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Investigating ice avalanches in Tibet with the aid of SLF


A Chinese researcher is currently working at the SLF for a month. Using simulation software developed by SLF, he is learning how to improve evaluations of ice avalanche risks in the Tibetan Plateau.

Anrisszone der Eislawine

Starting zone of the ice avalanche in the Tibetan Plateau. Photo: Wentao Hu

Eislawine beim Aro-See
The ice avalanche that unleashed on the bank of the Aru Co Lake buried nine shepherds and hundreds of animals. Photo: Wentao Hu
Wentao Hu mit seinen Chinesischen Forscherkollegen
Wentao Hu (centre) with fellow Chinese researchers alongside one of the blocks of ice that broke away from the glacier. Photo: Wentao Hu

Wentao Hu has spent the last week with the SLF. "I was very nervous when I landed in Zurich," says the 25-year-old from Beijing. In view of the initial culture shock encountered by Chinese first-time visitors to Europe, that is certainly no surprise.

Wentao Hu is writing a doctoral thesis on the subject of ice avalanches for the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research. In summer 2016 a pair of adjacent glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau collapsed within a period of just two months, each one triggering an enormous ice avalanche – a phenomenon previously encountered on such a scale only in the Russian Caucasus. The first of these avalanches claimed the lives of nine shepherds and hundreds of animals. An international team of researchers, including employees of SLF, responded by investigating the cause of the glacial slide by modelling the event with the simulation software RAMMS (Rapid Mass Movement Simulation) which was developed at SLF.

Strengthening the collaboration between SLF and China

RAMMS is also the reason Wentao Hu is spending a month at SLF in Davos upon invitation from the research institute. He has already visited the site in Tibet and examined the starting zone of the first glacier collapse and the debris deposited by the ice avalanche. He is now learning from SLF researchers how to use the software and evaluate the risks of further ice avalanches in Tibet. "I would like to discover why the two glaciers collapsed last year, since this could help to improve the forecasting of such events." When he returns to Beijing, Wentao Hu will be teaching his colleagues how to simulate avalanches with RAMMS – thus strengthening the collaboration that is already taking place between SLF and the Chinese research institute. In the meantime he has another three weeks to familiarise himself not only with the software, but with the Swiss way of life.

The two ice avalanches in Tibet, to the right: picture of the ESA's satellite Sentinel-2, to the left: RAMMS simulation.