Avalanches are rapid movements of large masses of snow down a slope that commonly occur in mountainous regions.
Despite what you may have seen in movies and on television, shouting cannot trigger an avalanche, according to the Utah Avalanche Centre. The UAC says that in 90% of avalanche deaths, it was the weight of the victim or someone in their group that triggered the avalanche.
In some countries the authorities monitor avalanche conditions and estimate risk levels. Specialists also intentionally trigger small snowslides with explosives so that the snow does not build up and is brought down the mountain in a controlled way when people are not present.
Image: An avalanche cascades down a mountain (credit: John Terence Turner)
Martin sets off a controlled avalanche from a helicopter in the Swiss Alps.
Heavy snowfall can pose a deadly threat in the Swiss Alps so, armed with dynamite, ski patrolman Martin sets off a controlled avalanche from a helicopter.
In 1970 a terrible disaster strikes the town of Yungay, Peru.
Professor Iain Stewart explains how a 1970 avalanche on Mount Huascaran overwhelmed the Peruvian town of Yungay and killed an estimated 18,000 people. This is the most deadly glacial avalanche in recorded history.
Different types of snowflake create weak layers in the snow.
Professor Iain Stewart explains that there are 80 different types of snowflake. Some snowflakes don't bind together easily and create weak layers in the snow that builds up on mountains. These weak layers play a significant role in determining whether an avalanche will occur.
During World War I more than 60,000 soldiers were killed by avalanches.
Professor Iain Stewart explains how avalanches were intentionally triggered by troops fighting in the Alps during World War I.
Experiments reveal the deadly power of dry powder avalanches.
Professor Iain Stewart explains how scientists working in laboratories have recreated dry powder avalanches in miniature. They want to better understand the behaviour of these turbulent and unpredictable events.
An avalanche (also called a snowslide or snowslip) is a rapid flow of snow down a sloping surface. Avalanches are typically triggered in a starting zone from a mechanical failure in the snowpack (slab avalanche) when the forces on the snow exceed its strength but sometimes only with gradually widening (loose snow avalanche). After initiation, avalanches usually accelerate rapidly and grow in mass and volume as they entrain more snow. If the avalanche moves fast enough some of the snow may mix with the air forming a powder snow avalanche, which is a type of gravity current.
Slides of rocks or debris, behaving in a similar way to snow, are also referred to as avalanches (see rockslide). The remainder of this article refers to snow avalanches.
The load on the snowpack may be only due to gravity, in which case failure may result either from weakening in the snowpack or increased load due to precipitation. Avalanches that occur in this way are known as spontaneous avalanches. Avalanches can also be triggered by other loads such as skiers, snowmobilers, animals or explosives. Seismic activity may also trigger the failure in the snowpack and avalanches. A popular myth is that avalanches can be triggered by loud noise or shouting, but the pressure from sound is orders of magnitude too small to trigger an avalanche.
Although primarily composed of flowing snow and air, large avalanches have the capability to entrain ice, rocks, trees, and other material on the slope, and are distinct from mudslides, rock slides, and serac collapses on an icefall. Avalanches are not rare or random events and are endemic to any mountain range that accumulates a standing snowpack. Avalanches are most common during winter or spring but glacier movements may cause ice and snow avalanches at any time of year. In mountainous terrain, avalanches are among the most serious objective natural hazards to life and property, with their destructive capability resulting from their potential to carry enormous masses of snow at high speeds.
There is no universally accepted classification of avalanches—different classifications are useful for different purposes. Avalanches can be described by their size, their destructive potential, their initiation mechanism, their composition and their dynamics.