• France's news in English
What makes the French Alps so risky for avalanches?
Photo: AFP

What makes the French Alps so risky for avalanches?

The Local · 20 Jan 2016, 08:42

Published: 20 Jan 2016 08:42 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

France has seen five deadly Alpine avalanches so far this winter, claiming 12 lives, eight of them in the past

The string of tragedies is explained partly by weather conditions but also probably by ill-advised risk-taking, experts said.

What causes avalanches?

Most avalanches are the result of a combination of weather and geological factors.

In general, an avalanche results from fresh heavy snowfall that fails to stick to snow already on the ground.

This was the case for Monday's avalanche, which killed five members of the French Foreign Legion.

The incline of the spot where the avalanche originates is a main factor determining its size -- that avalanche was some 400 metres (1,300 feet) wide and slid some 250 metres.

Another scenario is that of violent wind following a moderate snowfall at low or very low temperatures. The wind carries large quantities of snow that can then break up depending on the slope and the state of the ground underneath.

That was the case in the avalanche that occurred last Wednesday, killing two high school students and a Ukrainian tourist, experts say.

"That's a typical case of a wind slab, that is a slab of snow formed by very strong wind," Dominique Letang, director of the National Agency for the Study of Snow and Avalanches (ANENA) told AFP.

At temperatures below -15 Celsius (5 Fahrenheit), far lighter snowfall can lead to an avalanche less than a metre thick.

Spring thaws bring another type of avalanche, with snowlides depending on how fast the snowpack melts.

Why so many?

The instability of the Alps' snow cover is the result of an unusually mild autumn, according to Letang.

"Snow fell at the end of November onto warm ground then began to change," he said, adding: "The base level of the snow is not sticking together. It's something that is neither sticking to the ground nor the snow that is falling on top of it."

ANENA appealed for vigilance three days before both of the latest tragedies, with an avalanche risk level of three on a scale of five in both areas.

At level three, a single skier can unleash a snowslide, while ski areas are closed when the top level is reached.

Each year between 500 and 1,500 avalanches are recorded in the French Alps.

Avalanche corridors are identified in most European countries, and in skiing areas explosives are used to set them off artificially.

Are the Alps more dangerous this winter?

Dozens die each year in avalanches in France's popular ski resorts. At least 45 people died in snowslides during the 2014-15 winter season in France, according to ANENA, more than double the previous year's 20.

Story continues below…

ANENA data show that between 1971 and 2011, avalanche accidents averaged 21, with an average of 30 fatalities.

Letang said that while more and more people are using areas that have not been cleared as safe, the surge has not been matched by an increase in fatalities.

How can the deaths be minimised?

Group members are advised to spread out, leaving some 20 metres between each other, to help avoid setting off a snowslide.

"People should observe a big safety distance when the snow cover is unstable," Letang said. "Even if you won't avoid the avalanche, it would carry off one person, not 13" as in Monday's accident.

SEE ALSO: How to avoid risks of deadly Alps avalanches

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Paris: 'Flying' water taxis to be tested on River Seine
Photo: SeaBubbles

An in Seine idea surely? But tests will go ahead.

France joins fight for rich pickings from post-Brexit UK
Photo: AFP/DcnH/Flickr

France tries to woo EU's bank regulator and other agencies.

How speaking French can really mess up your English
Photo: CollegeDegree360/Flickr

So you've mastered French, but now it's time to learn English all over again.

French claims that Jungle camp is empty are rubbished
Photo: AFP

Reports from the scene say scores of migrants are still in the area of the Jungle despite French authorities claiming "mission fulfilled."

Kidnapped Riviera millionaire left tied up in car boot in Nice
Photo: AFP

Head of luxury Cannes hotel has been found alive after being kidnapped in Nice on Monday.

Paris landlords still charging illegally high rents
Photo: Panoramas/Flickr

... and it's tenants in the smaller apartments that get hit the hardest. Could you be paying too much?

France takes baby steps to make life simpler
Photo: AFP

... including extending the ridiculously short time limit for registering a new baby.

IN PICTURES: Calais Jungle camp goes up in flames
All Photos: AFP

Migrants leave behind a scorched camp as they are moved to locations across France.

French expats in UK suffer Brexit abuse
French ambassador to the UK Sylvie Bermann with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Photo: AFP

French nationals no longer feel at home in the UK, ambassador says. But Brits in France have been greeted with sympathy since the referendum.

Six to go on trial in France over topless Kate photos
Photo: AFP

The topless pics sparked fury among the royals.

The annoying questions only a half French, half Brit can answer
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Forget Brangelina's chateau - here are nine others you've got to see
The must-see French films of the millennium - Part One
How life for expats in France has changed over the years
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
jobs available