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Permafrost and natural hazards

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If climate change causes glaciers to melt and permafrost to thaw, there may be an increase in natural hazards like rockslides or debris flows. Our high-elevation research, simulations and laboratory tests help to improve the measures used to protect residents from potential hazards.


We are investigating how quickly various landforms like scree slopes, rock glaciers and rock walls respond to temperature changes and are examining the consequences of these responses. We apply various methods in the field to detect changes in the ground temperature and gauge the impact of these changes on slope stability: for instance, we measure temperatures in boreholes and at the surface, as well as carrying out deformation measurements. These are performed in boreholes, using instruments known as inclinometers and changes to the terrain surface are recorded with a range of measurement systems, including GPS, laser scanning and aerial photogrammetry. Since the water content of the active layer is important for slope stability, we also measure the water content of the individual layers with special probes. We use controlled laboratory experiments and computer models to simulate the mechanisms that trigger slope movement in permafrost terrain. The data collected in the field serve as key input parameters for such simulations.

Risk of rockslides and debris flows

Thawing in scree slopes frees up additional material for landslides and debris flows, while thawing of permafrost rock walls is leading to an increase in rockslides. Depending on the ice content and rock temperatures, the opening of cracks may be accelerated. We have therefore teamed up with other permafrost researchers to study the ice content of rock walls by conducting electrical resistivity measurements. Natural hazards caused by changes in permafrost are a potential problem for buildings at high elevations, settlements and, last but not least, mountaineers. With that in mind, we regularly forward the results of our research to the authorities and publish key findings.



Influence of the summer 2015 heatwave on rock slope failures

In summer 2015 an exceptionally large number of rock slope failures was reported in the Swiss Alps, with a concentration in permafrost regions.