Abnormally warm weather forces Swiss ski resorts to take early avalanche action

Authorities in the Swiss Alps are carrying out controlled anti-avalanche explosions earlier in the year than ever.

Abnormally warm weather forces Swiss ski resorts to take early avalanche action
Photo: AFP

Avalanche control teams in Switzerland’s mountainous Valais canton have brought forward detonations in the region’s many ski slopes to counteract the unusually warm temperatures for this time of year. 

Typically the risk of avalanches in the mountainous region increases in March or April, but Switzerland’s Institute of Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) has decided not to run any risks given that the snowpack in February is already wetter and weaker than usual.

“These changes in the snowpack have arrived a month early because of sunny and warmer weather conditions,” Thierry Meyer, president of the region’s security and patrol team, told Swiss daily Le Temps.

Even though the risk of a dry avalanche stands at 1 out of 5, the chances of a wet avalanche taking place are far higher (3 out of 5), especially on ski slopes to the south of Valais below 2,800 metres.

Avalanche professionals make a clear distinction between dry and wet avalanches as they are triggered by different factors and move differently down the slope.

Usually wet avalanches are caused by rain, prolonged periods of sunshine and higher temperatures, whereas dry landslides are often caused by skiers putting too much pressure on the snowpack.

Wet avalanches also tend to move slower down the slopes (16-32km/h) compared to dry avalanches (around 120 km/h) but still pose a serious risk to skiers.

“Perhaps we’re being over-cautious but these are the worst wet snow conditions we’ve had,” Meyer explains.

“Wet avalanches can happen all of a sudden, so carrying out preventative explosions can increase our chances of success, although it isn’t always effective with wet snow.”

The news come just days after a French ski patroller died after an avalanche struck a ski slope in Valais


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Switzerland heavily criticised for welcoming foreign skiers

Italy has hit out at Switzerland for failing to prevent foreign skiers from hitting the slopes. Some have gone so far as to blame Switzerland for the spread of virus mutations across Europe.

Switzerland heavily criticised for welcoming foreign skiers
The mighty Matterhorn lies on the border with Italy. Photo by AFP
Italy's government last week blocked ski resorts from reopening, the day before skiing was due to be allowed for the first time this winter season due to coronavirus restrictions.
There is also a ban on non-essential travel until February 25th.

“It's a disaster. For a week now, we have been readying the slopes for the opening and preparing the health protocol,” said Denis Trabucchi, an Italian ski instructor. 

But the ban has not stopped Italian snow enthusiasts from hitting the slopes on the Swiss side of the border, as Switzerland has kept its ski infrastructure open despite the pandemic.

Many Swiss and Italian pistes lie close to each other so it is an easy commute from one resort to another.

The mayors of Italian border towns are annoyed that local skiers are ‘emigrating’ to Swiss ski slopes, according to the Provincio di Como newspaper.

“Cross-border skiers are not as numerous as cross-border workers, of course, but ski traffic has increased,” said Massimiliano Tam, mayor of Villa di Chiavenna, a town in Lombardy.

He said that despite bans on such border hopping, many Italians rent apartments on the Swiss side of the frontier so they can ski.

Roberto Galli, the mayor of Livigno, a ski resort in the Italian Alps, is also livid at the “cross-border ski mobility”.

“Customs controls are really limited” he said, calling for more rigorous checks “especially for Italian cars with ski racks and snow on the roof”.

Italian authorities even went as far as blaming Switzerland for the spread of the pandemic across Europe. 

Walter Ricciardi, the head of the Italian government's coronavirus task force, said Switzerland's decision to keep ski slopes open throughout winter, while neighbouring countries shut down theirs, allowed the British strain of coronavirus to arrive on the continent.

READ MORE: Is Switzerland to blame for Europe’s third wave of coronavirus?

A similar situation occurred in December, when French skiers tried to sneak into Switzerland to ski.

France’s authorities quickly announced that French residents heading abroad to ski would have to self-isolate for seven days on return and that border checks would be stepped up in certain areas. 

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are the Covid-19 rules for skiing in Switzerland this winter?