Alpine Avalanche in Austria in 1999

Published: 2021-09-10 03:55:09
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The Avalanche in Austria that had killed more or less 31 people in February 1999 has been considered as the worst natural disaster during the past 30 years. The Alpine avalanche smashed into the Ischgl ski resort near the village of Galtuer. What is avalanche? Why it is happening?

These two questions provide understanding on the natural disaster that most of us are not aware or are concerned. Snow Avalanche is the speedy downslide movement of snow ice associated with assorted debris such as rocks and vegetation (Definition and Characteristic-Avalanche).

Avalanche happens when a bunch of snow becomes unstable; it then releases and speedily down slides either over an open or concerted area in an avalanche path. Its speed even reaches up to two hundred miles an hour and can wield a force strong enough to uproot or snap big trees or even destroy concrete structures. An avalanche may be preceded by an “air blast” that may also be capable of damaging buildings. Snow avalanche is a natural hazard along with rock avalanche, landslides, debris torrents that are all known as mountain slope hazards (McClung, David & Schaerer, Peter 2006, p.14).
These hazards presents serious problems for visitors and dwellers in mountainous terrain though mountain slope hazards are not as destructive as the so-called “big five” of the natural disasters such as earthquake, floods, tropical storms, drought, and volcanic eruptions. However, the Austrian avalanche in February 23, 1999 that claimed thirty-one lives mostly tourist from neighboring countries were said to be the worst alpine disaster in the world. Rescuers said aside from the 31 people dead, they rescued twenty-three of which eight were injured.
Wendelin Weingartner, governor in the western province of Tyrol commented saying, “this is a catastrophe such as we have not had for centuries. ” Eyewitness of the scene stated automobiles were trampled by big walls of snow or tossed like toy cars by the force of the avalanche. One house was sliced off its top floor as if by a giant razor blade. The disaster stranded up to seven hundred tourists in Galtuer but they were eventually flown out by the Austrian army to safety as well as the more or less 1000 foreign tourists.
The impact of this avalanche was heavily felt in the village of Galtuer, which was reach, by the raging fast moving snow avalanche in a matter of only fifty seconds destroying seven modern buildings and burying fifty-seven people. The families of the victims were outraged as the village were supposed to be safe from the threat of avalanche. Galtuer was situated two hundred meters from the base of the mountains and is considered safe from avalanche based on the computerized stimulated test showing one in one hundred-fifty year event, would not reach the village.
However, the massive built up of snow and the accumulation along the way as it slid down the mountain slope has grown so large at one hundred meters high when it trampled on the village. Investigation about what made the February 1999 Austrian avalanche so much worse than anything previously recorded revealed that from January 20 onwards series of severe storms brought warm, moist air from the Atlantic, which upon meeting with ice cold arctic air, resulted, to a record snowfalls of up to four meters.
This was followed by very strong winds of up to one hundred-twenty kilometer per hour, which had increased the depth of snow on the mountains above Galtuer. David Waugh (2000) explains that as snowfalls, “it often forms two layers separated, as in sandwich, by a weaker layer” (p. 127). The warmer weather at Galtuer at the end of January caused melting and re-freezing until there was a much greater accumulation of snow. Although avalanche higher warning was given three times in the area, but it was quite impossible to predict the exact locations of avalanche with all the thousands slopes in the region.
The build up of snow under a weak ground have made that very strong avalanche force that has brought enormous destruction on lives and properties. The February 1999 avalanche, which began at four in the afternoon of the twenty-third with a dry snow slab avalanche, fractured with a width of approximately four hundred meter. Scientist studying the nature of February 1999 avalanche discovered through a controlled experiment that avalanche increased in volume considerably as it moved downhill (Waugh 2000, p.127).
The scientist findings revealed that that the weight of snow that hit Galtuer was up to 400,000 tones and that the avalanche was one hundred meters in height and had traveled at the speed of three hundred kilometer per hour. The disastrous 1999 alpine avalanche has shown clearly that it is fundamental to have proper land use planning to protect mountain villages from the destructive effects of the snow avalanches. Walter J.
Ammann, Stefanie Dannenmann, and Laurent Vulliet stated that proper planning of land use “requires a correct risk analysis procedure which implies the evaluation of the two essential components of risk: hazard and vulnerability” (Ammann, Dannenmann, & Vulliet 2006, p. 227). The vulnerability of Austrian structures and buildings against avalanche has been directly correlated to the impact pressure. However, the vulnerability component of avalanche risk is more difficult to assess because of the scarcity of suitable data to evaluate the effects of avalanches on people and properties.
Despite of the efforts of the Austrian government to prevent the build up of snow in the mountain area, the incident that challenged the human capacity of creating safety standards against natural disasters prove to be no much against a simple actions of nature. The February 1999 avalanche in the village of Galtuer perhaps can be attributed to the human shortcomings despite of the prior efforts made to ensure the safety of everyone in the area, tourist and local people alike.
Based on available literature, comprehensive studies were done on the characteristic and nature of avalanche only after the Galtuer incident happened. This suggest that the village of Galtuer which were assured of safety from the threat of avalanche were constantly in danger as studies done previously were not really sufficient to determine the true characteristic of avalanche. Besides, hazard zoning was inefficient as most of the destroyed houses were within green zoning which dangerous to the threats of avalanche. In this case, the February 1999 avalanche came as a big surprise costing lives and damages to properties.
It was apparent that weather was particularly severe in the region with non-stop snowfalls over the duration of seven days accumulating up to 270cm. Local feedbacks about the weather condition estimates that strong winds, which are around eighty to ninety kilometer per hour, produced 10-20 tones of snow in an hour. The testimonies from survivors indicate that they were not at all expecting such tragedy would happen. A British survivor described the scenario as incredible and “absolutely terrifying” stating that a “huge cloud of snow” enclosed the village.
In his article entitled, “Lessons Learnt from Avalanche Disasters” Alessandro Colombo stated that people ignored the warning believing that the situations were improbable. The 1999 Austrian avalanche was not a single disaster that happened that particular year as more avalanche occurred although not as disastrous as what happened in February 23 of that year. The two avalanches that successively and unexpectedly occurred have left many people dead and threats of new avalanches continues to bring fears and worries to people leaving in the area and tourist alike.
The responsibility of the Austrian authorities is to make protect the safety of the people by enforcing necessary measures that will guarantee their safety. It is clear from this point that the authorities had not done enough to protect the people from the threat of the avalanche. Indeed, the Austrian authorities have been criticized for doing the evacuation earlier. Televisions and newspaper stated that that government should have taken more safety measures for the sake of the safety of the people, even at the cost of tourist business.
Conclusions What happened in February 1999 in Austria is grim reminder that man cannot underestimate the forces of nature, which usually strike in an unexpected situation. The case of the sinking of Titanic during a very peaceful condition of sea is a further reminder that authorities cannot afford to be complacent about his accomplishment particularly when it comes to keeping the safety of the people. While the Austrian authorities admit shortcomings, the disaster had already claimed lives and wrought enormous destruction to properties.
Although these events happened almost a decade ago, it is important that government take advance precautionary measures that will guaranty the safety of the people even at the expense of tourist industry. While Austrian mountain slopes continues to attract tourist from the around the world, the danger from the threats of avalanche remains. However, it is perhaps safe to assume that the lessons from the 1999 avalanche were already imbedded in the hearts and of the Austrian people. In other words, similar disasters may never happen again with the same magnitude of destruction both in humans and in properties.

Ammann, J. ,W. Dannenmann, S. & Vulliet, L. (2006)
Risk 21- Coping with Risk Due to Natural Hazards in the 21st London: Taylor and Francis Group Definition and Characteristic-Avalanche
Hopes fade to Find more Survivors from Austrian Avalanche (posted February 25, 1999)
McClung, D. & Scaerer, (2006) P. The Avalanche Handbook. USA: The Mountaineers Books Waugh, D. (2000)
Geography: An Integrated Approach UK: Nelson Thornes

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