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Dynamics of the deadly snow avalanche of January 18, 2017 at Rigopiano (Central Italy)
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  • Thomas Braun,
  • Perry Bartelt,
  • Bernardino Chiaia,
  • Daniela Famiani,
  • Barbara Frigo,
  • Joachim Wassermann
Thomas Braun
National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Perry Bartelt
WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF
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Bernardino Chiaia
Politecnico di Torino
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Daniela Famiani
Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia
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Barbara Frigo
Politecnico di Torino
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Joachim Wassermann
Section Geophysics
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On January 2017, a snow avalanche devastated a Resort-hotel in the municipality of Rigopiano in Abruzzo (Central Italy), unfortunately, burying alive 40 people. In a dramatic rescue operation only 11 people could be recovered. Due to the bad weather conditions, no visual observation was made, thus making it impossible to determine the exact moment of the avalanche and to report necessary observations of the dramatic event. Many are the questions and hypotheses around this tragic event. On-site inspections revealed that the hotel was horizontally cut by shear forces and dislocated by 48 m in 70°deg;N direction, once the increasing avalanche pressure exceeded the structural shear strength of the building. Analyses of phone calls revealed that the avalanche struck sometime before 16:40, when the first emergency call was received, while the last phone call from Hotel Rigopiano before the avalanche was taken at 15:30. Subsequent inspections of the victims’ mobile phones indicates the latest possible event time as 15:54 (all times in UTC). Within this eligible 24 min time window, we scanned regional seismograms for any “suspicious” signal that could have been generated by the avalanche and found three weak seismic transients, starting at 15:42:38 UTC, recorded by the nearest operating station GIGS located in the Gran Sasso underground laboratory at a distance of approximately 17 km from Rigopiano. Particle motion analysis of the strongest seismic avalanche signal, as well as of the synthetic seismograms match best when assuming a single force seismic source, attacking in direction of 120°deg;N. Hundreds of simulations of the avalanche dynamics – calculated by using a 2D rapid mass movement simulator – indicate that the seismic signals were rather generated as the avalanche flowed through a narrow and twisting canyon directly above the hotel. Once the avalanche enters the canyon it is travelling at maximum velocity (37 m/s) and is twice strongly deflected by the rock sidewalls. These impacts created a distinct linearly polarized seismic “avalanche transient”; that can be used to time the destruction of the hotel. Our results demonstrate that seismic recordings combined with simulations of mass movements are indispensable to remotely monitor snow avalanches.