In 1995, an avalanche overran an unsuspecting fishing village in Iceland, killing 20 of its residents. Although avalanches are a common occurrence in the region, this was the first avalanche in this village's history to travel as far as the city center. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, learn more about the Iceland avalanche and how engineers plan to protect the village from future avalanches.
In Iceland, avalanches are common occurrences. Snow piles up on steep mountain slopes, only to slide down when the weight of overlying snow layers overwhelms the strength of underlying layers. However, despite precautions taken by the fishing village of Flateyri, which included designating an avalanche danger zone based on previous recorded events, an avalanche inundated the area in October 1995. The avalanche sent 300,000 cubic meters (392,385 cubic yards) of snow down the side of a mountain in a flow measuring between 3 to 10 meters (10 to 33 feet) deep. In less than 30 seconds, 20 residents in the small village had been killed, and 17 houses destroyed — all but one of which were outside the specified danger zone.
In response to the Flateyri avalanche, the Icelandic government directed risk-assessment activities to revise danger zones in avalanche-prone areas nationwide. Their revamped safety plan also allowed for the creation of structures engineered to divert any future snowslide away from populated areas.
Avalanche researchers must confront the same reality faced by researchers of other recurring natural hazards, such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes: forces of nature can be unpredictable. Although humans cannot prevent natural disasters from occurring, we can try to minimize their impact on communities. By understanding data related to the location and frequency of past events, the geologic or weather conditions that spawned these events, and the intensity or extent of damage of both past events and potential ones, researchers can provide detailed hazard maps identifying vulnerable areas.
In recent years, thanks to better forecasts, improved communications systems, and public education programs, the efforts of disaster researchers from all fields have successfully reduced the loss of life. Still, an event more extreme than the worst-case scenarios researchers generate using research data could always occur. Despite all the advances of modern science, nature may always have the last word.
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