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A new model is capable of realistically simulating slab avalanches and can be used not just for research, but for animated films too.


Simulating the triggering and sliding of a snow slab in 3D on a computer is not easy, as it involves complicated physical processes. Johan Gaume, avalanche researcher at EPF Lausanne and the SLF, has now succeeded in doing just this. In collaboration with Alec van Herwijnen from the SLF and researchers from the USA, he has developed a new model which can reproduce slab avalanches more realistically and accurately in 3D than was previously possible – from triggering to sliding.


Last year, Gaume spent several months at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), where he worked with researchers who had collaborated on simulating the snow in the animated Disney film "Frozen".

Together they enhanced an existing simulation model, which they tested using SLF measurement data. The findings have now been published in the journal "Nature Communications".


Fracture propagation incorporated for the first time

For the model, the researchers applied the material point method (MPM), which can be used to analyse the fracture behaviour of materials. They could now simulate the fracture and its propagation in the weak layer. These processes are critical to the triggering of a slab avalanche.

As a result, the snow slab loses its connection to the underlying snowpack layers and slides down the slope. Previously, it was not possible to simulate these processes, which take place on varying scales, using a single model.


The new model could contribute to a more accurate understanding of the processes that take place when avalanches are triggered and slide, and as a result allow a more accurate assessment of the threat posed by avalanches. Furthermore, it can also be used to portray avalanches and snow in animated films more realistically than was previously possible.

Detailed press release from the EPFL (in French or English)


In this video by the EPFL, Johan Gaume explains his new avalanche model (in English, duration 1:50 min):


More about the scientific background: Video (in English, duration 4:30 min)