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Avalanche formation and dynamics

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Head: Dr. Alec Van Herwijnen

Snow avalanches – a type of fast-moving mass movement – occur in snow covered mountain areas throughout the world and may cause property damage and loss of life as they interfere with human activities. Most avalanches release from terrain steeper than about 30° during or soon after snow storms, or are triggered by snow loading due to wind, or by a temperature change. Snow slab avalanches can also be triggered artificially by, for example, people (usually unintentionally) or intentionally by explosives used as part of avalanche control programs. Today, most avalanche fatalities are recreationists. Independent of the triggering mode, the snowpack layering is decisive for the instability of the snowpack which consists of layers with varying properties. The complex microstructure of snow and spatial variations in snow layer properties across the terrain limit the predictability of snow avalanches. Even today, it is not possible to predict the exact location, time and extent of an avalanche event. Improving avalanche prediction requires a better understanding of the underlying processes.


Our main objective is to better understand the avalanche formation process which eventually will improve snow slope stability evaluation and avalanche forecasting. In our studies, we combine laboratory and field work with numerical modeling.

Research activities

Research activities include the following topics

  • Snow failure and avalanche initiation
  • Fracture mechanics of snow
  • Snow slope stability and stability tests
  • Critical snowpack layering
  • Monitoring of instabilities on a slope
  • Spatial variability of snowpack properties and its relevance for avalanche formation
  • Precursor signals using seismic
  • Upward-looking radar technology
  • Formation of wet-snow avalanches
  • Modeling snowpack instability with the snow cover model SNOWPACK
  • Stability evaluation and avalanche forecasting
  • Forecasting avalanches
  • Avalanche control by explosives

We transfer our knowledge to the practice and the public by

  • Teaching and courses
  • Leaflets and guidelines
  • Expert reports on avalanche accidents for courts and insurance companies