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Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-2020-253
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-2020-253
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  20 Aug 2020

20 Aug 2020

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal NHESS.

A regional spatio-temporal analysis of large magnitude snow avalanches using tree rings

Erich Peitzsch1,2, Jordy Hendrikx2, Daniel Stahle1, Gregory Pederson1, Karl Birkeland3,2, and Daniel Fagre1 Erich Peitzsch et al.
  • 1U.S. Geological Survey Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, West Glacier, Montana, USA
  • 2Snow and Avalanche Lab, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana, USA
  • 3U.S.D.A. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, Bozeman, Montana, USA

Abstract. Snow avalanches affect transportation corridors and settlements worldwide. In many mountainous regions, robust records of avalanche frequency and magnitude are sparse or non-existent. However, dendrochronological methods can be used to fill this gap and infer historic avalanche patterns. In this study, we developed a tree-ring based avalanche chronology for large magnitude avalanche events using dendrochronological techniques for a sub-region of the northern United States Rocky Mountains. We used a strategic sampling design to examine avalanche activity through time and across nested spatial scales (i.e. from individual paths, four distinct sub-regions, and the region). We analysed 673 total samples from 647 suitable trees collected from 12 avalanche paths, from which 2,134 growth disturbances were identified over years 1636 to 2017 Common Era (C.E.). Using existing indexing approaches, we developed a regional avalanche activity index to discriminate avalanche events from noise in the tree-ring record. Large magnitude avalanches common across the region occurred in 30 individual years and exhibited a median return interval of approximately three years (mean = 5.21 years). The median large magnitude avalanche return interval (3–8 years) and the total number of avalanche years (12–18) vary throughout the four sub-regions, suggesting the important influence of local terrain and weather factors. We tested subsampling routines for regional representation, finding that sampling eight random paths out of a total of 12 avalanche paths in the region captures up to 83 % of the regional chronology, whereas four paths capture only 43 % to 73 %. The greatest value probability of detection for any given path in our dataset is 40 % suggesting that sampling a single path would capture no more than 40 % of the regional avalanche activity. Results emphasize the importance of sample size, scale, and spatial extent when attempting to derive a regional large magnitude avalanche event chronology from tree-ring records.

Erich Peitzsch et al.

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Erich Peitzsch et al.

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Tree ring dataset for a regional avalanche chronology in northwest Montana, 1636-2017: U.S. Geological Survey data release E. H. Peitzsch, D. K. Stahle, D. B. Fagre, A. M. Clark, G. T. Pederson, J. Hendrikx and K. W. Birkeland https://doi.org/10.5066/P9TLHZAI

Erich Peitzsch et al.

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Short summary
We sampled 647 trees from 12 avalanche paths to investigate large snow avalanches over the past 400 years in the northern Rocky Mountains, USA. Sizable avalanches occur approximately every three years across the region. Our results emphasize the importance of sample size, scale, and spatial extent when reconstructing avalanche occurrence across a region. This work can be used for infrastructure planning and avalanche forecasting operations.
We sampled 647 trees from 12 avalanche paths to investigate large snow avalanches over the past...
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