Temporal trends in avalanche activity in the French Alps and subregions: from occurrences and runout altitudes to unsteady return periods

Eckert, N. ; Keylock, C. J. ; Castebrunet, Hélène ; Lavigne, A. ; Naaim, M.

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We present an analysis of temporal trends in ∼55 000 avalanches recorded between 1946 and 2010 in the French Alps and two north/south subregions. First, Bayesian hierarchical modelling is used to isolate low-, intermediate- and high-frequency trends in the mean avalanche occurrence and runout altitude per year/winter. Variables are then combined to investigate their correlation and the recent evolution of large avalanches. Comparisons are also made to climatic and flow regime covariates. The results are important for risk assessment, and the development of new high-altitude climate proxies. At the entire French Alps scale, a major change-point exists in ∼1978 at the heart of a 10 year period of high occurrences and low runout altitudes corresponding to colder and snowier winters. The differences between this change-point and the beginning/end of the study period are 0.1 avalanche occurrences per winter and per path and 55 m in runout altitude. Trends before/after are well correlated, leading to enhanced minimal altitudes for large avalanches at this time. A marked upslope retreat (80 m for the 10 year return period runout altitude) accompanied by a 12% decrease in the proportion of powder snow avalanches has occurred since then, interrupted from about 2000. The snow-depth and temperature control on these patterns seems significant (R = 0.4-0.6), but is stronger at high frequencies for occurrences, and at lower frequencies for runout altitudes. Occurrences between the northern and southern French Alps are partially coupled (R∼0.4, higher at low frequencies). In the north, the main change-point was an earlier shift in ∼1977, and winter snow depth seems to be the main control parameter. In the south, the main change-point occurred later, ∼1979-84, was more gradual, and trends are more strongly correlated with winter temperature.
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