Eight dead in weekend avalanches in Austria

Austrian police said Sunday that five people had been killed in avalanches in the west of the country, after three deaths were reported Saturday despite pleas for caution on ski slopes.

a member of the mountain rescue team stands at the end of the operations after an avalanche close to Riva di Tures in Austria's South Tyrol
In this file photo from 2016, a member of the mountain rescue team stands at the end of the operations after an avalanche close to Riva di Tures in South Tyrol. Photo: PIERRE TEYSSOT / AFP

The eight deaths came as resorts are filled during the February school holidays in Vienna, with the avalanche alert level at four on a scale of five after several days of intense snowfall and wind.

On Sunday, the body of a 59-year-old man buried while helping the snow removal effort in his tractor was recovered, police in Austria’s western Tyrol region said.

Two skiers aged 29 and 33, including a guide, who were carried off-piste on Saturday morning, were found dead in Sankt Anton am Arlberg.

And a 62-year-old man, who had not returned after cross-country skiing around the summit of Hohe Aifner, was recovered by rescuers and could not be revived, a police spokesman told AFP.

The authorities declined to give information on the nationality of the four victims recovered Sunday.

On Saturday, a 17-year-old New Zealander who was skiing off-piste, a German man in his 50s and a 32-year-old Chinese man, also said to be skiing outside of the designated routes, were found dead.

Over the past two days, heavy snowfall and wind have increased the avalanche danger, with officials warning winter sports enthusiasts to exercise caution.

Thirty avalanches were reported on Saturday in Tyrol alone, eleven of which involved missing people, with the numerous rescue operations hampered by poor visibility and bad weather conditions.

Despite the alert level being set at four on a scale of five however, many holidaymakers have ventured off the marked slopes, authorities said.

With the February school holidays underway in Vienna, Austria’s resorts have filled up after a poor start to the season because of the lack of snow at low and medium altitudes.

Avalanches have killed around 20 people annually in recent years in Austria, a top winter sports destination.

In Tyrol and the neighbouring region of Vorarlberg, authorities again warned that avalanche risks were high due to wind and snowfall.

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‘Achtung… Gefahr’: What do Austria’s weather warnings actually mean?

Austria's national weather agency issues warnings for potentially dangerous weather on a scale from yellow to red. But what does the weather alert system mean, and what should you do if there's a warning?

'Achtung... Gefahr': What do Austria's weather warnings actually mean?

As Austria gets more affected by global warming, the frequency of extreme weather increases. 

Austria has an advanced system of warnings led by the country’s Meteorological Service GeoSphere Austria. “Our regular verification shows a high level of accuracy in the warnings. This is very important for the acceptance and behaviour of the population,” said Dr Andreas Schaffhauser, Scientific Director General of GeoSphere Austria. 

He added: “The better and more comprehensible warnings of major weather events are, the more seriously they are taken and the greater the chance that people will respond to them.”

Austria follows a traditional weather warning system consisting of three colours: yellow, orange, and red.

READ ALSO: How prepared is Austria for extreme weather events?

A yellow warning means caution (Vorsicht!). It means that caution in the current weather scenario is urged, but only isolated weather-connected endangerment and/or damages are anticipated.

An orange warning means attention (Achtung!!), as the current weather scenario can lead to endangerment, disturbances in everyday life and damages. People should pay close heed to the ongoing weather forecasts.

Finally, a red warning means danger (Gefahr!!!). In this case, the current weather scenario is expected to lead to extensive endangerment, disturbances of everyday life and/or considerable damage. People should pay close heed to the ongoing weather forecasts and comply with the instructions of the Civil Defence. 

Each warning is usually issued for one or more weather conditions such as wind, rain, snow, black ice, thunderstorm, heat stress and cold stress.

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

Avalanche risk

The European Union has an online tool to check the dangers of avalanches, the European Avalanche Warning Services. You can zoom in and click on the province where you are travelling to get more information, or just check using the links below:

There are no high mountains with a risk of avalanches in large parts of Upper Austria, Lower Austria, and the entire provinces of Burgenland and Vienna.

There are five danger levels in Austria: 1 – low (green), 2 – moderate (yellow), 3 – considerable (orange), 4 – high (red) and 5 – very high (red and black). These colours are also used to mark avalanche risk in loco, so if you see an avalanche sign in orange, for example, it indicates a considerable risk in that area. 

READ ALSO: Avalanches in Austria: What you should know to stay safe in the mountains

Danger level 5 is rarely forecasted, while danger level 3 is forecasted for around 30 percent of the winter season. Approximately 50 percent of avalanche fatalities happen while the level is “considerable”.

Warning systems

In case of more severe or sudden alerts, Austria also has emergency systems in place. For example, the country’s civil defence alarm has nationwide warning siren systems.

Different sounds mean different things: 

  • TESTING (15 seconds continuous tone): A quick continuous tone to test whether sirens work correctly.

What to do: don’t panic; this is only a test. You can check ORF on radio, TV or online to confirm this.

  • WARNING (3 minutes continuous tone): A constant continuous tone with a length of 3 minutes means “warning”. This signal is triggered when the population is warned of approaching danger.

What to do: Switch on radio or TV on public broadcaster ORF, or check and follow the rules of conduct.

  • ALARM (1 minute rising and falling wailing tone): An ascending and descending wailing tone of at least 1 minute duration means “alarm” and alerts that the danger is imminent.

What to do: Switch on radio or TV on public broadcaster ORF, or check and follow the rules of conduct. Look for protective areas or rooms.

  • ALL CLEAR (1-minute continuous tone): A constant continuous tone of 1 minute (only after the alarm signal) means “all clear”, i.e. end of danger.

What to do: Continue to pay attention to the announcements on the radio, TV or ORF online, as there may be certain temporary restrictions.

READ MORE: Austria’s civil defence alarm: What you should know about the warning siren system

The Ministry of the Interior’s official smartphone app, KATWARN, is a system that displays information and warnings from various authorities on a location-based or topic related to smartphones.

The app complements the existing warning options such as sirens, loudspeakers and media broadcasts. The advantage is that it can immediately warn people of any significant events, informing them of the danger and, just as important, giving immediate information on how to behave.

If you live in Vienna or go there often, the official Stadt Wien app is very useful. It brings essential news and pushes notifications on traffic disruptions near you, weather alerts or civil emergencies.