Chile and Nepal- Forest Protecting against Snow Avalanches

Snow avalanches threaten towns, people and transport systems in many mountainous regions throughout the world. A growing body of scientific evidence, however, shows that forests have in some instances the potential to prevent an avalanche from starting, which immediately makes them a valuable protective measure.

In addition to the many ecological benefits which healthy forests can play in mountain ecosystems, taking advantage of their protective role also has significant economic savings as expensive alternatives in the form of snow retaining structures may no longer have to be considered.

The protective capacity of mountain forests, however, varies with the type and structure of the forest – the age of trees, the extent of their root development and the species, for example, as well as other climate and geological factors. Different strategies may though be used to optimise this protective function in some instances, including good management of the forest resources.

For optimal management of mountain forests for disaster risk reduction, three important requirements need to be met:

  • good information needs to be available on local forest-avalanche interactions;
  • forest management practices are integrated into avalanche dynamics models and risk analysis; and
  • appropriate strategies are developed to manage different mountain forest ecosystems in
  • particular parts of the world.

This project is being implemented in contrasting environments in Chile and Nepal, where avalanche risk features high among people’s concerns. Preliminary models will be chosen from work in the Swiss Alps and other mountain chains where similar phenomena occur, this being adapted to the local contexts in each case. Close consultation will be held with at-risk and vulnerable communities, local government departments and national and regional scientists.

Among the key activities anticipated through this work are:

Understanding the risks in the specific locations, including people’s vulnerability to snow avalanches;
Promoting recognition for, and use of the role of, vegetation in avalanche models;
Building local capacity so that actions which are started can continue after the project is completed; and
Informing scientists, planners, policy- and decision-makers of lessons learned and best practices through the use of appropriate modeling for snow avalanche-forest scenarios.

This initiative is being conducted by the WSL-Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, SLF, Switzerland, IUCN in Nepal and Chile, government research authorities, local NGOs and involved communities.