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Galtur Austria Avalanche Case Study

Chamonix and Galtur are located in France and Austria, respectively. The sketch map below pinpoints their location:

(Missing map)

Why did the avalanches occur?

Most avalanches begin within weak layers of snow, which evolve within the snow-pack or form on top of the snow and become buried. Eventually these weak layers can no longer hold up the weight on the overlying snow, and will give way causing the snow above them to break free and slide downhill.

Major temperature changes, rapid wind speed and man-made influences, such as the weight of two skiers, often trigger avalanches before they would naturally occur.

The following discusses the specific causes of the Chamonix and Galtur avalanches:


Chamonix, 9th February 1999

On the 7th of February a deep depression traversed France. Over three days it dumped more than two meters of snow on Chamonix. In the high winds snow accumulated to alarming depths above the town. On the afternoon of the 9th of February, the pressure became too much and an avalanche of snow 1.5 meters deep and over an area of 30 hectares broke away.


Galtur, 23rd February 1999

From the 3rd February, heavy snowfalls occur. By 17th February there are blizzard conditions and several minor avalanches have occurred. On 23rd February an 800m section of snow breaks off and travels at 1300mph down the mountainside. 6 seconds later it had hit the village of Galtur.

Why, despite several warnings, were people unprepared for the events?

An article in the Independent at the time quoted a local as saying that “No one dreamed anything like this could happen”. Scientists agreed, saying “This area was in the safest possible zone for avalanches”.

The Chamonix valley was regarded as the Alpine equivalent of an extinct volcano, it had not experienced an avalanche since 1908. This meant that, despite a high perception of what to do in an emergency, the town was caught unexpectant.

Additionally, the avalanche occurred so fast that people had no time to react at all. Rescuers found people in their positions when the avalanche struck; “sitting, eating, sleeping”.

The case was very much the same for the Galtur avalanche.

Discuss the impacts of the avalanches on local people, property and economy

The following table discusses the impacts of the two avalanches on local people, property and economy:


-Chamonix, 9th February 1999Galtur, 23rd February 1999
Local people
  • 10 people killed
  • 1 with serious injuries
  • 5 with minor injuries
Local property
  • 4 local houses destroyed
  • 12 buildings severely damaged
Local economy
  • Ski resorts, bars and restaurants closed as owners were effected by the tragedy. Loss of business
  • Destroyed chalets decrease business output of resorts
  • Approximately 2,000 people were evacuated from the area - loss of business.
  • Tour operators reported “over-whelming anxiety” from tourists
  • Estimated £5 million loss for economy with closed ski resorts

Discuss the longer term implications for the winter sports industry in European Alpine regions

Newspapers with headlines such as “Alpine paradise smothered” and “Is it too dangerous in the Alps?” do nothing for the Alps tourism industry. This negative reporting is always bound to have a subsequently negative impact on the tourism industry, which is a shame as headlines, even certain articles, never reflect the efficiency of the European rescue teams and how many lives were saved. They merely reflect on the numbers of dead and the ‘drama-catastrophe’ element of the incident.

It can be argued that, much in the same way that the economic ‘multiplier effect’ occurs, a social multiplier effect often occurs when incidents such as these happen. Those tourists that were effected by the incident travel home and tell their friends and families, and so on until many people have ‘first-hand’ accounts of the catastrophe. This could lead to a wave of terror and a decrease in the number of tourists visiting the Alps.

With globalisation making cheap flights to the USA more available, it is becoming much easier for tourists to abandon the Alps and go to other winter-sports regions, such as the Rocky Mountains. This will have negative implications for the Alps tourist industry, especially if they cannot combat the pessimism reported in the Press when avalanches occur.


These notes are aimed at students studying for Edexcel (B) Unit 5 - Hazards, though will be suitable also for people studying with different exam boards and at different levels.

They were originally submitted by dudey_cool in this post on TSR Forums.

Article by TSR User on Thursday 15 February 2018

The Alps are a spectacular mountain range over 3,000 metres high with a sharp, steep landscape. In February 1999, a series of low pressure systems persisted that brought continuous heavy snowfall. The result was that in one month, more than twice the amount of snow fell as usually falls during the whole winter from December to April.

How are avalanches created?

Avalanches occur when a large amount of snow and ice or rock falls suddenly down a mountainside. There are two main types of avalanche - dense flow avalanches or 'wet' avalanches, sometimes called slab avalanches, and powder snow or 'dry' avalanches. Most of them happen during or soon after storms. Slab avalanches are usually more deadly than powder snow avalanches but this disaster was a dry avalanche. Avalanches happen when a weak layer of snow can no longer support the weight of the snow above it and the overlying snow cracks and breaks away.

What happened at Galtür and why?

Very high winds and low temperatures meant that exceptionally large amounts of snow were deposited without breaking free. The build-up of snow continued for a week until record levels had been deposited. When the mass gave way, in places a giant 50 metre wall of snow travelled with great force up to 200 kilometres an hour into the small town. It overturned cars, damaged buildings and 31 people were killed. In February 1999 there was simply too much snow that accumulated very quickly and enormous quantities fell on the valley floors. Once the avalanche began it collected more and more snow that ran far out into the valley floor and engulfed the settlement that was built there. The steep, sharp Alpine landscape intensified the effect of the avalanche.

What can be done to reduce the danger of avalanches?

Austria has tried to categorize areas that are in danger from avalanches by creating red zones and yellow zones. In red zones construction of any kind is prohibited. In yellow zones certain safety measures apply and strict building codes are enforced. Although the threat of avalanches is present the buildings are constructed in such a way that people should not be harmed. Galtür is built in a yellow zone. At the time the avalanche struck at 4.00pm many people were returning from the ski slopes and were caught out on the streets rather than in the relative safety of the buildings.

Austria has spent a great deal of money to try to reduce the risks from avalanches -constructing strong, resistant buildings; avalanche barriers on the mountain slopes; planting trees which in themselves break the flow of an avalanche. However, pressure for further development on mountainsides to meet the increased demand from tourists creates tensions between planners, environmentalists and the authorities. If further development continues to take place then the risks from avalanches also increase.


These notes are aimed at students studying for Edexcel (B) Unit 5 - Hazards, though will be suitable also for people studying with different exam boards and at different levels.

They were originally submitted by wackojacko in this thread on TSR Forums.

Article by TSR User on Thursday 15 February 2018