WRN – Avalanches, The What and How

An avalanche is a rapid flow of snow down a hill or mountainside. Although avalanches can occur on any steep slope given the right conditions, certain times of the year and types of locations are naturally more dangerous. While avalanches are sudden, there are typically a number of warning signs you can look for or feel before one occurs. In 90 percent of avalanche incidents, the snow slides are triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party.

Avalanches kill more than 150 people worldwide each year. The National Weather Service provides current weather conditions and forecast information to regional avalanche forecast centers that in-turn issue avalanche forecasts. Avalanche warnings and special advisories are included on NWS websites and broadcast over NOAA Weather Radio. Refer to your local avalanche center for current snowpack conditions!

How to Stay Safe

Know the three factors required for an avalanche:

  • Slope – Avalanche generally occur on slopes steeper than 30 degrees
  • Snowpack – Recent avalanches, shooting cracks, and “whumpfing” are signs of unstable snow.
  • Trigger – Sometimes it doesn’t take much to tip the balance; people, new snow, and wind are common triggers.

Determine if you are on or below slopes that can avalanche

Find out if the snow is stable

Get the Advisory: Refer to your local avalanche center for current snowpack conditions!
Get the Gear…and learn how to use it! Have these three avalanche safety essentials in your pack. :

Transceiver: so you can be found if covered by the snow

Shovel: so you can dig out your partner

Probe: so you can locate someone who has been covered by the snow

Avalanche survival rates plummet after about 15 minutes for victims who do not die from trauma. Saving your partner is up to you! Practicing realistic scenarios beforehand is essential.

Avalanche Warning Signs
The following are a few of the warning signs of unstable snow and possible avalanches:

  • You see an avalanche happen or see evidence of previous slides.
  • Cracks form in the snow around your feet or skis.
  • The ground feels hollow underfoot.
  • You hear a “whumping” sound as you walk, which indicates that the snow is settling and a slab might release.
  • Heavy snowfall or rain in the past 24 hours
  • Significant warming or rapidly increasing temperatures

You see surface patterns on the snow made by the force of strong winds. This could indicate that snow has been transported and deposited in dangerous drifts that could release.

An avalanche (also called a snowslide) 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.

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 initiated by this process are known as spontaneous avalanches. Avalanches can also be triggered by other loading conditions such as human or biologically related activities. Seismic activity may also trigger the failure in the snowpack and avalanches.

Although primarily composed of flowing snow and air, large avalanches have the capability to entrain ice, rocks, trees, and other surficial material. However, they are distinct from mudslides which have greater fluidity, rock slides which are often ice free, and serac collapses during 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 system for different forms of avalanches. Avalanches can be described by their size, their destructive potential, their initiation mechanism, their composition and their dynamics.


Most avalanches occur spontaneously during storms under increased load due to snowfall. The second largest cause of natural avalanches is metamorphic changes in the snowpack such as melting due to solar radiation. Other natural causes include rain, earthquakes, rockfall and icefall. Artificial triggers of avalanches include skiers, snowmobiles, and controlled explosive work. Avalanches are not triggered by loud sound. The pressure from sound is orders of magnitude too small to trigger an avalanche.

Avalanche initiation can start at a point with only a small amount of snow moving initially; this is typical of wet snow avalanches or avalanches in dry unconsolidated snow. However, if the snow has sintered into a stiff slab overlying a weak layer then fractures can propagate very rapidly, so that a large volume of snow, that may be thousands of cubic meters, can start moving almost simultaneously.

A snowpack will fail when the load exceeds the strength. The load is straightforward; it is the weight of the snow. However, the strength of the snowpack is much more difficult to determine and is extremely heterogenous. It varies in detail with properties of the snow grains, size, density, morphology, temperature, water content; and the properties of the bonds between the grains. These properties may all metamorphose in time according to the local humidity, water vapour flux, temperature and heat flux. The top of the snowpack is also extensively influenced by incoming radiation and the local air flow. One of the aims of avalanche research is to develop and validate computer models that can describe the evolution of the seasonal snowpack over time. A complicating factor is the complex interaction of terrain and weather, which causes significant spatial and temporal variability of the depths, crystal forms, and layering of the seasonal snowpack.

Slab avalanches

Slab avalanches form frequently in snow that has been deposited, or redeposited by wind. They have the characteristic appearance of a block (slab) of snow cut out from its surroundings by fractures. Elements of slab avalanches include the following: a crown fracture at the top of the start zone, flank fractures on the sides of the start zones, and a fracture at the bottom called the staunchwall. The crown and flank fractures are vertical walls in the snow delineating the snow that was entrained in the avalanche from the snow that remained on the slope. Slabs can vary in thickness from a few centimetres to three metres. Slab avalanches account for around 90% of avalanche-related fatalities in backcountry users.

Powder snow avalanches

The largest avalanches form turbulent suspension currents known as powder snow avalanches or mixed avalanches. These consist of a powder cloud, which overlies a dense avalanche. They can form from any type of snow or initiation mechanism, but usually occur with fresh dry powder. They can exceed speeds of 300 kilometres per hour (190 mph), and masses of 10,000,000 tonnes (9,800,000 long tons; 11,000,000 short tons); their flows can travel long distances along flat valley bottoms and even uphill for short distances.

Wet snow avalanches

In contrast to powder snow avalanches, wet snow avalanches are a low velocity suspension of snow and water, with the flow confined to the track surface (McClung, first edition 1999, page 108). The low speed of travel is due to the friction between the sliding surface of the track and the water saturated flow. Despite the low speed of travel (~10–40 km/h), wet snow avalanches are capable of generating powerful destructive forces, due to the large mass, and density. The body of the flow of a wet snow avalanche can plough through soft snow, and can scour boulders, earth, trees, and other vegetation; leaving exposed, and often scored, ground in the avalanche track. Wet snow avalanches can be initiated from either loose snow releases, or slab releases, and only occur in snow packs that are water saturated and isothermally equilibrated to the melting point of water. The isothermal characteristic of wet snow avalanches has led to the secondary term of isothermal slides found in the literature (for example in Daffern, 1999, page 93). At temperate latitudes wet snow avalanches are frequently associated with climatic avalanche cycles at the end of the winter season, when there is significant daytime warming.

Avalanche pathway

As an avalanche moves down a slope it follows a certain pathway that is dependent on the slope’s degree of steepness and the volume of snow /ice involved in the mass movement. The origin of an avalanche is called the Starting Point and typically occurs on a 30–45 degree slope. The body of the pathway is called the Track of the avalanche and usually occurs on a 20–30 degree slope. When the avalanche loses its momentum and eventually stops it reaches the Runout Zone. This usually occurs when the slope has reached a steepness that is less than 20 degrees. These degrees are not consistently true due to the fact that each avalanche is unique depending on the stability of the snowpack that it was derived from as well as the environmental or human influences that triggered the mass movement.


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