Big avalanches in a changing climate: Using tree-ring derived avalanche chronologies to examine avalanche frequency across multiple climate types

Large-magnitude snow avalanches pose a hazard to humans and infrastructure worldwide. Analyzing the spatiotemporal behavior of avalanches and the contributory climate factors is important for understanding historical variability in climate-avalanche relationships as well as improving avalanche forecasting. This study uses established dendrochronological methods to develop long-term regional avalanche chronologies for three different climate types: high-latitude maritime climate of southeast Alaska, intermountain climate of the northern Rocky Mountains, and continental climate of Colorado. In the maritime study area, we collected 434 cross sections throughout six avalanche paths near Juneau, Alaska. This resulted in 2706 identified avalanche growth disturbances between year 1720 and 2018 Common Era (CE), which allowed us to reconstruct 82 years with large magnitude avalanche activity across three sub-regions. By combining this tree-ring derived avalanche dataset with a suite of climate and atmospheric variables and applying a generalized linear model to fit a binomial regression, we found February and March precipitation and the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) were significant predictors of large magnitude avalanche activity in the southeast Alaska study area. In the intermountain climate study area, tree-rings from 647 trees exhibited 2134 avalanche-related growth disturbances in the northern Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana from 1867 to 2019. The data show that the amount of snowpack across the northern Rocky Mountain region is directly related to avalanche probability. Coincident with warming and regional snowpack reductions, a decline of ~ 14% (~ 2% per decade) in overall large magnitude avalanche probability is apparent through the period 1950–2017 CE. In the continental climate of Colorado, we sampled 24 avalanche paths throughout the state and collected 1188 total samples with 4135 identified growth disturbances from 1698 to 2019. Preliminary results suggest years with large magnitude avalanche activity across the sub-regions of this study area are generally characterized by stormy winters with above average snowpack development but that early and late winter temperature and precipitation also play an important role in large avalanche activity. Characterizing historical climate-avalanche relationships across different climate types provides a broad baseline for understanding potential future changes in avalanche activity. Overall, this work helps forecasters and planners better understand the influence of climate on large magnitude avalanche frequency, and how potential changes in avalanche character and occurrence will affect their operations in the context of a warming climate.


Peitzsch, E.H., Pederson, G.T., Martin, J.T., Hood, E., Greene, E.M., Birkeland, K.W., Elder, K., Wolken, G.J., Kichas, N., Stahle, D.K., and Harley, J.R.. 2023. Big avalanches in a changing climate: Using tree-ring derived avalanche chronologies to examine avalanche frequency across multiple climate types. International Snow Science Workshop Proceedings. 547 – 553.