17 Mar 2021

17 Mar 2021

Review status: this preprint is currently under review for the journal TC.

Synoptic control on snow avalanche activity in central Spitsbergen

Holt Hancock1,2, Jordy Hendrikx3, Markus Eckerstorfer4,5, and Siiri Wickström6 Holt Hancock et al.
  • 1Department of Arctic Geology, University Centre in Svalbard, N-9171 Longyearbyen, Norway
  • 2Department of Geosciences, University of Oslo, N-0371 Oslo, Norway
  • 3Snow and Avalanche Lab, Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, P.O Box 173480, Bozeman, MT, 59717, USA
  • 4Regional Climate Lab., Climate Department, NORCE Norwegian Research Centre, N-5838 Bergen, Norway
  • 5Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, N-5007 Bergen, Norway
  • 6Department of Arctic Geophysics, University Centre in Svalbard, N-9171 Longyearbyen, Norway

Abstract. Atmospheric circulation exerts an important control on a region's snow avalanche activity by broadly determining the mountain weather patterns which influence snowpack development and avalanche release. In central Spitsbergen, the largest island in the high-Arctic Svalbard archipelago, avalanches are a common natural hazard throughout the winter months. Previous work has identified a unique snow climate reflecting the region's climatically dynamic environmental setting but has not specifically addressed the synoptic-scale control of atmospheric circulation on avalanche activity here. In this work, we investigate atmospheric circulation's control on snow avalanching in the Nordenskiöld Land region of central Spitsbergen by first constructing a four-season (2016/2017–2019/2020) regional avalanche activity record using observations available on a database used by the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE). We then analyze the synoptic atmospheric conditions on days with differing avalanche activity situations. Our results show synoptic conditions conducive to elevated precipitation, wind speeds, and air temperatures near Svalbard are associated with increased avalanche activity in Nordenskiöld Land, but different synoptic signals exist for days characterized by dry, mixed, and wet avalanche activity. Differing upwind conditions help further explain differences in the frequency and nature of avalanche activity resulting from these various atmospheric circulation patterns. We further employ a daily atmospheric circulation calendar to help contextualize our results in the growing body of literature related to environmental change in this location. This work helps expand our understanding of snow avalanches in Svalbard to a broader spatial scale and provides a basis for future work investigating the impacts of environmental change on avalanche activity in Svalbard and other locations where avalanche regimes are impacted by changing climatic and synoptic conditions.

Holt Hancock et al.

Status: open (until 12 May 2021)

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Holt Hancock et al.

Data sets

Central Spitsbergen Snow Avalanche Activity (2016-2020) Holt Hancock

Holt Hancock et al.


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Short summary
We investigate how snow avalanche activity in central Spitsbergen, Svalbard is broadly controlled by atmospheric circulation. Avalanche activity in this region is generally associated with atmospheric circulation conducive to increased precipitation, wind speeds, and air temperatures near Svalbard during winter storms Our results help place avalanche activity on Spitsbergen in the wider context of Arctic environmental change and provide a foundation for improved avalanche forecasting here.