Natural Hazards

, Volume 86, Issue 2, pp 601–618 | Cite as

Automatic detection of wet-snow avalanche seismic signals

  • Conny HammerEmail author
  • Donat Fäh
  • Matthias Ohrnberger
Original Paper


Avalanche activity is an important factor when estimating the regional avalanche danger. Moreover, a complete and detailed picture of avalanche activity is needed to understand the processes that lead to natural avalanche release. Currently, information on avalanche activity is mainly obtained through visual observations. However, this involves large uncertainties in the number and release times, influencing the subsequent analysis. Therefore, alternative methods for the remote detection of snow avalanches in particular in non-observed areas are highly desirable. In this study, we use the excited ground vibration to identify avalanches automatically. The specific seismic signature of avalanches facilitates the objective detection by a recently developed classification procedure. A probabilistic description of the signals, called hidden Markov models, allows the robust identification of corresponding signals in the continuous data stream. The procedure is based upon learning a general background model from continuous seismic data. Then, a single reference waveform is used to update an event-specific classifier. Thus, a minimum amount of training data is required by constructing such a classifier on the fly. In this study, we processed five days of continuous data recorded in the Swiss Alps during the avalanche winter 1999. With the restriction of testing large wet-snow avalanches only, the presented approach achieved very convincing results. We successfully detect avalanches over a large volume and distance range. Ninety-two percentage of all detections (43 out of 47) could be confirmed as avalanche events; only four false alarms are reported. We see a clear dependence of recognition capability on run-out distance and source–receiver distance of the observed events: Avalanches are detectable up to a source-receiver distance of eight times the avalanche length. Implications for analyzing a more comprehensive data set (smaller events and different flow regimes) are discussed in detail.


Snow avalanche recognition Automatic detection Avalanche forecasting Hidden Markov model 



This work was partly funded by the project Swiss Experiment, funded by the Competence Center for Environment and Sustainability of the ETH Domain (CCES). We thank Jürg Schweizer from SLF for providing detailed information on avalanches used in this study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Swiss Seismological ServiceETH ZürichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.University of PotsdamPotsdamGermany

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