Overcoming the stauchwall: Viscoelastic stress redistribution and the start of full-depth gliding snow avalanches


Corresponding author: P. Bartelt, WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF, Flüelastrasse 11, CH-7260 Davos Dorf, Switzerland. (


[1] When a full-depth tensile crack opens in the mountain snowcover, internal forces are transferred from the fracture crown to the stauchwall. The stauchwall is located at the lower limit of a gliding zone and must carry the weight of the snowcover. The stauchwall can fail, leading to full-depth snow avalanches, or, it can withstand the stress redistribution. The snowcover often finds a new static equilibrium, despite the initial crack. We present a model describing how the snowcover reacts to the sudden transfer of the forces from the crown to the stauchwall. Our goal is to find the conditions for failure and the start of full-depth avalanches. The model balances the inertial forces of the gliding snowcover with the viscoelastic response of the stauchwall. We compute stresses, strain-rates and deformations during the stress redistribution and show that a new equilibrium state is not found directly, but depends on the viscoelastic properties of the snow, which are density and temperature dependent. During the stress redistribution the stauchwall encounters stresses and strain-rates that can be much higher than at the final equilibrium state. Because of the excess strain-rates, the stauchwall can fail in brittle compression before reaching the new equilibrium. Snow viscosity and the length of the gliding snow region are the two critical parameters governing the transition from stable snowpack gliding to avalanche flow. The model reveals why the formation of gliding snow avalanches is height invariant and how technical measures to prevent snowpack glide can be optimized to improve avalanche mitigation.