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An integrated approach to investigate climate-driven rockfall occurrence in high alpine slopes: the Bessanese glacial basin, Western Italian Alps

Abstract

Rockfalls are one of the most common instability processes in high mountains. They represent a relevant issue, both for the risks they represent for (infra) structures and frequentation, and for their potential role as terrestrial indicators of climate change. This study aims to contribute to the growing topic of the relationship between climate change and slope instability at the basin scale. The selected study area is the Bessanese glacial basin (Western Italian Alps) which, since 2016, has been specifically equipped, monitored and investigated for this purpose. In order to provide a broader context for the interpretation of the recent rockfall events and associated climate conditions, a cross-temporal and integrated approach has been adopted. For this purpose, geomorphological investigations (last 100 years), local climate (last 30 years) and near-surface rock/air temperatures analyses, have been carried out. First research outcomes show that rockfalls occurred in two different geomorphological positions: on rock slopes in permafrost condition, facing from NW to NE and/or along the glacier margins, on rock slopes uncovered by the ice in the last decades. Seasonal thaw of the active layer and/or glacier debutressing can be deemed responsible for slope failure preparation. With regard to timing, almost all dated rock falls occurred in summer. For the July events, initiation may have been caused by a combination of rapid snow melt and enhanced seasonal thaw of the active layer due to anomalous high temperatures, and rainfall. August events are, instead, associated with a significant positive temperature anomaly on the quarterly scale, and they can be ascribed to the rapid and/or in depth thaw of the permafrost active layer. According to our findings, we can expect that in the Bessanese glacierized basin, as in similar high mountain areas, climate change will cause an increase of slope instability in the future. To fasten knowledge deepening, we highlight the need for a growth of a network of high elevation experimental sites at the basin scale, and the definition of shared methodological and measurement standards, that would allow a more rapid and effective comparison of data.

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Acknowledgments

This work was carried out in the framework of the RiST Project, co-financed by “Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Torino” and by MeteoMet Project. The authors wish to thank: Ing. Renato Riva (PANOMAX Italia) for setting up the visual monitoring of the basin; Ing. Secondo Barbero (ARPA Piemonte) for providing sensor data; Guido Rocci (Municipality of Balme) for the support given to the project; Roberto Chiosso (keeper of the Bartolomeo Gastaldi Hut) and his staff for the logistical support given to the project, and for documenting and reporting instability events in the experimental area; Giovanni Mortara and Stefano Perona (CGI) for providing and commenting historical documentation; Luigi Perotti for the expert advice on calculation with raster data; Paolo Silvestri and Davide Ricci (IRPI) for field data collection and for processing snow data series.

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Correspondence to Cristina Viani.

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Author Contributions

Conceptualization: V.C., C.M., M.A., N.G.; methodology: V.C., C.M., M.A., N.G.; formal analysis: V.C., P.R., M.C., C.G., N.G.; investigation: V.C., P.R, M.C., N.G.; writing — original draft preparation: V.C., C.M., P.R, N.G.; writing — review and editing: V.C., C.M., P.R, M.A., M.C., C.G., N.G.; supervision: C.M., M.A., N.G.; project: N.G.; funding acquisition: N.G. All authors have read and agreed to the submitted version of the manuscript.

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Viani, C., Chiarle, M., Paranunzio, R. et al. An integrated approach to investigate climate-driven rockfall occurrence in high alpine slopes: the Bessanese glacial basin, Western Italian Alps. J. Mt. Sci. 17, 2591–2610 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11629-020-6216-y

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Keywords

  • Rockfalls
  • Climate change
  • Air and rock temperature
  • Periglacial environment
  • Western Italian Alps