Curious Nature: How avalanches impact the local ecosystem
Walking Mountains Science Center
Here in Eagle County, we are currently in our most active time of the year for avalanches. Our snowpack is well established and still building as we go into the rest of February. The danger will continue to remain until our snowpack decreases and we see less accumulation.
Avalanches may be a danger to humans, but what impacts do they have on the environment around us? Are they helpful to the local flora and fauna?
Avalanches are caused when a large area, or slab, of snow comes tumbling down the mountain with great speeds and tremendous force. These forces can be a real danger to people traveling in the area and anything in the avalanche’s way. Avalanches will break trees, move boulders, and bury anything in its path. Very large avalanches can remove entire areas of trees and these bare areas are very apparent in the summer. High alpine animals, such as mountain goats, could trigger avalanches and are susceptible to being caught in them.
Avalanches are a naturally occurring event in the wild and can happen without human interference. Avalanches can also be a good thing for the local ecosystem. All trees have a lot of nutrients stored in them from there many years of growth. When an avalanche comes through and damages these trees, they eventually die when they are uprooted.
These dead trees will release a lot of nutrients back into the ground to help other plants to grow and will, in turn, re-stabilize the soil while preventing other events, such as landslides, from happening. These dead trees can also provide homes for insects and many fungi species to grow. When large areas of trees are removed, it also creates a new habitat. There are now areas that no longer have trees but meadows where larger animals can move around easier. This allows for easier hunting areas for larger predators. This new habitat provides an array of new types of vegetation for grazing animals, like deer and elk, to eat from.
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A lot of larger animals use areas that are common avalanche zones for eating and hunting in the summer. These are areas where trees can never grow from the constant barrage of avalanches. The saplings that grow in the summer will be uprooted every winter from avalanches constantly falling.
Another great benefit to natural avalanches is that they can re-stabilize the snowpack. When an avalanche slides it leaves a lot less snow and the more stable snowpack beneath. These smaller avalanches that occur can prevent the bigger avalanches. This can help outdoor adventurers so we don’t have massive avalanches falling into our roadways or in backcountry areas.
Ski resorts use avalanche control methods in their steeper areas that are more prone to avalanche slides. At the end of the day, avalanches are a neutral event. They can bring both bad and good effects with them and can happen naturally.
Austin Averett is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center working on his Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Science at Florida Institute of Technology.