John Sykes, Pascal Haegeli and Yves Bühler
Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 3247–3270,
Publication year: 2022

This is an Open Access article. Click here to download a copy.


Potential avalanche release area (PRA) modeling is critical for generating automated avalanche terrain maps which provide low-cost, large-scale spatial representations of snow avalanche hazard for both infrastructure planning and recreational applications. Current methods are not applicable in mountainous terrain where high-resolution (≤5 m) elevation models are unavailable and do not include an efficient method to account for avalanche release in forested terrain. This research focuses on expanding an existing PRA model to better incorporate forested terrain using satellite imagery and presents a novel approach for validating the model using local expertise, thereby broadening its application to numerous mountain ranges worldwide. The study area of this research is a remote portion of the Columbia Mountains in southeastern British Columbia, Canada, which has no pre-existing high-resolution spatial datasets. Our research documents an open-source workflow to generate high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs) and forest land cover datasets using optical satellite data processing. We validate the PRA model by collecting a polygon dataset of observed potential release areas from local guides, using a method which accounts for the uncertainty in human recollection and variability in avalanche release. The validation dataset allows us to perform a quantitative analysis of the PRA model accuracy and optimize the PRA model input parameters to the snowpack and terrain characteristics of our study area. Compared to the original PRA model our implementation of forested terrain and local optimization improved the percentage of validation polygons accurately modeled by 11.7 percentage points and reduced the number of validation polygons that were underestimated by 14.8 percentage points. Our methods demonstrate substantial improvement in the performance of the PRA model in forested terrain and provide means to generate the requisite input datasets and validation data to apply and evaluate the PRA model in vastly more mountainous regions worldwide than was previously possible.