Snow avalanches in Central Svalbard

Snow avalanches in Central Svalbard

Top image: Slush avalanche in Todalen, March 2011. Photo: Markus Eckerstorfer/UNIS

PhD candidate Markus Eckerstorfer has conducted frequent snow avalanche field-based monitoring in the Longyearbyen area to identify most common avalanche types and snow climate. His study will contribute to the establishment of observation routines and computer models for future warning. Eckerstorfer will defend his PhD thesis on 16 January at UNIS. 

12 January 2013
Press release from UNIS and University of Oslo


In the snow covered high relief mountain landscape of Svalbard, snow avalanches are a common phenomenon. From a geomorphological point of view, they contribute to the accumulation of avalanche fans and rock glaciers. From a geohazard point of view, they threaten infrastructure and people travelling in the landscape. This is the case in the populated and frequently used areas around Svalbard’s main settlement Longyearbyen.

To study snow avalanches both from a geomorphological and geohazard point of view, frequent snow avalanche field-based monitoring was conducted in the area around Longyearbyen between 2006 and 2012. As part of his PhD, Eckerstorfer has conducted field-based monitoring between 2009 and 2012.

Markus Eckerstorfer during fieldwork on Longyearbreen, January 2011. Photo: Stephan Vogel/UNIS

Markus Eckerstorfer during fieldwork on Longyearbreen, January 2011. Photo: Stephan Vogel/UNIS

Cornice fall avalanches most dominant type
Cornice fall avalanches are found to be the most dominant avalanche type in central Svalbard due to the extensive plateau mountain topography, lack of any high vegetation and a constant prevailing winter wind direction. Almost half of all snow avalanches were cornice falls. Together with his colleagues, Eckerstorfer has contributed to increased process understanding of the seasonal cornice dynamics influenced by meteorological conditions and the cause of sudden catastrophic failures leading to cornice fall avalanches.

The researchers showed that cornices are effective in plucking rock sediment from the plateau edges, as well as in transporting them downslope. They thus significantly contribute to avalanche fan and rock glacier formation.

Two wet avalanche cycles were also observed during the PhD study. They were both extreme in their meteorological triggering, as well as in the magnitude of releases, sizes and run outs. It was shown that not the general warming climate, but the atmospheric low-pressure passage time and intensity determine the occurrence of such extreme wet avalanche events.

Snow climate identification
The last important part of Eckerstorfer’s PhD study dealt with the identification of the snow climate in central Svalbard. The understanding of the snowpack characteristics like typical depths, layering and temperatures has not only implications on the study of snow-permafrost interactions, but is also important for the establishment of any future snow avalanche forecasting.

Knowing the snow climate and the snow avalanche regime enables now to establish observations routines and computer models for future warning. This is timely and important, since five people died in snow avalanches in the last ten years.

Dissertation
Markus Eckerstorfer will defend his PhD thesis entitled “Snow avalanches in central Svalbard: A field study of meteorological and topographical triggering factors and geomorphological significance” on Wednesday 16 January at 13:15.

He will give a trial lecture entitled “The role of snow and its distribution patterns for low-land and mountain permafrost” on Wednesday 16 January at 10:15.

Both lectures will take place in the auditorium “Lassegrotta” at UNIS.

About the candidate
Markus EckerstorferMarkus Eckerstorfer was born in Wiener Neustadt, Austria in 1982. He studied geography with a specialization in cartography and Geo-information at the University of Vienna and earned the degree of MSc in 2007. In 2009 Eckerstorfer started his PhD at UNIS and the University of Oslo.

Contact information: markus.eckerstorfer@norut.no

Read the PhD study here:
Snow avalanches in central Svalbard : A field study of meteorological and topographical triggering factors and geomorphological significance

 

 

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