Avalanche More Complex Than Thought

Robin Azer | | AvalancheAvalanche
Credit: Telegraph.co.uk
Credit: Telegraph.co.uk

Pushing into the backcountry offers the thrill of untracked powder, but along with it comes the inherent risk of a potential avalanche. Much has been written about the cause and the effects of these dangerous events, yet until recently little has been known about what goes on beneath the plume of snow during an event. To better understand the dynamics at play during an avalanche, scientists have come up with an innovative radar system, GEODAR,* involving sensors on a buried pylon and video equipment.

By artificially triggering avalanches in Switzerland’s Vallée de la Sionne and using a variety of data collection devices, researchers found the internal turmoil of an avalanche to be more complex than previously thought. Rather than a giant block of snow moving down the slope, there are many internal surges that occur as it barrels down the mountain.

“We had this idea that it happened, but it was never shown so clearly.[The new study] is really a quantum leap in the possibilities of studying the internals of snow avalanches.”

Dieter Issler, a physicist at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute in Oslo, who was not involved with the new study.

This brief (one minute) video illustrates this new finding.


Understanding the mechanics at play during an avalanche can help predict with better accuracy the potential path it may take. This information could be used to mitigate it’s threat against both people and infrastructure in the area. This has particular importance in the European Alps where numerous villages abut the base of the mountains.

Temperature changes in the layers of snow can lead to an avalanche. Credit:essentialtravel
Temperature changes in the layers of snow can lead to an avalanche.

*GEODAR: (GEOphysical flow dynamics using pulsed Doppler radAR) is a frequency-modulated, continuous wave phased-array radar system.

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