S N O W A V A
L A N C H E
their characteristics, forecasting and
by Edward R. LaChapelle
Avalanche Hazard Forecaster
Wasatch National Forest, Utah
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Snow avalanches are active geological agents of erosion and have been a source of natural
disasters as long as man has dwelled in the mountains. A common feature of mountainous
terrain throughout the temperate and arctic regions of the earth, they may fall wherever
snow is deposited on slopes steeper than about 30 degrees. Small avalanches, or sluffs,
run in uncounted numbers each winter, while the larger avalanches, which may encompass
slopes a mile or more wide and millions of tons of snow, fall infrequently but inflict
most of the destruction. The avalanche hazard arises whenever man and his works are
exposed to sliding snow. Such hazard has been familiar to inhabitants of the Alps and
Scandinavia for many centuries, while it is a more recent development in other parts of
Avalanches run in the same paths year after year,the danger zones often being well known
in normal circumstances. Exceptional weather at intervals of many years may produce
exceptional avalanches which overrun their normal paths and even break new ones where none
existed for centuries. Unwise timber removal in alpine terrain can also create avalanches
where none existed before. Given exceptional snow conditions, even short slopes like the
walls of a ravine can become dangerous. Snow avalanche may fall anywhere that enough snow
is deposited in the right circumstances on an inclined surface.
These right circumstances sometimes consist of abnormally large snowfalls, but not always
so. Avalanches find their genesis in snow cover structural weaknesses which are often
induced by internal changes. A large overburden of snow alone may not result in
avalanching if it is anchored to a solid underlayer. On the other hand, even a shallow
snow layer can slide from the mountainside if poorly bonded. The snow avalanche is a
complex problem in mechanical stability which can best be understood in terms of the
physical processes taking place in the changeable winter snow and the dependence of these
Types of Avalanches and
The wide variety of snow avalanche origin,, nature of motion, and size reflects the highly
changeable nature of snow. The fundamental classification of avalanches is based on
conditions prevailing at the point of origin, or the release zone. There are two basic
types, loose snow and slab avalanches. Each is subdivided according to whether snow
involved is dry, damp or wet, whether the slide originates in a surface layer or involves
the whole snow cover (slides to the ground), and whether the motion is on the ground, in
Fig. 1 The
classification of snow avalanches
Loose snow avalanches form in snow with little internal cohesion among individual snow
crystals. When such snow lies in a state of unstable equilibrium on a slope steeper than
its natural angle of repose, a slight disturbance sets progressively more and more snow in
downhill motion. If enough momentum is generated, the sliding snow may run out onto level
ground, or even ascend an opposite valley wall. Such an avalanche originates at a point,
growing wider as it sweeps up more snow in its descent. The demarcation between sliding
and undisturbed snow is diffuse, especially in dry snow.
Three processes commonly leave snow in a state of unstable equilibrium on a slope steeper
than its natural angle of repose: (1) Deposition of stellar or dendritic crystals with
little or no wind, (2) reduction of internal cohesion among crystals by metamorphism, and
(3) reduction of internal cohesion by intrusion of liquid water. Though very numerous,
most dry loose snow avalanches are small and few achieve sufficient size to cause damage.
With advent of spring melting, wet loose snow avalanches also are common. Most of the
latter, too, are small, but they are more likely to develop occasional destructive size,
especially when confined to gulleys.
Slab avalanches originate in snow with sufficient internal cohesion to enable a snow
layer, or layers, to react mechanically as a single entity. The degree of this required
cohesion may range from very slight in fresh, new snow (soft slab) to very high in hard,
winddrifted snow (hard slab), according to circumstances of layer attachment to the
external environment. A slab avalanche breaks free along a characteristic fracture line, a
sharp division of sliding from stable snow whose face stands perpendicular to the slope.
The entire surface of unstable snow is set in motion at the same time. A slab release may
take place across an entire mountainside, with the fracture racing from slope to slope to
release adjacent or even distant slide paths. The mechanical conditions leading to slab
avalanche formation are found in a wide variety of snow types, both new and old, dry and
wet. They may be induced by the nature of snow deposition (wind drifting is the prime
agent of slab formation),, or by internal metamorphism.
Slab avalanches are often dangerous and unpredictable in behavior. Providing most of the
winter avalanche hazard, they axe the primary object of avalanche defense and control
Avalanches composed of dry snow usually generate a dust cloud as part of the sliding snow
is whirled into the air. Such slides, called powder snow avalanches, most frequently
originate as soft slabs. Under favorable circumstances, enough snow crystals are mixed
with the air to form an aerosol which behaves as a sharply bounded body of dense gas
rushing down the slope ahead of the sliding snow. This wind blast can achieve high
velocities to inflict heavy and capricious destruction well beyond the normal bounds of
the avalanche path.
Wet snow avalanches move more slowly than dry ones and seldom are accompanied by dust
clouds. Their higher snow density can lend them enormous destructive force in spite of
lower velocities. As wet slides reach their deposition zones, the interaction of sliding
and stagnated snow produces characteristic channeling.
Direct action avalanches fall as the immediate result of a single snow storm. They usually
involve only the fresh snow. Climax avalanches are caused by a series of snow storms or a
culmination of weather influences. Their fall is not necessarily associated with a given
current storm or weather situation.
The Mechanism of Avalanche
Most avalanches of dangerous size originate on slope angles between 30 degrees and 45
degrees. They seldom occur below 30 degrees and hardly ever below 25 degrees. Above 45
degrees to 50 degrees sluffs and small avalanches are common, but snow seldom accumulates
to sufficient depths to generate large slides.
Though internal metamorphism or stress development may sometimes initiate snow rupture,
avalanches are often dislodged by external triggers. An overload of new snow may dislodge
an existing slab. Falling cornices or chunks of snow from trees are common natural
triggers, similar in action to the sunballs or snow wheels which frequently initiate wet
slides. In the absence of external triggers; unstable snow may revert to stability with
passage of time and no avalanche occurs. Artificial triggers in the form of mechanical
disturbance may be intentionally introduced for control purposes. Unintentional triggers
are a major cause of accidents; most skiers who fall victim to an avalanche trigger the
slide which traps them.
Fig. 2 The
fracture line of a slab avalanche, showing the sharp boundary between the stable
snow and that which slid away to the left. Note blocks of the hard slab resting on
Slab avalanches fall when a well defined snow later breaks free and slides away. The
sliding surface is usually the interface between distinguishable layers of snow which has
been formed by variations in weather or snow deposition. In some cases the sliding surface
may be the ground (entire snow cover avalanches). There often exists a lubricating layer
of low shear strength which allows the slab to break free from the sliding surface. This
lubricating layer may be generated by deposition of fragile crystal forms (e.g., surface
hoar), internal metamorphism, or the intrusion of melt water. In some cases the
lubricating layer is absent, instability being provided simply by a poor bond between snow
slab and the sliding surface.
The primary instability develops when the component of force parallel to the slope due to
the weight of the slab exceeds the shear strength of the bond to the underlayer (sliding
surface). The situation is mechanically complex due to irregular attachment of the slab to
stable snow or other anchorages at the head, toe,, and sides. In general., slab avalanche
release occurs when one of these attachments is broken by a trigger; redistributed
stresses then exceed the strength of the other bonds and an avalanche falls. Only part of
the slab attachments may be weak, while others are strong. In this case a trigger will
initiate fracturing in the snow but the slab remains in place and no avalanche falls.
Snow settles as destructive metamorphism proceeds, and on an inclined surface it also
creeps downhill under the influence of gravity by internal plastic deformation and slip on
the ground. Creep velocity varies with temperature., snow type, snow depth, slope
inclination and profile., and ground cover. These variations from one zone of the snow
cover to another develop creep stresses. The zones of creep tension are favorable
locations for slab avalanche fracture lines; these commonly occur on convex profiles or at
the head of open slopes where the snow cover first finds anchorage (trees, ridge top,
etc.). A snow slab under tension may not only break free when triggered but shatter into
blocks as well when the stress is relieved. In hard snow of high tensile strength this
release may achieve almost explosive violence. Creep stresses are in large measure
responsible for the dangerous and unpredictable character of slab avalanches.
Forecasting Snow Avalanches
Although the general features of snow instability are known,, many details of avalanche
formation are not clearly understood. Forecasting snow avalanches is therefore largely an
empirical art based on accumulated experience. Known physical and mechanical principles of
snow behavior provide a qualitative understanding of avalanche origin, but quantitative
extension of these principles to specific situations is difficult,, for nature presents
too many variables to allow exact calculation of snow stress and strength variations with
time. The precise time a given slope will avalanche cannot be predicted, but the general
degrees of instability in a given area can be estimated with reasonable accuracy.
There are two basic methods of anticipating avalanche hazard. One is the examination of
snow cover structure for patterns of weakness, particularly those leading to slab
avalanches. This method finds its greatest success in forecasting climax slab avalanches
caused by structural weaknesses which may be evolved over a period of time and by a
variety of weather conditions. The second method is analysis of meteorological factors
affecting snow depositions. The latter is now successful in forecasting direct action soft
slab avalanches which run in fresh surface snow layers where structure is poorly
differentiated. In practice the two methods overlap and both are used. Emphasis on one or
the other depends on local climate,, snow type, and avalanche characteristics. Both apply
principally to winter avalanches in dry snow; forecasting wet spring avalanches depends on
knowledge of heat input to the snow surface as well as elements of the foregoing methods.
Fig. 3 Typical
snow structure at the fracture line of a slab avalanche.
Layers of new, partly metamorphosed and old snow are separated
from an icy crust by a thin layer of very fragile depth hoar crystals.
The profile of ram resistance at right indicates low strenght in the
slab layer which slid away.
Snow cover structure is investigated directly by digging pits and examining the exposed
stratigraphy. Snow temperature, density, strength properties, and crystal type are all
important for determining stability. Time variations in these properties are examined by a
succession of pits in a given study area, the result being plotted in a time profile.
Indirect evidence on snow structure can be gathered by instruments probing from the
surface. The most useful of these is the ran penetrometer which measures snow strength
variations with depth by means of a pointed rod driven by a falling weight. Periodic
observations at representative study plots (usually on level ground) are compared with
snow profiles from actual avalanche fracture lines to determine and anticipate stability
The basic structure leading to slab avalanche formation is a cohesive snow layer resting
on a weak substratum which offers poor support or attachment. Actual combinations of slab
layer and substratum strength vary widely. A heavy,, hard slab of great thickness may
exert enough shear stress at its base to rupture a relatively strong supporting layer
which would provide adequate anchorage for a lesser overburden. On the other hand, even
shallow layers of soft, weak snow may break free as a slab avalanche if the substratum is
sufficiently fragile. A common source of weakness is depth hoar formed in the early winter
snow cover. This provides very poor support for subsequent snowfalls which often slide off
fully developed depth hoar regardless of their individual character. Thin layers of depth
hoar, surface hoar, or graupel can also provide a fragile bond (good lubricating layer)
when sandwiched between stronger layers. The general process of constructive metamorphism
always weakens snow layer strength and bonds; it may precipitate an avalanche long before
recognizable depth hoar crystals actually appear. Another frequent cause of slab
avalanching is an ice layer or crust which provides a smooth sliding surface. Crusts
formed by refreezing following a rain storm offer especially poor anchorage to
subsequently deposited snow layers. The bond between slab layer and a crust can be poor at
low temperatures., while it rapidly gains strength if the interface is near the freezing
point. Other patterns of snow stratigraphy also lead to slab avalanche formation in dry
snow though these are the most important.
Soft slab avalanches usually run during or immediately after a storm. In motion they are
similar to dry loose snow avalanches and sometimes are confused with the latter when they
fall during poor visibility. The characteristic fracture line and initial motion as a
cohesive layer is nevertheless present, identifying them as true slab avalanches.
Observation of contributory weather factors before and during a snow storm provides the
basis for forecasting this hazard situation. The depth and surface character of the
existing snow base, established by previous storms, must be known. A deep snow cover
favors avalanching by smoothing the terrain, while certain surface conditions such as a
crust (see above) offer a good sliding surface. The new snow depth, type, and density also
offer clues to stability. New snow layers more Wain 25-30 cm thick most frequently lead to
soft slabs, with graupel end intermediate stages of rimed crystals the most favorable
crystal type. New snow densities above about 0.12 g/cm-3 are a warning sign.
(Very low new snow densities, 0.05 g/cm-3 or less., are usually associated with
dry loose snow avalanches.). Settlement in the new snow Is a stabilizing factor.
Rising temperature during a storm accompanied by rising new snow density tends to cause
avalanching,, while falling temperatures have the opposite effect. New snow precipitation
intensity is a signifi cant factor, for it represents the rate at which the slopes are
being overloaded. Values above 2.5 mm of water per hour warn of impending hazard. In
practice this factor may not be measured directly; instead, new snow density and snowfall
intensity are observed. The wind is also critically important, for soft slab avalanches
seldom occur unless sustained average wind velocity exceeds 6 to 7 m/sec -1.
The most reliable indicator of developing avalanche hazard is a sustained period of
coincident high wind and high precipitation intensity.
Wet snow avalanches are generated by intrusion of percolating liquid water (rain or snow
melt) in the snow cover. The rapid temperature rise-quickly alters snow behavior, while
the water itself reduces snow strength. Liquid water accumulating at an impervious crust
provides an especially good lubricating layer for slab release. The most extensive wet
snow avalanching occurs during winter rains or the first prolonged melt period in spring,
when liquid water intrudes into previously subfreezing snow. Snow melt by solar radiation
is the commonest source of wet snow avalanching and this is amenable to quantitative
prediction. It is essential., though., that the total snow surface energy balance be
considered in estimating amount of melt, for longwave radiation, vapor exchange and
sensible heat from the air all play an important part. A warm., windy,, overcast day may
produce more melting (and avalanche activity) than sunshine and cloudless skies.
Accuracy of formal forecasting procedures is enhanced by frequent field checks of snow
stability. For this purpose small, accessible avalanche paths are sometimes chosen as
sites for test skiing , where snow conditions are checked by actually trying to set the
snow in motion. This technique is particularly useful in detecting incipient soft slab
formation during storms. It is less effective (and more dangerous) on hard slabs formed by
heavy wind drifting. Tests of the latter are usually restricted to blasting with high
Avalanche Control Techniques
Avalanche hazard can be mitigated or eliminated by the application of operational and
engineering techniques. There are two fundamental methods of avalanche control:
modification of terrain, and modification of the snow cover.
Terrain modification may deflect the sliding snow away from fixed facilities to be
protected, or actually prevent the avalanche release. Examples of deflecting structures
are snowsheds used to protect railways and highways. These must be strong enough to
support the dynamic load of sliding snow; hence most modern snowsheds are built of
reinforced concrete. Where sheds are impractical, the sliding snow can be diverted
laterally by wedges, pylons, or diversion walls.
In favorable terrain the snow may be arrested by snow dams or catchment basins. Avalanches
are also arrested in the outrun, or transition zone, of their paths by braking mounds
conical earthen or masonary mounds four meters or more high which axe arranged in a
pattern to break up the flowing snow into crosscurrents which internally dissipate its
kinetic energy. All of the passive deflection structures act principally on snow sliding
on the ground which may exert impact forces up to 50 tons/m2. They have less
effect on the dust cloud accompanying a powder snow avalanche.
Active avalanche defense by terrain modification is achieved with supporting structures in
the avalanche release zone. These are large walls, fences, or nets arranged to retain snow
and prevent avalanches from falling. Their size and spacing are designed to (1) terrace
the mountainside into discrete zones, each of which has snow deposited to a surface slope
less than the mean, (2) break up the the continuity of the snow surface and prevent slab
formation, and (3) support snow on the mountainside in small, manageable sections. These
supporting structures, mostly massive fences in modern design, must be strong enough to
support creep pressures reaching tons per square meter, while at the same time being light
enough for economical transport and erection high on a mountainside. Another type of
defense used in the release zone is the wind baffle, a wall or panel arranged to induce
irregular wind drifting which breaks the continuity of snow slabs. They are not designed
to withstand large creep pressures and are less effective than supporting structures.
Avalanche control by snow modification does not give the high degree of protection
afforded by terrain modification but is much cheaper. It commonly is used to reduce the
hazard to mobile entities, such as skiers or highway traffic, which may be removed during
periods of danger. The commonest technique is artificial release, which brings down
avalanches at a chosen safe time and inhibits formation of large avalanches by relieving
slopes of their snow burden piecemeal in small ones. Slides on small paths are sometimes
intentionally released by skiing, but the preferred method is the detonation of a brisant
high explosive on the snow surface close to the expected fracture line. One kilogram of
TNT or its equivalent is considered the minimum reliable charge. The charge may be placed
by hand, but this can be difficult and is sometimes dangerous. Artillery shells, armed
with superquick point detonating fuzes, are much more efficient, for a number of targets
can quickly and safely be engaged from a single gun emplacement. Principal disadvantages
of artillery are limitations to military or government use and possible damage from
shrapnel dispersion. Mortars, light howitzers, and recoilless rifles have all been
successfully used for avalanche control; the 75mm recoilless rifle is the most practical
weapon for this purpose. Where frequent artificial release is undertaken to protect a ski
area or highway,, a fixed artillery emplacement permits increased efficiency by blind
firing during storms or at night. Artificial release cannot be effectively employed at
random. It must be based on accurate appraisal of snow and weather conditions, and careful
selection of targets.
Another snow modification technique is the application of mechanical disturbance to break
up slab formation (especially soft slabs) and induce stabilization through age hardening.
Skier traffic is the commonest available disturbance, while deliberate packing of the snow
by foot or ski is sometimes used. Depth hoar can be satisfactorily stabilized only by
intensive foot packing. Mechanical aids, such as oversnow vehicles, can seldom be used at
the slope angles existing in avalanche release zones.