Satellites Could be Used to Detect and Help Predict Avalanches

Swiss scientists are undertaking research to see if satellite technology and images taken from space could predict them and offer safety advice. The results so far are encouraging.

  • In what regions do avalanches repeatedly occur?
  • Where are they triggered and what path do they take?
  • How often do they happen and on what scale?

All of these are key questions to be able to better assess the potential danger posed by avalanches and to optimise risk management.

“Satellite images are particularly valuable for us,” says Elisabeth Hafner, who is doing her doctorate at the SLF, as part of the Alpine Remote Sensing group.

“Unlike field visits or webcam or drone footage, they not only give an insight into parts of the mountain region but can also provide a large-scale picture of the whole Swiss Alpine massif.”

The findings have recently been published in the journal “The Crysphere”.

Hafner and her colleagues worked on data from optical satellites.

These are essentially photos of the kind that are familiar from Google Maps. .

The images have a resolution of 1.5 metres and provide very high levels of detail.

“In optical satellite images of this type, we can see the complete outline of an avalanche, including the trigger location and type and the avalanche’s course,” explains Hafner.

Avalanche danger sign

Avalanche danger. Image c/o PlanetSKI.

Hafner and her team decided to develop an image analysis method based on machine learning, which allows avalanches to be automatically identified and mapped in optical satellite images.

In a period of high avalanche in 2018 and another in 2019 the researchers identified and mapped over 24,000 avalanches across the two days.

Using a computer model is many times faster than doing it manually.

“Our vision for the future is for the computer to quickly and consistently identify avalanches in optical satellite data and map them daily for the Swiss Alpine massif so that decision-makers have this important information to hand when they need it.”

See here for further details.

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