring and warning systems for snow avalanches are in operation in densely populated mid-latitude mountain areas. They build on meteorological and snow profile data in combination with a large pool of expert knowledge.
In contrast, ice-related processes such as ice- or rock-ice avalanches, GLOFs, or associated process chains cause damage less frequently in space and time, so that societies are less well adapted. Even though the hazard sources are often far from the society—making field observation challenging—flows travelling for tens of kilometers sometimes impact populated areas. These hazards are strongly influenced by climate change–induced glacier and permafrost dynamics. On the regional or national scale, the evolution of such hazards has to be monitored at short intervals through aerial and satellite imagery and terrain data, employing geographic information systems (GIS). Known hazardous situations have to be monitored in the field.
Physical models—applied either in the laboratory or at real-world sites—are employed to explore the mobility of hazardous processes. Since the 1950s, however, computer models have increasingly gained importance in exploring possible travel distances, impact areas, velocities, and impact forces of events. While simple empirical-statistical approaches are used at broad scales in combination with GIS, advanced numeric models are applied to analyze specific case studies. However, the input parameters for these models are uncertain so that (1) the model results have to be validated with observations and (2) appropriate strategies to deal with the uncertainties have to be applied before using the model results for hazard zoning or dimensioning of protective structures. Due to rapid atmospheric warming and related changes in the cryosphere, hazard situations beyond historical experiences are expected to be increasingly relevant in the future. Scenario-based modeling of complex systems and process chains therefore represents an emerging research direction.
Rock avalanches are very large (greater than about 1 million m3) landslides from rock slopes, which can travel much farther than smaller events; the larger the avalanche, the greater the travel distance. Rock avalanches first became recognized in Switzerland in the 19th century, when the Elm and Goldau events killed many people a surprisingly long way from the origin of the landslide; these events first posed the “long-runout rock-avalanche” problem. In essence, the several-kilometer-long runout of these events appears to require low friction beneath and within the moving rock mass in order to explain their extremely long deposits, but in spite of intense research in recent decades this phenomenon still lacks a generally accepted explanation. Large collapses of volcano edifices can also generate rock avalanches that travel very long distances, albeit with a different runout–volume relationship to that of non-volcanic events. Even more intriguing is the presence of long-runout deposits not just on land but also beneath the sea and on the surfaces of Mars and the Moon.
Numerous studies of rock avalanches have revealed a number of consistencies in deposit and behavioral characteristics: for example, that little or no mixing of material occurs within the moving debris mass during runout; that the deposit material beneath a meter-scale surface layer is pervasively and intensely fragmented, with fragments down to submicrometer size; that many of these fragments are agglomerates of even finer particles; that throughout the travel of a rock avalanche large volumes of fine dust are produced; that rock avalanche surfaces are typically covered by hummocks of a range of sizes; and that, as noted above, runout distance increases with volume. Since rock avalanches can travel tens of kilometers from their source, they pose severe, if low-probability, direct hazards to societal assets in mountain valleys; in addition, they can trigger extensive and long-duration geomorphic hazard cascades.
Although large rock avalanches are rare (e.g., in a 10,000 km2 area of the Southern Alps in New Zealand, research showed that events larger than 5 × 107 m3 occurred about once every century), studies to date show that the proportion of total landslide volume involved in such large events is greater than the proportion in smaller, more frequent events, so that a large proportion of the total sediment generated in mountains by uplift and denudation originates in large rock avalanches. Consequently, large rock avalanches exert a significant influence on mountain geomorphology, for example by blocking rivers and forming landslide dams; these either fail, causing large dam-break floods and long-duration aggradation episodes to propagate down river systems, or remain intact to infill with sediment and form large valley flats. Rock avalanches that fall onto glaciers often result in large terminal moraines being formed as debris accumulates at the glacier terminus, and these moraines may have no relation to any climatic change. In addition, misinterpretation of rock avalanche deposits as moraines can cause underestimation of hazard risk and misinterpretation of paleoclimate.
Rock avalanche runout behavior poses fundamental scientific questions, and rock avalanches have important effects on a wide range of geomorphic processes, which in turn pose threats to society. Better understanding of these impressive and intriguing events is crucial for both geoscientific progress and for reducing impacts of future disasters.
Avalanches have long been a natural threat to humans in mountainous areas. At the end of the Middle Ages, the population in Europe experienced significant growth, leading to an intensive exploitation of upper valleys. At almost the same time, Europe’s climate cooled down considerably and severe winters became more common. In the Alps, several villages were partly destroyed by avalanches, forcing inhabitants to develop the first mitigation strategies against the threat. By the late 19th century, the development of central administrations led to the creation of national forestry departments in each alpine country, principally to tackle the dangers posed by avalanches. As a result, forest engineers conceived not only the science of avalanches but also the first large-scale techniques to alleviate avalanche risks (such as reforestation). However, with the steady growth of transport, industry, tourism, and urbanization in high-altitude areas, these earlier measures soon reached their limits. A new impetus was then given to better forecasting avalanche activity and predicting the destructive potential of extreme avalanches. Avalanche zoning, snowfall forecasts, avalanche-dynamics models, and new protection systems for the protection of structures and inhabitants have become increasingly more common since World War II.
With the advent of personal computers and the increasing sophistication of computational resources, it has become easier to predict the behavior of avalanches and protect threatened areas accordingly. The success of this research and the protection policies implemented since World War II are reflected in the drastic reduction in the number of disasters affecting dwellings in the Alps (most deaths by avalanche now occur during recreational activities). Significant progress has been made since the 1980s, leading to a better understanding of avalanche behavior and the mediation of associated risks. Yet we should not assume that this progress is steady or that our capacity to control such hazards is more advanced than it was two decades ago. Efforts to predict avalanches contrast with work in other sciences such as meteorology, for which forecasts have become increasingly more reliable with advancements in computational power. Explaining the difference is simple: in meteorology, the material is air, a substance whose behavior is well known. The main difficulty lies in the computation of enormous volumes of air encountering various flow and temperature conditions. For avalanches, the material is snow, a subtle mixture of water (in different forms) and air, whose behavior is remarkably complex. Modern models of avalanche dynamics are able to predict this behavior with varying degrees of success.