Modelling wet snow avalanche runout to assess road safety at a high-altitude mine in the central Andes
Mining activities in cold regions are vulnerable to snow avalanches. Unlike operational facilities, which can be constructed in secure locations outside the reach of avalanches, access roads are often susceptible to being cut, leading to mine closures and significant financial losses. In this paper we discuss the application of avalanche runout modelling to predict the operational risk to mining roads, a long-standing problem for mines in high-altitude, snowy regions. We study the 35 km long road located in the "Cajón del rio Blanco" valley in the central Andes, which is operated by the Codelco Andina copper mine. In winter and early spring, this road is threatened by over 100 avalanche paths. If the release and snow cover conditions can be accurately specified, we find that avalanche dynamics modelling is able to represent runout, and safe traffic zones can be identified. We apply a detailed, physics-based snow cover model to calculate snow temperature, density and moisture content in three-dimensional terrain. This information is used to determine the initial and boundary conditions of the avalanche dynamics model. Of particular importance is the assessment of the current snow conditions along the avalanche tracks, which define the mass and thermal energy entrainment rates and therefore the possibility of avalanche growth and long runout distances.