- Christophe AnceyChristophe AnceyEnvironmental Hydraulics Laboratory, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology
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.