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Upslope migration of snow avalanches in a warming climate [Environmental Sciences]
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America  (IF11.205),  Pub Date : 2021-11-02, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2107306118
Florie Giacona, Nicolas Eckert, Christophe Corona, Robin Mainieri, Samuel Morin, Markus Stoffel, Brice Martin, Mohamed Naaim

Snow is highly sensitive to atmospheric warming. However, because of the lack of sufficiently long snow avalanche time series and statistical techniques capable of accounting for the numerous biases inherent to sparse and incomplete avalanche records, the evolution of process activity in a warming climate remains little known. Filling this gap requires innovative approaches that put avalanche activity into a long-term context. Here, we combine extensive historical records and Bayesian techniques to construct a 240-y chronicle of snow avalanching in the Vosges Mountains (France). We show evidence that the transition from the late Little Ice Age to the early twentieth century (i.e., 1850 to 1920 CE) was not only characterized by local winter warming in the order of +1.35 °C but that this warming also resulted in a more than sevenfold reduction in yearly avalanche numbers, a severe shrinkage of avalanche size, and shorter avalanche seasons as well as in a reduction of the extent of avalanche-prone terrain. Using a substantial corpus of snow and climate proxy sources, we explain this abrupt shift with increasingly scarcer snow conditions with the low-to-medium elevations of the Vosges Mountains (600 to 1,200 m above sea level [a.s.l.]). As a result, avalanches migrated upslope, with only a relict activity persisting at the highest elevations (release areas >1,200 m a.s.l.). This abrupt, unambiguous response of snow avalanche activity to warming provides valuable information to anticipate likely changes in avalanche behavior in higher mountain environments under ongoing and future warming.