Articles | Volume 14, issue 9
Research article
 | Highlight paper
11 Sep 2018
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 11 Sep 2018

Wet avalanches: long-term evolution in the Western Alps under climate and human forcing

Laurent Fouinat, Pierre Sabatier, Fernand David, Xavier Montet, Philippe Schoeneich, Eric Chaumillon, Jérôme Poulenard, and Fabien Arnaud

Abstract. Understanding wet avalanche intensity and the role of past environmental changes on wet avalanche occurrence is a main concern especially in the context of a warming climate and accelerated environmental mutations. Avalanches are closely related to fast cryosphere changes and may cause major threats to human society. Here, we used the sedimentary archive of the Alpine Lake Lauvitel (Lac du Lauvitel; western French Alps) to establish the first long-term avalanche record in this Alpine region. For this purpose, we used a novel CT-scan methodology that allows the precise identification of coarse material – from sand to pebble – transported to the lake and embedded within the finer continuous sedimentation. We identified a total of 166 deposits over the last 3300 yr cal. BP. In parallel, a detailed pollen analysis gave an independent record of environmental changes. Based on modern observation, lake monitoring, seismic investigations and sedimentological evidences, coarse material deposits were attributed to wet avalanche events. Our results highlight the effect of vegetation cover on the avalanche hazard while a period of strong frequency increase occurred after 780 yr cal. BP. In Lake Lauvitel, this period corresponds to a major forest clearance induced by the rise of human land use. Climate forcing on the avalanche hazard was investigated before and after the vegetation shift. On a multicentennial scale, wet avalanches preferably occur during periods of larger glacier extent, in which higher winter precipitation probably generates a sufficiently thick snow cover. On a sub-centennial scale, avalanches are more frequent during periods of relative warming, resulting in a destabilization of the same snow cover in spring season. Our results highlight as well the role of forest cover in mitigating wet snow avalanches' occurrence. In the context of predicted warmer temperatures, this study raises the question of whether a wet avalanche hazard increase may be expected in the near future especially at higher altitudes.

Short summary
In the context of a warming climate, mountain environments are especially vulnerable to a change in the risk pattern. Our study focuses on the past evolution of wet avalanches, likely triggered by warmer temperatures destabilizing the snow cover. In the last 3300 years we observed an increase of wet avalanche occurrence related to human activities, intensifying pressure on forest cover, as well as favorable climate conditions such as warmer temperatures coinciding with retreating glacier phases.