Risk Analysis

Dealing with the White Death: Avalanche Risk Management for Traffic Routes

Journal Article

This article discusses mitigation strategies to protect traffic routes from snow avalanches. Up to now, mitigation of snow avalanches on many roads and railways in the Alps has relied on avalanche sheds, which require large initial investments resulting in high opportunity costs. Therefore, avalanche risk managers have increasingly adopted organizational mitigation measures such as warning systems and closure policies instead. The effectiveness of these measures is, however, greatly dependent on human decisions. In this article, we present a method for optimizing avalanche mitigation for traffic routes in terms of both their risk reduction impact and their net benefit to society. First, we introduce a generic framework for assessing avalanche risk and for quantifying the impact of mitigation. This allows for sound cost‐benefit comparisons between alternative mitigation strategies. Second, we illustrate the framework with a case study from Switzerland. Our findings suggest that site‐specific characteristics of avalanche paths, as well as the economic importance of a traffic route, are decisive for the choice of optimal mitigation strategies. On routes endangered by few avalanche paths with frequent avalanche occurrences, structural measures are most efficient, whereas reliance on organizational mitigation is often the most appropriate strategy on routes endangered by many paths with infrequent or fuzzy avalanche risk. Finally, keeping a traffic route open may be very important for tourism or the transport industry. Hence, local economic value may promote the use of a hybrid strategy that combines organizational and structural measures to optimize the resource allocation of avalanche risk mitigation.

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