Protecting forests can save lives

06 August 2014 | Article

Snow avalanches threaten people, towns and transport systems in many mountainous regions throughout the world. Growing scientific evidence now shows that forests have the potential to prevent avalanches from starting, which makes them a valuable means of protection with immediate impact.

As part of a recent project – Ecosystems Protecting Infrastructure and Communities (EPIC), the IUCN Ecosystem Management Programme has been working with the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland to promote the role of forests in protecting people and infrastructure from snow avalanches and rock falls in Chile and Nepal.

In addition to the many ecological benefits healthy forests can provide in mountain ecosystems, taking advantage of their protective role also translates into significant economic savings. Alternatives such as snow retaining structures are expensive and may no longer have to be considered.

The level of protection that a mountain forest brings varies according to its type and structure – the species and age of trees, the extent of their root development, as well as other climate and geological factors. Different strategies can be used to optimize this protective function in some cases, including good management of forest resources.

In order to reduce the risk of disaster, the optimal management of mountain forests should meet three important requirements:

  • availability of reliable information on local forest-avalanche interactions;
  • integration of forest management practices into avalanche dynamics models and risk analysis; and
  • development of appropriate strategies to manage different mountain forest ecosystems in particular parts of the world.

This innovative EPIC project is now being implemented in contrasting environments in Chile and Nepal, where avalanche risk is high among people’s concerns. Preliminary models are selected from the work of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in the Swiss Alps and other mountain chains where similar phenomena occur, and adapted to the local contexts. Close consultation will also be held with at-risk and vulnerable communities, local NGOs and government research authorities.

Switzerland was chosen as the example to follow because of its 150-years-old policy of natural hazard management through alpine forest conservation. Today, the use of forests is recognized in the country as a major component of disaster prevention, with 17% of the total area of Swiss forests managed mainly for their protective function. Apart from the important human and ecological benefits, these forests provide services estimated at between US$2 and 3.5 billion per year.

The main objectives that the project is anticipated to achieve are:

  • understanding the risks in the specific locations, including people’s vulnerability to snow avalanches;
  • promoting recognition and use of vegetation in avalanche models;
  • building local capacity so that actions which are started can continue after the project is completed; and
  • informing scientists, planners, policy- and decision-makers of lessons learned and best practices through the use of appropriate modeling for snow avalanche-forest scenarios.

With climate change causing more frequent, heavier rainfalls and higher temperature, in turn resulting in increased occurrences of landslides and avalanches, this project is now more important and relevant than ever.