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Texture and strength changes of buried surface-hoar layers with implications for dry snow-slab avalanche release

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Buried layers of surface hoar are the failure plane for many slab avalanches, including fatal human-triggered avalanches in various mountain regions. These layers may persist as weak layers in the snow cover for weeks or months. It is therefore essential for operational avalanche forecasters to monitor the evolution of persistent weak layers, such as buried surface hoar. Traditional grain-shape observations of isolated grains with a magnifier and crystal screen do not show bonding that is decisive for strength. In this study we used in situ microphotography and observations of texture to complement strength measurements from shear frame tests. Buried layers of surface hoar consist of crystals most of which extend from the layer below to the layer above, and may exhibit a columnar or truss-like structure. Observations and measurements showthat texture and crystal size change little over periods of up to several months during which the snowpack remains dry. Under these conditions, layer thickness decreases while density and strength increase. Based on field measurements, we argue that the increase in strength is primarily due to penetration of the surface-hoar crystals into the adjacent layers, especially at the bottom of the buried surface-hoar layer, where bonding is critical. The weak bonding at the bottom implies that shear failure occurs at the lower interface rather than within the weak layer. On slopes, we find that surface-hoar crystals that were initially surface-normal are tilted downslope faster than predicted by published shear strain rates for settled snow, indicating that shear strain is concentrated in these layers. The characteristic texture of buried surface hoar (columnar or truss-like) permits collapsing at the time of fracture. The gravitational energy released by the displacement of the slab may contribute to the extensive fracture propagation associated with buried surface-hoar layers.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2000

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  • The Journal of Glaciology is published six times per year. It accepts submissions from any discipline related to the study of snow and ice. All articles are peer reviewed. The Journal is included in the ISI Science Citation Index.
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