Terrain parameters of glide snow avalanches and a simple spatial glide snow avalanche model

Cold Regions Science and Technology
By: , and 



Glide snow avalanches are dangerous and difficult to predict. Despite substantial recent research there is still inadequate understanding regarding the controls of glide snow avalanche release. Glide snow avalanches often occur in similar terrain or the same locations annually, and repeat observations and prior work suggest that specific topography may be critical. Thus, to gain a better understanding of the terrain component of these types of avalanches we examined terrain parameters associated with the specific area of glide snow avalanche release in comparison to avalanche starting zones where no glide snow avalanches were observed (i.e. non-glide snow avalanche terrain).

Glide snow avalanche occurrences visible from the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor in Glacier National Park, Montana from 2003 to 2013 are investigated using a database of all avalanche occurrences derived of daily observations each year from 1 April to 1 June. This yielded 192 glide snow avalanches in 53 distinct avalanche paths. Each avalanche was digitized in a GIS using satellite, oblique, and aerial imagery as reference. A set of 117 non-glide snow avalanche starting zones were also selected in this manner. These were start zones with avalanche activity potential, but without glide avalanches observed. Topographical parameters such as area, slope, aspect, curvature, potential incoming solar radiation, distance from ridge, and elevation were then derived for the entire dataset utilizing tools with a GIS and a 10 m DEM. Ground class and a glide factor were calculated using a four level classification index with in-situ observations and a land surface type layer in a GIS.

A total of 21 terrain variables were examined using a univariate analysis between areas where glide snow avalanches occurred and areas where glide snow avalanches were never observed, despite crack formation. Only two variables were not significantly different. The significantly different variables were then used to train a classification tree to distinguish between glide and non-glide snow avalanche terrain. A 10-fold cross validated tree resulted in four decision nodes to classify the data. The nodes split on glide factor, maximum slope angle, seasonal sum of incoming solar radiation, and maximum curvature to distinguish between glide snow avalanche and non-glide snow avalanche terrain with an unweighted average accuracy (RPC) of 0.95 and probability of detection of events (POD) of 0.99.

Finally, the results of the cross-validated tree were used in a GIS to examine other areas, not used in the training dataset of the classification tree, of potential glide snow avalanche release within Glacier National Park. Using this understanding of the role of topographic parameters on glide snow avalanche activity, a spatial terrain based model was developed to identify other areas with high glide snow avalanche potential outside of the immediate observation area. This simple spatial model correctly classified 78 percent of actual glide snow avalanche terrain (pixel count) of a small test area of four independent observed glide snow avalanches.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Terrain parameters of glide snow avalanches and a simple spatial glide snow avalanche model
Series title Cold Regions Science and Technology
DOI 10.1016/j.coldregions.2015.08.002
Volume 120
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Description 14 p.
First page 237
Last page 250
Country United States
State Montana
Other Geospatial Glacier National Park
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details