In Switzerland, natural hazards such as avalanches, landslides, rockfall, debris flows, flooding and forest fires can cause considerable damage. Through our research and services, we help to protect people from natural events.
In Switzerland, 23 people are killed on average each year by avalanches alone; flooding and mass movements cause damage amounting to an average of CHF 300 million per year. As the population continues to grow, more and more buildings are located in at-risk areas.
As such, we look into how different natural hazards arise, how far, how quickly and how vigorously they develop, and how people can protect themselves accordingly. This may be through effective spatial planning, reliable forecasting or technical protective measures. We lay the scientific foundations for risk analysis and for evaluating whether protective measures and warning systems are effective and economical.
As well as scientific and engineering research, this requires economic and social analysis given that major events present politics, government and society with the challenge of finding widely accepted and economically viable risk reduction strategies.
Observation and simulation
In order to understand the processes of natural hazards in detail, we run experimental setups which are unique worldwide. As part of field experiments, we observe the dynamics of avalanches, debris flows, rockfall and landslides under realistic conditions. In some cases, we also initiate them for experimental purposes (avalanche test site [Link to VdlS]).
Thanks to this measurement data, we now understand better than ever how these natural hazards arise, and are able to simulate the processes within them in increasingly precise computational models. This is useful for developing protective measures and hazard maps.
Contending with climate change
When glaciers melt and permafrost thaws as a result of climate change, this threatens to set in motion enormous quantities of soil, rock and scree – a significant danger to lower lying settlements and transportation infrastructure. This is why we are focusing on mass movements in alpine regions that are triggered by climate change as part of the strategic research initiative "Climate Change Impacts on Alpine Mass Movements", which is set to run from 2017 to 2020.
Forewarned and informed
When it comes to warning and prevention systems, we play an important role nationally and occupy a leading position internationally: in winter, the avalanche warning service at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF publishes the well-known avalanche bulletin twice a day, while our hydrologists are involved in warning the public about instances of flooding and severe drought.
Forest fires present a real threat in the already dry southern alpine valleys. We record and analyse forest fire events, develop methods and concepts to evaluate the risk of forest fire, and determine the consequences for ecosystems such as protection forests.
We make our data and findings available to the public on internet platforms so that crisis managers can access the information quickly in an emergency.