Automated identification of potential snow avalanche release areas based on digital elevation models
The identification of snow avalanche release areas is a very difficult task. The release mechanism of snow avalanches depends on many different terrain, meteorological, snowpack and triggering parameters and their interactions, which are very difficult to assess. In many alpine regions such as the Indian Himalaya, nearly no information on avalanche release areas exists mainly due to the very rough and poorly accessible terrain, the vast size of the region and the lack of avalanche records. However avalanche release information is urgently required for numerical simulation of avalanche events to plan mitigation measures, for hazard mapping and to secure important roads. The Rohtang tunnel access road near Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India, is such an example. By far the most reliable way to identify avalanche release areas is using historic avalanche records and field investigations accomplished by avalanche experts in the formation zones. But both methods are not feasible for this area due to the rough terrain, its vast extent and lack of time. Therefore, we develop an operational, easy-to-use automated potential release area (PRA) detection tool in Python/ArcGIS which uses high spatial resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) and forest cover information derived from airborne remote sensing instruments as input. Such instruments can acquire spatially continuous data even over inaccessible terrain and cover large areas. We validate our tool using a database of historic avalanches acquired over 56 yr in the neighborhood of Davos, Switzerland, and apply this method for the avalanche tracks along the Rohtang tunnel access road. This tool, used by avalanche experts, delivers valuable input to identify focus areas for more-detailed investigations on avalanche release areas in remote regions such as the Indian Himalaya and is a precondition for large-scale avalanche hazard mapping.