Articles | Volume 71, issue 2
Geogr. Helv., 71, 147–159, 2016
Geogr. Helv., 71, 147–159, 2016

Standard article 28 Jun 2016

Standard article | 28 Jun 2016

Avalanche fatalities in the European Alps: long-term trends and statistics

Frank Techel1, Frédéric Jarry2, Georg Kronthaler3, Susanna Mitterer4, Patrick Nairz5, Miha Pavšek6, Mauro Valt7,8, and Gian Darms1 Frank Techel et al.
  • 1WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Davos, Switzerland
  • 2Association Nationale pour l'Étude de la Neige et des Avalanches, Grenoble, France
  • 3Lawinenwarndienst Bayern, Munich, Germany
  • 4Österreichisches Kuratorium für alpine Sicherheit, Innsbruck, Austria
  • 5Lawinenwarndienst Tirol, Innsbruck, Austria
  • 6Anton Melik Geographical Institute, Research Centre of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • 7Associazione Interregionale Neve e Valanghe, Trento, Italy
  • 8Centro Valanghe di Arabba, Arabba, Italy

Abstract. Avalanche accidents, particularly those resulting in fatalities, attract substantial attention from policy makers and organizations, as well as from the media and the public. Placing fatal accidents in a wider context requires long-term and robust statistics. However, avalanche accident statistics, like most other accident statistics, often rely on relatively small sample sizes, with single multi-fatality events and random effects having a potentially large influence on summary and trend statistics. Additionally, trend interpretation is challenging because statistics are generally explored at a national level, and studies vary in both the period covered and the methods. Here, we addressed these issues by combining the avalanche fatality data from the European Alps (Austria, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland) for three different periods between 1937 and 2015 and applying the same data analysis methodology. During the last four decades, about 100 people lost their lives each year in the Alps. Despite considerable inter-annual variation, this number has remained relatively constant in the last decades. However, exploring fatality numbers by the location of the victims at the time of the avalanche revealed two partly opposing trends. The number of fatalities in controlled terrain (settlements and transportation corridors) has decreased significantly since the 1970s. In contrast to this development, the number of fatalities in uncontrolled terrain (mostly recreational accidents) almost doubled between the 1960s and 1980s and has remained relatively stable since then, despite a strong increase in the number of winter backcountry recreationists. Corresponding to these trends, the proportion of fatalities in uncontrolled terrain increased from 72 to 97 %. These long-term trends were evident in most national statistics. Further, the temporal correlation between subsets of the Alpine fatality data, and between some of the national statistics, suggests that time series covering a longer period may be used as an indicator for missing years in shorter-duration datasets. Finally, statistics from countries with very few incidents should be compared to, or analysed together with, those from neighbouring countries exhibiting similar economical and structural developments and characteristics.

Short summary
During the last 45 years, about 100 people lost their lives in avalanches in the European Alps each year. Avalanche fatalities in settlements and on transportation corridors have considerably decreased since the 1970s. In contrast, the number of avalanche fatalities during recreational activities away from avalanche-secured terrain doubled between the 1960s and 1980s and has remained relatively stable since, despite a continuing strong increase in winter backcountry recreational activities.