Avalanches Are Yet Another Problem That Will Become More Common With Climate Change

The Himalayas are beautiful, but dangerous. Chris Jackson - Pool/Getty Images

A little snow turns our world into a winter wonderland, but when too much snow piles up, it can become deadly. Nineteen people have already died from avalanches this year in the U.S. alone. Even though climate change means many places will see less snow, that doesn't necessarily mean avalanches will become rarer, according to a new paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

That paper looked at avalanches in the Western Indian Himalayas over the past 150 years. That makes it the first study to look at avalanche risk in the region, nicknamed the 'Third Pole'. But the new paper's conclusions match the general takeaway from studies conducted in other parts of the world: avalanches are getting worse, and will continue to do so.

The team pinpointed avalanches using a type of data common in climate studies, tree rings. But where scientists usually use these records to piece together rainfall rates, in this case they looked at scars left behind by avalanches—after all, avalanches are a brutal experience for any life in their path, not just humans. Those trees showed few scars between the 1940s and 1960s, but lots of scars in the 1970s and from 1989 to 2003.

Next, the scientists looked at climate data from the same period and realized that both warm temperatures between December and March and more snow in January and February tend to mean more avalanches.

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They believe the reason for this trend has to do with the characteristics of the snow: warmer temperatures mean wetter snow, which forms avalanches more easily. Wetter avalanches can also be more damaging, the study authors write, since the snow in them experiences less friction, which means it can travel farther.