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Avalanche warning service: How an idyllic scene in the Tyrolean mountains can turn into a death trap

There were only 8 people killed in an avalanche in the winter of 2003-2004. One of the reasons for the good news is that the avalanche warning system is improving because of the new technology, the Internet and SMS. An inside view of the avalanche warning service Tyrol.



Spectacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 1
Picture by Georg Mader

31 people were killed in an avalanche in Galtür (Tyrol) in the winter of 1998-1999. Austria was in shock and a lot of people wondered if nowadays a similar natural disaster could be predicted on time. Rudi Mair of the avalanche warning system shows us spectacular photographs: a gigantic avalanche makes its way down the mountain, destroys a ski lift and comes closer and closer to a hotel.

Spectacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 2
Picture by Georg Mader

Rudi Mair explains: "A tourist took these pictures from his balcony in Hochfügen in the Zillertal on February the 24th 1999. That was one day after the incident in Galtür. It was a miracle that nobody got killed. At least twenty people could have died here as well. In spite of all precautions disasters like in Galtür can happen. Nature isn't predictable. We do our best to keep an eye on her."

Spektacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 3
Picture by Georg Mader

The tragic incidents of 1999 are one of the reasons why Tyrol has the most automatic snow measuring stations in the world. On top of that Tyrol and Switzerland have the most extensive avalanche warning systems in the whole of Europe. The avalanche danger depends on the slope of the mountain, the amount of fresh snow and on the wind. On "www.lawine.at" everybody can check on an avalanche danger scale from 1-5 how safe sporting activities are on each mountaintop and valley in Tyrol on that day. The website is updated daily.

Spectacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 4
Picture by Georg Mader

"About 85% of the avalanche disasters could have been avoided if the people would have stuck to the simple guidelines. A powder snow slope isn't only dangerous because it is steep. There are days when a shallow slope can turn into a death trap. A lot of experienced ski mountaineers have been victims of their fatal misjudgment."

Spektacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 7
Picture by Georg Mader

In order to have an effective and updated website the avalanche information has to be available on time before people start their ski tours. That's why Rudi Mair and his colleague Patrick Nairz start work in Innsbruck at 6am every day. Data of the automatic measuring stations (snow height, temperature, wind speed and wind direction) is read into a computer program and broadcasted to the valley. With the help of the university of Vienna understandable charts and graphs are made. Then countless voluntary observers who live in cottages in Tyrol are called.

Spectacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 6
Picture by Georg Mader

Rudi Mair: "In spite of all the technology the solar measuring station cannot provide information on the condition of the snow cover, whether there have already been avalanches in the morning or whether dangerous rime formed during the night. That's why observers can be lifesavers." People like Horst Frankhauser from the Franz-Senn-Hütte in Stubaital, the biggest touristy skiing area in the Eastern Alps who sends his review of the situation per email each morning or like Hans Wibmer from the Dolomitenhütte (East Tyrol) who calls with his mobile at approximately 6am every day. The avalanche warning service uses all of the information to make a short reportage broadcasted on Radio Tyrol at 7.30am. Subscribers like tourists or hut hosts can also receive the daily report by email or SMS.

Spektacular and threatening together: The foto series of an avalanche in Hochfügen in the Ziller Valley in 1999: Picture 7
Picture by Georg Mader

About 15 times each winter, the members of the avalanche warning service try to get an idea of the practical experience in the various valleys of the Alps by flying over the area by helicopter of the Ministry of the Interior or the Federal Armed Forces with the local Avalanche Commission. Flying by helicopter may seem like a joy ride but in reality it is hard work: at exemplary spots 2-meter-deep so called "snow profiles" have to be dug into the snow with a shovel and a saw. Snow experts can get information out of these "profiles" like botanists out of annual rings: different kinds of snow and crystal structures of the snow flakes can be distinguished. The durability and how much weight the to be tested "snow profile" can bear are examined with a pencil, the fist of the examiner or a test skier. This is a good way to find out if an 11-day-old snow layer located 50 cm beneath the surface will remain stable or turn into a danger when skied on.

Despite all of the research the avalanche experts warn: Be careful when you aren't skiing on secured slopes because nature is not predictable!


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© A report by Tobias Micke (09-12-04) – Contact