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Avalanche cycles in Austria: an analysis of the major events in the last 50 years

Abstract

During the last 50 years, an average of 30 persons per year was killed by avalanches in Austria. About one-third of all avalanche fatalities occurred as a result of so-called ‘catastrophic avalanches’. ‘Catastrophic avalanches’ are spontaneously released avalanches that affect villages and cause damage to property (buildings, roads and other infrastructure). The biggest avalanche events in Austria were in 1950/1951 (135 fatalities), in 1953/1954 (143 fatalities) and in February 1999, when 38 persons were killed in Galtür and Valzur. This article deals with an analysis of nine major avalanche cycles in the last 55 years. An avalanche cycle in this article is defined as 50 recorded avalanches of at least size 3 in two days and/or 5 persons killed in villages within two days. The basis of this study are the well-documented records from Fliri (1998), who analysed natural disasters in the western part of Austria and the Trentino, including floods, mudflows, earthquakes and avalanches. The meteorological data were taken from two relevant observation sites in the northern part of the Austrian Alps, from two sites in an intermediate and continental region, respectively and from one site in the southern part of the Austrian Alps. Atmospheric patterns were analysed by using weather charts for the relevant periods. Both the meteorological data and the weather charts were provided by the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics (ZAMG). It was found that there was a major cycle every 6 years (on average). Two-thirds of all investigated cycles were characterised by a continuous increase of snow depth over a period of at least three days. In only three periods (1975, 1986, 1988), daily extreme values could be observed. More than 40% of all the cycles occurred in January. In two-thirds, a north-westerly oriented frontal zone was responsible for the formation of a major cycle. The remaining cycles were released by low-pressure areas over Central Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, respectively.

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Acknowledgements

My grateful thanks to Karl Gabl and Monika Weis from the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, Regional Centre Innsbruck who supported this work with the meteorological data. Furthermore I acknowledge the outstanding help from Patrick Nairz (Avalanche Warning Service Tyrol) for providing the relevant snow profiles.

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Correspondence to Peter Höller.

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Höller, P. Avalanche cycles in Austria: an analysis of the major events in the last 50 years. Nat Hazards 48, 399–424 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-008-9271-1

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Keywords

  • Avalanche accidents
  • Avalanche cycles
  • Avalanche climatology