Nine killed in Austrian avalanches in deadly weekend as danger remains

Nine people died in three days of more than 100 avalanches rolling across Austria as warmer temperatures followed heavy snowfall, creating particularly dangerous conditions, authorities said on Sunday.

Snow-covered mountain in Austria.
Recent years have seen avalanches claim around 20 lives a year in Austria. Photo by Dating Scout on Unsplash

Most of the avalanches hit the western Tyrol region and Friday alone saw five fatalities, rescue services said.

That day, four Swedish skiers and their Austrian tour guide – all in their 40s – were killed when a 400-metre-wide avalanche, near the town of Spiss on the Swiss border, buried them, Austrian broadcaster Orf said.

A sixth member of their group was only partially buried by the snow and was able to phone for help. He was airlifted to hospital with injuries.

Also Friday, a man aged 60 and his wife of 61 were engulfed while cross-country skiing near the village of Auffach, Tyrol police said.

Saturday then saw a 58-year-old Austrian killed at Schmirn near Innsbruck in an avalanche which injured four others, Austrian broadcaster Orf reported.

Further west, an experienced skier of 43 was killed in the popular Vorarlberg region as Austria saw exceptional quantities of snow fall going into and across the weekend.

Five winter sports enthusiasts were buried by snowfall in the major resort of Soelden but were all rescued.

“The past three days have seen some 100 avalanche-type incidents requiring 70 interventions,” Tyrol regional authorities said Sunday, dubbing the situation “unprecedented” and warning of more to come.

“Considerable” risk
The region’s avalanche warning service (Lavinenwarndienst), which closely examines avalanche cones (the mass deposited where an avalanche has fallen) and where they break off, said that there was still “considerable avalanche danger” on Sunday, with further snow forecast for Monday.

The risk level for the region – in orange in the above map from the service – stood at three on a five-point scale on Sunday.

Artificially triggered avalanches and stability tests on the structure of the snow cover confirmed the delicate avalanche situation in the region.

Fresh snow and snowdrifts had fallen on weak old snow, making the structure particularly unfavourable, the service explained, adding that weak layers in old snow can be difficult to recognise.

Booming noises and cracks when stepping on a snowpack are clear signs of a weak structure.

Anyone who skis off the secured pistes needs to be an expert at avalanche assessment, Rudi Mair, head of the avalanche warning service, told Orf.

Recent years have seen avalanches claim around 20 lives a year in Austria, fewer over the past two years after the pandemic vastly reduced skier numbers.


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After mini tornado and floods should Austria expect a summer of extremes?

Extreme weather events have become more common and more dangerous worldwide. This week Austria experienced some of its own extreme weather with thunderstorms and even a 'small' tornado hitting the country.

After mini tornado and floods should Austria expect a summer of extremes?

Heavy rainfall led to flooded cellars and muddy roads in Lower Austria on Tuesday afternoon.

In Styria, Graz residents recorded what seemed to be a tornado in the city (the head of the Styrian meteorological agency later confirmed a “small” tornado there), with large amounts of rainfall causing havoc.

Austria’s meteorological institute Geosphere Austria had already warned of thunderstorms, some of them heavy, moving north through the country—an alert that included the possibility of landslides and flooding. 

The warnings have been plentiful. Recently, experts alerted that global warming would make extreme weather events much more frequent and stronger, as The Local reported.

Summers, in particular, could see torrential downpours, hail storms as well as heat waves. 

Four heatwaves occurred in 2023, two of which lasted an unusually long time, lasting up to 18 days (July) and 16 days (August).

READ ALSO: How to protect yourself during storm season in Austria

So what about this summer?

There is nothing to indicate that people in Austria will have some relief this summer.

In fact, it has been a warmer than average year so far, with record temperatures throughout. According to Geosphere Austria, the recent winter was one of the two warmest on record.

February followed the trend, and it was the hottest in Austrian history. Parts of Austria also saw record heat in March, while there was “summer in April” in the Alpine country. GeoSphere Austria expects the country to be heading towards a hotter summer season also in 2024. 

Already in June, the probability of above-average temperatures is 60 percent.

In July, above-average temperatures will occur in about 60 percent of the cases. The probability of average temperatures is 20 percent, the same as the chance of below-average temperatures. 

The probability of above-average temperatures in August is just under 80 percent. Average temperatures occur in about a quarter of the cases, and the likelihood of below-average temperatures is less than 10 percent.

READ ALSO: What is Austria’s official emergency-warning phone app and do I need it?

The institute does point out that a seasonal forecast is not an exact forecast in the sense of a 3-day overview but a “rough estimate of the average temperatures conditions in the Eastern Alps”. 

It may seem counterintuitive to think that Austria could be heading for a summer of drought and heavy rains. Still, experts explain that the hotter temperatures make extreme events more likely.

And Austria is more affected by warming than the global average, mainly because it is located in the middle of the continent, and land masses warm up faster than oceans. 

Because of that, the Alpine Republic has already been 2C warmer on average over the last 30 years, almost twice as much as the global temperature increase compared to pre-industrial times.