Types of Avalanches

Types of Avalanches | Avalanche Safety 101

Avalanches are powerful natural events that pose significant risks in winter backcountry environments. To navigate these dangers safely, understanding the various types of avalanches is essential. Avalanches can be categorized by several criteria, including size, problem, cause, and form.

This guide focuses on categorization by form, which helps in identifying the different physical characteristics of avalanches and understanding the conditions under which they occur. By recognizing these forms, outdoor enthusiasts can better assess avalanche hazards and make informed decisions while exploring snowy terrains.

Table of Contents

Categories of Avalanches

There are a number of different ways to characterize and compare avalanches:

  • Size: Avalanches are often categorized by their size, which can range from small slides that affect limited areas to large, destructive events that can cover vast expanses.
  • Problem: This categorization refers to the specific avalanche problems present, such as persistent weak layers or wind slabs, which inform risk assessment and management strategies.
  • Cause: Avalanches can also be categorized by their triggers, distinguishing between naturally occurring avalanches and those triggered by human activity.
  • Form: This classification looks at the physical characteristics of the avalanche, such as whether it’s a slab avalanche or a loose snow avalanche. It’s the approach used in this guide to help readers visualize and understand the mechanics behind each type.

 

By focusing on form, we delve into the common types of avalanches, their unique features, and the scenarios that typically lead to their formation. This approach aids in the practical assessment of terrain and conditions for safety purposes.

5 Primary Types of Avalanches

There are five main types of avalanches you should know about: loose snow, slab, powder, wet, and cornice fall slides. Here is information on each of them and the risk they create.

Slab Avalanches

Slab avalanches are the most common and perilous type, occurring when a cohesive layer of snow breaks away from an underlying snowpack and descends the slope. These avalanches are often triggered by natural factors like significant snowfall or rapid temperature changes, but human activities can also be a cause. 

Recognizing signs of unstable snow layers and steering clear of steep, loaded slopes are essential preventative measures against slab avalanches. They are the most deadly type of avalanche encountered in the backcountry.

Loose Snow Avalanches

avalanches in colorado

Also known as point-release avalanches, these start at a single point and expand as they descend, drawing in more snow. Occurring mainly on steep slopes after heavy snowfalls, loose snow avalanches involve unconsolidated snow. 

Their size can vary, from relatively harmless small slides to larger, more dangerous ones. Even small slides can knock you off your feet and send you falling into treacherous terrain.

Wet Avalanches

These avalanches happen when the snowpack becomes saturated with water, causing a loss of cohesion that sends the snow downhill. Wet avalanches are more likely in the spring or after rain at high elevations. 

Despite their often slow movement, they carry a dense, powerful mass capable of causing extensive damage. Monitoring temperature rises and melting snow is crucial for anticipating wet avalanches.

Powder Avalanches

Powder avalanches are a dramatic mix of slab and loose snow avalanches, characterized by a cloud of powdered snow that rises as the avalanche barrels down the slope. 

These avalanches can start as a slab break before fragmenting into smaller, loose particles, gaining volume and power as they descend. The powder cloud, which can engulf large areas, significantly reduces visibility and poses a suffocation risk to anyone caught in its path.

Cornice Fall Avalanches

Formed by wind-blown snow along ridgelines, cornices are overhanging masses of snow that can trigger avalanches if a section breaks off. The unpredictability of cornices, which may collapse under their own weight, underscores the importance of staying well away from the edges of these formations.

These slides are often slab avalanches but are unique due to their trigger rather than their mechanism of sliding and instability.

Other Important Avalanche Characteristics

There are many important factors related to avalanches related to their overall type and form. 

For example, slab avalanches occur due to a weakness or buried weak layer in the snow that leaves a heavy slab of snow unstable. There are many different types of weaknesses, like depth hoar, that require different mitigation strategies.

Learning more about avalanche characteristics and classification systems is an important part of avalanche education and helps you make better decisions in the field.

Learn more in our comprehensive Avalanche Safety 101 guide.

FAQs - Types of Avalanches

If your question is not addressed already below, ask it in a comment at the bottom of the page and we will get back to you with an answer as soon as we can.

Q: How are avalanches categorized?

A: Avalanches can be categorized based on size, problem, cause, and form. 

Size relates to the physical dimensions and impact area of the avalanche. 

Problem categorizes avalanches by the specific issue they present, such as persistent weak layers. 

Cause differentiates between avalanches triggered naturally and those triggered by human activities. 

Form refers to the physical characteristics of the avalanche, such as whether it’s a slab or loose snow avalanche. This multifaceted approach aids in understanding, predicting, and managing avalanche risks.

A: The main types of avalanches, categorized by form, include slab avalanches, loose snow avalanches, wet avalanches, cornice fall avalanches, and powder avalanches. Each type has unique characteristics and conditions under which it typically occurs, making this categorization useful for assessing and managing avalanche risks in various terrains.

A: Slab avalanches are the most common type of avalanche. They occur when a cohesive layer of snow breaks away from the underlying snowpack and slides downhill. Slab avalanches can be triggered by natural factors such as snowfall and temperature changes or by human activities like skiing or snowboarding on unstable slopes.

A: Slab avalanches are considered the deadliest type of avalanche due to their sudden release and the large volume of snow involved. They have the potential to catch individuals off guard and bury them under dense, compacted snow, significantly reducing the chances of survival without immediate rescue.

A: Wet avalanches and large slab avalanches are among the most destructive in nature. Wet avalanches, due to their dense, heavy snow mass, can exert enormous force, capable of uprooting trees, destroying buildings, and reshaping the landscape. Large slab avalanches carry similar destructive power, with the added danger of traveling at high speeds.

A: Wet avalanches are generally the slowest type of avalanche. The water content makes the snowpack heavy and less able to move quickly, but this does not reduce their potential for destruction. Their slow movement allows for a potentially larger accumulation of snow, making them extremely powerful and capable of causing significant damage.

Understanding the complexities and nuances of different avalanche types is crucial for anyone venturing into snow-covered backcountry areas. Awareness and education are key components of avalanche safety and can greatly reduce the risks associated with these natural hazards.

Additional Reading:

Do you know of a website or resource we should add to our list of additional reading recommendations? Suggest it in a comment at the bottom of the page to share it with our readers.

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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