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Snow Avalanches  

Christophe Ancey

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.


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

Margreth Keiler and Sven Fuchs

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.