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Climate drivers of large magnitude snow avalanche years in the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains

May 11, 2021

Large magnitude snow avalanches pose a hazard to humans and infrastructure worldwide. Analyzing the spatiotemporal behavior of avalanches and the contributory climate factors is important for understanding historical variability in climate-avalanche relationships as well as improving avalanche forecasting. We used established dendrochronological methods to develop a long-term (1867–2019) regional avalanche chronology for the Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana using tree-rings from 647 trees exhibiting 2134 avalanche-related growth disturbances. We then used principal component analysis and a generalized linear autoregressive moving average model to examine avalanche-climate relationships. Historically, large magnitude regional avalanche years were characterized by stormy winters with positive snowpack anomalies, with avalanche years over recent decades increasingly influenced by warmer temperatures and a shallow snowpack. The amount of snowpack across the region, represented by the first principal component, is shown to be directly related to avalanche probability. Coincident with warming and regional snowpack reductions, a decline of ~ 14% (~ 2% per decade) in overall large magnitude avalanche probability is apparent through the period 1950–2017. As continued climate warming drives further regional snowpack reductions in the study region our results suggest a decreased probability of regional large magnitude avalanche frequency associated with winters characterized by large snowpacks and a potential increase in large magnitude events driven by warming temperatures and spring precipitation.

Publication Year 2021
Title Climate drivers of large magnitude snow avalanche years in the U.S. northern Rocky Mountains
DOI 10.1038/s41598-021-89547-z
Authors Erich Peitzsch, Gregory T. Pederson, Karl W. Birkeland, Jordy Hendrikx, Daniel B. Fagre
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Scientific Reports
Index ID 70220406
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center