The physics of snow slab avalanches similar to that of earthquakes

ByLavinia E. Smith

Aug 4, 2022 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
The physics of snow slab avalanches similar to that of earthquakes
Snowboarder Mathieu Schaer. Credit: Ruedi Flueck

Experts from EPFL and the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Exploration SLF have received further insight into how snow slab avalanches form, paving the way to additional productive chance assessment steps for these catastrophic occasions that induce far more avalanche accidents and fatalities every single yr than other sorts of avalanches.


The workforce of EPFL and SLF scientists manufactured a discovery which signifies a paradigm shift that could significantly impact their research specialized niche. By expanding the scale for snow slab avalanche simulations from a meter to a hundred meters, they received a superior knowledge of the mechanisms underlying these functions. Their discovery also illustrates the added benefits that developments in pc processing electric power can provide to the techniques employed to notice elaborate physical phenomena. The team’s results appear in Mother nature Physics.

Their work builds on a 2018 research by EPFL professor Johan Gaume and scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles. That original study, posted in Mother nature Communications, describes a 3D simulation system that the scientists designed to design snow slab avalanches with unequalled precision. Currently Gaume is the head of EPFL’s Snow and Avalanche Simulation Laboratory (SLAB), in EPFL’s University of Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering (ENAC), and is affiliated with the SLF Institute he and his Ph.D. college student Bertil Trottet took the examine even further by implementing it at a more substantial scale—and built a stunning discovery. They uncovered that the manner in which cracks propagate modifications through the launch approach of the slab avalanche. For instance, they noticed crack propagation speeds exceeding 100 meters per second, which is perfectly outside of the speeds of close to 30 meters for each 2nd normally measured in experiments. At initial the two experts assumed they’d designed a error.






https://www.youtube.com/enjoy?v=I46xK3ItaK4

Slab avalanche video analyses. Credit rating: Titouan Bessire

Supershear crack propagation

Snow slab avalanches are characterised by a sharp and broad fracture line that takes place at the best of the unveiled snow mass. These kinds of an avalanche sorts when a dense layer of snow (the slab) sits on leading of a weak snow layer with small cohesion. When an avalanche is triggered, for occasion by a skier, the weak layer collapses and the slab loses its underlying guidance construction. The subsequent slab bending is one particular of the most important motorists of crack propagation. At minimum that was the system proposed by experiments and numerical models right up until now, primarily based on examined and simulated slabs measuring fewer than two meters very long.

But by modeling slabs measuring all-around 100 meters, the EPFL and SLF experts observed that after crack propagation extends beyond all around a few to 5 meters, slab tension gets the only driver of the launch process, creating the weak layer to are unsuccessful under shear. This phenomenon is identical to the so-referred to as “supershear” rupture mechanism noticed in the exceptional large-magnitude earthquakes that have been documented so significantly. “We felt we ended up on to some thing crucial, but we essential experimental data to affirm it,” says Gaume.

Movie analyses

Then a collection of coincidences gave Trottet and Gaume an option to ensure their discovery. To start with, Gaume attended a convention presentation in which Ron Simenhois from the Colorado Avalanche Data Heart described a substantial-tech movie analysis process he’s doing work on. At all around the exact time, Mathieu Schaer—a previous EPFL environmental engineering scholar who’s now a specialist snowboarder and an engineer at MétéoSuisse—sent Gaume a movie showing how he scarcely escaped a significant snow slab avalanche.

“The avalanche transpired in Col du Cou in the Swiss Alps,” says Gaume. “We had snow details on the function, and Schaer’s video was of fantastic good quality for the reason that he was filming for a snowboarding movie. By examining the video clip and analyzing the several parameters, we had been in a position to ensure the success of our design for the 1st time.” In whole, 4 serious-planet avalanches authorized the scientists to verify a changeover from an “anticrack” propagation method to the “supershear” manner noted through some large earthquakes. Dependent on these results, the SLF Institute is now creating bigger-scale experimental facilities in Davos in purchase to get further insights into the release approach of snow slab avalanches .

Towards improved hazard evaluation

Their do the job will assistance snow scientists appear up with new assumptions that can simplify computer system products of avalanches and shorten the essential computing time considerably—from many days to just a handful of minutes. The improved types could be employed to decide the dimensions of avalanches, for example, which is crucial info for productive risk prediction and management.


In direction of greater forecasts of slab avalanches

Far more information and facts:
Bertil Trottet et al, Transition from sub-Rayleigh anticrack to supershear crack propagation in snow avalanches, Character Physics (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41567-022-01662-4
Presented by
Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne


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