Lukas U. Arenson and Matthias Jakob
Mountain environments, home to about 12% of the global population and covering nearly a quarter of the global land surface, create hazardous conditions for various infrastructures. The economic and ecologic importance of these environments for tourism, transportation, hydropower generation, or natural resource extraction requires that direct and indirect interactions between infrastructures and geohazards be evaluated. Construction of infrastructure in mountain permafrost environments can change the ground thermal regime, affect gravity-driven processes, impact the strength of ice-rich foundations, or result in permafrost aggradation via natural convection. The severity of impact, and whether permafrost will degrade or aggrade in response to the construction, is a function of numerous parameters including climate change, which needs to be considered when evaluating the changes in existing or formation of new geohazards. The main challenge relates to the uncertainties associated with the projections of medium- (decadal) and long-term (century-scale) climate change. A fundamental understanding of the various processes at play and a good knowledge of the foundation conditions is required to ascertain that infrastructure in permafrost environment functions as intended. Many of the tools required for identifying geohazards in the periglacial and appropriate risk management strategies are already available.
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.