Swiss National Avalanche Warning: Scope, Operations and Transfers

De Mendoza CONICET

Switzerland has a mid-latitude location, an intermediate position between oceanic and continental air masses and an altitudinal spread of more than 4000 m or 13.125 ft. About 70 % of its total area of 41.285 km2 is alpine terrain where 20 % of the 7.3 million inhabitants live. About 10 million tourists are estimated to visit Switzerland per year. Several vital transport routes, railway and road, cross the Swiss Alps from north to south. Its geographic and climatic settings make Switzerland prone to natural hazards such as gravitational mass movements, floods, storms and forest fires. Within the framework of the integral risk management in Switzerland, measures to mitigate risk from natural hazards are manifold yet strongly interrelated: active and passive measures such as construction standards and hazard zone mapping as well as permanent and temporary measures such as protective structures and (early) warning services.

The task of avalanche warning has been organized nationally in Switzerland since 1931, when the Federal Avalanche Commission was inaugurated. The Swiss Army first initiated avalanche warning. In 1945, the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) took over the task, transferring it into a civil service. Today, the Swiss National Avalanche Forecasting Service (about 6 million CHF) is mainly financed by the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) and the Federal Environmental Agency (BAFU). The responsibilities assigned to SLF are avalanche forecasting and prevention. Located at SLF, the avalanche-warning centre benefits greatly from its close collaboration with snow and avalanche scientists and technicians. It also facilitates an efficient adaptation of new developments to the needs of experts and the public.

The Swiss National Avalanche Warning Service is presented as an example for a mature national warning system, which enjoys a good international reputation and serves as model for other natural hazard warning systems. In the first part, an overview of the Swiss avalanche forecasting and early-warning systems and operations is given. Secondly, SLF’s role and means in snow and avalanche education are shown. At last we show examples of how we bring our experience and methods in avalanche warning and prevention forward to the mitigation of other natural hazards in Switzerland.

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