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The Cryosphere An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Submitted as: research article 30 Sep 2019

Submitted as: research article | 30 Sep 2019

Review status
This discussion paper is a preprint. It is a manuscript under review for the journal The Cryosphere (TC).

On the relation between avalanche occurrence and avalanche danger level

Jürg Schweizer1, Christoph Mitterer2, Frank Techel1, Andreas Stoffel1, and Benjamin Reuter1 Jürg Schweizer et al.
  • 1WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Davos, Switzerland
  • 2Avalanche Forecasting Service Tyrol, Innsbruck, Austria

Abstract. In many countries with seasonally snow-covered mountain ranges warnings are issued to alert the public about imminent avalanche danger, mostly employing a 5-level danger scale. However, as avalanche danger cannot be measured, the charac-terization of avalanche danger remains qualitative. The probability of avalanche occurrence in combination with the ex-pected avalanche type and size decide on the degree of danger in a given forecast region (≳ 100 km2). To describe ava-lanche occurrence probability the snowpack stability and its spatial distribution need to be assessed. To quantify the rela-tion between avalanche occurrence and avalanche danger level we analyzed a large data set of visually observed ava-lanches from the region of Davos (Eastern Swiss Alps), all with mapped outlines, and compared the avalanche activity to the forecast danger level on the day of occurrence. The number of avalanches per day strongly increased with increasing danger level confirming that not only the release probability but also the frequency of locations with a weakness in the snowpack where avalanches may initiate from, increases within a region. Avalanche size did in general not increase with increasing avalanche danger level, suggesting that avalanche size may be of secondary importance compared to snowpack stability and its distribution when assessing the danger level. Moreover, the frequency of wet-snow avalanches was found to be higher than the frequency of dry-snow avalanches on a given day; also, wet-snow avalanches tended to be larger. This finding may indicate that the danger scale is not used consistently with regard to avalanche type. Although, observed ava-lanche occurrence and avalanche danger level are subject to uncertainties, our findings on the characteristics of avalanche activity may allow revisiting the definitions of the European avalanche danger scale. The description of the danger levels can be improved, in particular by quantifying some of the many proportional quantifiers. For instance, ‘many avalanches’, expected at danger level 4–High, means on the order of 10 avalanches per 100 km2. Whereas our data set is one of the most comprehensive, visually observed avalanche records are known to be inherently incomplete so that our results often refer to a lower limit and should be confirmed using other similarly comprehensive data sets.

Jürg Schweizer et al.
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Jürg Schweizer et al.
Jürg Schweizer et al.
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Publications Copernicus
Short summary
Snow avalanches represent a major natural hazard in seasonally snow-covered mountain regions around the world. To avoid periods and locations of high hazard avalanche warnings are issued by public authorities. In these bulletins, the hazard is characterized by a danger level. Since the danger levels are not well defined, we analyzed a large dataset of avalanches to improve the description. Our findings hint to discrepancies in present usage of the danger scale and show ways of improvement.
Snow avalanches represent a major natural hazard in seasonally snow-covered mountain regions...