A collective contribution to protecting the population against avalanches

As an Alpine country, Switzerland has faced the threat of avalanches for centuries. UNESCO has added Switzerland and Austria's management of this natural hazard to its Intangible World Cultural Heritage List. But what is the role of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) in avalanche protection? What is its contribution to this cultural heritage, namely to managing avalanches in order to ensure the safety of the population? And what is the impact of climate warming? Paul Steffen, vice director of the FOEN, answers these questions.

Paul Steffen, Vizedirektor BAFU
Paul Steffen, vice director of the FOEN

What does it mean for Switzerland’s avalanche risk management to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible World Cultural Heritage List?

First and foremost, it is recognition of a community effort and a living cultural practice in Switzerland. In UNESCO’s view, the way we manage avalanche risk in Switzerland is internationally outstanding and of significant cultural importance. Thus, as well as recognising the technical aspects such as buildings, facilities, protective forests, planning etc., UNESCO pays tribute to the fact that avalanche management is an important part of Swiss culture and integral to our identity. By adding this asset to its Intangible World Heritage List, UNESCO calls upon society to protect this cultural heritage.

What does this mean for the FOEN?

The FOEN sees this step as recognition of the long-standing efforts of the municipalities, the cantons and the Confederation to provide avalanche protection. Hundreds of years ago, it was already clear that individuals could do little to combat avalanches on their own: What was needed then, as today, was a community effort from society as a whole. The Confederation took on a strong, active role early on: In 1875, Johann Coaz, forest engineer and mountain topographer, was appointed to the Federal Service as a pioneer in avalanche protection. Coaz thus became the first federal chief forestry inspector and chief federal avalanche protection officer. One of his first tasks was to review the planned and implemented afforestation activities and defence work.

What is the FOEN’s role in avalanche protection?

Switzerland has a long tradition of avalanche protection. Since the 19th century, avalanche prevention has been continuously developed and expanded. For example, around 500 km of avalanche defence structures have been erected. According to the Forest Act, the key tasks related to avalanche protection are the responsibility of the cantons. However, the Confederation is obliged to support the cantons. For example, the FOEN supports them by granting subsidies and providing them with basic information such as maps and instructions.

Funding is provided not just for avalanche defence structures but also for feasible, appropriate measures as part of integrated risk management. These include, for example, the work of the avalanche warning services. For example, the FOEN supports the local safety services and also the national avalanche warning services of the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF with 2,6 million CHF per year. It also works to preserve protective forests and produce hazard maps among other activities. In addition, the Confederation helps fund research and development.

For a culture or tradition to be kept alive, it needs to evolve and adapt to new situations. Climate warming is a serious issue in this context: How is it changing the way avalanche risk is managed?

Climate warming is indeed changing the way in which avalanche risk is managed: We predict an increased risk of avalanches— rather than a decreased risk—where snow remains. The snowpack is expected to become less stable compared with today, thereby increasing the likelihood of avalanches. Therefore, we cannot afford to become negligent when it comes to avalanche protection but must continue to invest in avalanche safety. A new challenge in the future will be the combination of avalanches, debris flows and landslides: As the snow line rises, we will see more frequent occurrences of heavy snowfall higher up and, at the same time, heavy rainfall further down. We experienced this in January 2018, for example. This new reality makes the work of local emergency services more difficult.

Last modification 29.11.2018

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