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Avalanche protection policy for Iceland

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Northern Iceland in winter: The raging storms bring large quantities of snow. The wind blows clear exposed ridges, but fills depressions and gullies with several metres of often wet snow. Large cornices form along the edges of the table mountains. Small fishing villages nestle directly at the foot of the massive steep slopes.


In 1995, 34 people lost their lives in avalanches in two of the villages, Súðavík and Flateyri. Unlike with earlier catastrophes, the Icelanders no longer considered it to be unavoidable, and in Reykjavik there were even demonstrations. The Icelandic government thereupon decided to have protection needs throughout the country analysed. The avalanche protection expert, Stefan Margreth from SLF, was involved in drawing up the report. “The result is a kind of master plan that indicates the necessary measures to be taken over the next 20–30 years,” Stefan explains. Since then he has visited Iceland almost every year. After the master plan came the realisation of the protection projects. Here Stefan’s expertise in planning supporting structures was particularly in demand as they were then new to Iceland. Stefan and his Icelandic colleagues used a test site above Siglufjörður to investigate whether the supporting structures that are best practice in the Alps also function in Iceland. They found that these structures are also suitable for Iceland, but unlike in Switzerland, much more attention must be paid to, for example, providing protection against corrosion in the salty air close to the sea.


Iceland is learning from Switzerland – and vice versa

Siglufjörður is now protected by a series of structures, whose total length amounts to more than four kilometres, as well as a large diversion dam and several catching dams. “Involving the locals early on and employing landscape architects helped to ensure these large constructions would be well accepted,” Stefan Margreth concludes. “What was most exciting was that we could build up the whole protection system from scratch.” This is rarely the case in the Alps today. “The resulting experience has been very valuable for checking our calculations and designs,” says Stefan.

It’s not only in Iceland, but also in seemingly more exotic countries like Chile, Russia or Iran that experts from SLF are advising and supporting those locally responsible in avalanche protection. Even though the challenges may be very different, SLF also always benefits from the new experiences. What is different about the work in Iceland? Stefan Margreth: “In Iceland, what you suggest and plan is really implemented, which is very satisfying!” This is certainly also satisfying for Siglufjörður’s inhabitants, who can now sleep quietly through even the worst winter storms. (Birgit Ottmer, Diagonal 1/18)