Lesson 8 - Hazards - favorite bits

I’m always surprised by what might grab me in a course, sometimes something completely unexpected. This chapter was such an instance; I found it fascinating, especially the types of landslides and avalanches. There’s a short story I kept remembering, “Your Fate Hurtles Down at You” by Jim Shepard, about a guy on a team of avalanche researchers in 1939 on a Swiss mountain, remembering how his brother died in an avalanche he feels responsible for, and then the moment is on the brink of WWII; Shepard has a way of blending personal story, science, and history beautifully.

My absolute favorite moment - humor division - is asking Jeff Goodrich, avalanche researcher with Parks Canada (but to me, he’ll always be the guy with the cannon), “Do you think we could fire one?” (no).

I also enjoyed the review of volcano information; somehow I’ve been overloaded with detail in the past, and this helped sort it out into a manageable structure.


I was curious about the mention of the World War One avalanches being the worst in terms of fatalities in history. A few websites, such as Britannica, and a graphic novel claim that the avalanches that were so deadly on 13 December 1916 were started deliberately through artillery fire, rather like as was demonstrated in the video, with the cannon that Zac wanted to fire. However, I am unable to find any evidence to back up these claims.

I have found three testimonies from soldiers and a priest who lived through these particular avalanches, none of whom mention artillery fire. This is also the case with the only two brief articles I can find looking specifically at these avalanches, which both suggest that massive snowfall and a warmer than average December were responsible (see https://boris.unibe.ch/90786/1/december1916.pdf and here). I find it surprising that there has been so little written about these avalanches. Books I have seen on the Alps War only mention the December 1916 avalanches in a sentence.

The testimony of Renker, an Austrian soldier: ‘The storming avalanche tore at me, pulled and shook me—but in mad mortal fear I held on. And then it raged around me, white waves surged, lifted my feet from the ground … higher and higher climbed the tide over my legs, over my chest, my breath failed as if a clamp had been placed on my nose and mouth. Now it is covering me—this is the end! Suddenly everything is still, only to the left is there rushing like a torrent from the mountain. I could breathe again and sucked the air like a man dying of thirst drinking water, but I cannot move, can see nothing … then a voice pulls me out of the hypnosis. From up above the First Lieutenant calls, “Doctor are you still alive?” and a pale face with large, starring eyes looked down on me. “That was close,” I said slowly and with difficulty. “Yes,” he replied, “but where are the others?” “They are all dead,” I murmured to myself.’

The next two testimonies are from a book on natural disasters called The Weather Factor.
‘It was the day of St Lucia, 13 December 1916. The men of 2nd Company had been shovelling snow all day long. It had made them wet and tired, and they had stripped off their clothes and crawled into the bunks in the huts on the slope leading up to the ridgeline. Father Martin Metschik, the priest of the 1st Battalion, 3. Kaiserschiitzen Regiment, told what happened next:
‘I was in the company of my good friend Hercules in a shelter near the cliff. It had begun to snow in November, which brought down the avalanches that caused more victims than the war. On this particular morning, around 5.30 am, we heard the growling sound of an avalanche. It surprised our men in their sleep inside the huts on the slope of the Gran Poz. The cries of the injured made us realise that a drama had taken place. The first shelter we got to, that of our commander, Rudolf Schmid, the one directly against the cliff, was covered by a thick layer of pressed snow hard as concrete. It took seven hours to dig him out. Yet he was one of the lucky ones. Nothing was left of the huts of the 2nd Company, only a swathe of raw ice showed where the avalanche had passed on its destructive way. The air pressure had turned another series of huts, just off the direct path of the monster avalanche, into a mass of splintered, crushed rubble that stuck from the mountains of snow mixed with lumps of ice and big rocks. We worked for four days, shovelling and digging, always in danger of more avalanches. We found only broken bodies with blue faces. On the fourth day, we dug one last hole and ended up in a natural ice cave where seven soldiers had found refuge; one was dead, one was half frozen, but five were well. But they had lost all measure of time. One told me he thought that he had been under the snow for only twenty-four hours.’

And from the Italian side, Lieutenant Tullio Minghetti of the 7th Alpini Battalion:
‘It was the night of St Lucia [13 December] and my thoughts were with my family back home. We were thirteen in a lean-to that housed the motor for our cablelift. As fortune had it, I found myself on the southside of the narrow hut, which was anchored by two steel cables in the solid rock of the precipice that dropped vertically into the Val Ciampi d’Arei. Suddenly, I felt a terrible pressure in my ears and I thought that my head would burst. The candles went out. Next came a hellish crash which shook the hut and I clearly heard one anchor cable snap. “It’s all over, now we’re falling,” was my first thought. But we didn’t. Snow filled the room and my back was pushed against the wall. Air—I was frantic for air. I dug with my hands until they were raw, but I still managed to open a small passage. I managed to stick my head out when, to my shock, I discovered that half of our hut was missing, and it was dangling at a crazy angle over the abyss. Far below, where the monster avalanche had ended its devilish ride, I noticed a great mound of piled-up snow, the tomb of my company.’

The avalanches have been making news recently in connection to climate change. Melting ice has revealed bodies and relics of the December 1916 avalanches over the last few years. For example, see here from earlier this month, and here


I always enjoy your contributions (maybe ‘enjoy’ is not the best word, as this one is particularly grisly, but thank you for sharing your research) . This one was particularly poignant; in the US, it’s Memorial Day weekend, honoring those who died in military service. the idea of bodies being surfaced is a truly awful consequence of climate change.


I also found the hazards lesson surprisingly interesting. I only had very shallow knowledge of avalanches, landslides and volcanoes before and had no idea there was so much more to them, with different types, different triggers and different ways to defend ourselves against these hazards. It is really enriching to watch these videos and there is so much information there I am now making flashcards to help sort it all out in my head and make it stick.

One of my favourite bits was the different types of lava and how they flow differently. I always thought lava was just lava and I thought the more viscous flow was just because it had cooled down more.


Lots of new-to-me information in this segment. Like many people, I’ve long been fascinated by natural disasters, so it’s a surprise to hear about huge and recent events like the Nevado del Ruiz lahars that weren’t familiar to me. Again, so much to learn!

  • @sloopie72 totally agree about Zac’s request to fire the howitzer - I laughed out loud! The whole Rogers Pass segment was amazing.
  • Two different kinds of avalanches, two kinds of lava, so many kinds of landslides… all fascinating.
  • I mentioned in another thread that I think humans underestimate how physics works at large scale. Certainly it took me decades to fully understand how something light and fluffy like snow, or seemingly easy to part, like sand or water, can exert tremendous destructive power. This segment hammers that home. I never would have guessed that dry snow avalanches are worse than wet, but it makes perfect sense when it’s explained. Sintering 10,000 times faster - wow.
  • Avalanche slide paths - another great clue to read in the landscape!
  • Drape nets - I’ve seen them but never realized what they were for! I thought they were a temporary thing like construction scaffolding. I love having a better understanding of that kind of infrastructure. Same with snow or rockslide sheds - I would have thought they were just tunnels.
  • Because of our traprock ridges, the Connecticut River valley (Connecticut and Massachusetts) is full of great basalt formations like towers, plazas, and hexagonal pillars. One of my favorite sounds is the almost-metallic jingle the talus fragments make.
  • Great terms: head scarp, earth creep, rhyolitic magma, pyroclastic flow, lahar.

Some of my favorite bits from this lesson — or more interesting ones, I should say, since some were gruesome:

  • Little Ice Age: Maybe it’s commonly known, and perhaps it was mentioned earlier in the course, but I didn’t remember that a few of centuries ago, we were in a period cold enough to warrant a special name.
  • WWI anecdote: 10K soldiers killed in a single day by a series of avalanches. Really establishes the destructive power of avalanches.
  • To avalanche: I didn’t know it could be used as a verb!
  • Can we shoot the howitzer? :grinning_face_with_smiling_eyes:
  • Volcanoes & lava: The different types and characteristics, and how composition impacts viscosity, which in turn impacts the shape of the volcano.
  • Vocab: Lahar is a good one.
  • Art anecdote: I didn’t know Edvard Munch’s Scream background may have been inspired by the Krakatoa eruption!