Articles | Volume 16, issue 2
Research article
17 Feb 2012
Research article |  | 17 Feb 2012

Estimation of soil redistribution rates due to snow cover related processes in a mountainous area (Valle d'Aosta, NW Italy)

E. Ceaglio, K. Meusburger, M. Freppaz, E. Zanini, and C. Alewell

Abstract. Mountain areas are widely affected by soil erosion, which is generally linked to runoff processes occurring in the growing season and snowmelt period. Also processes like snow gliding and full-depth snow avalanches may be important factors that can enhance soil erosion, however the role and importance of snow movements as agents of soil redistribution are not well understood yet. The aim of this study was to provide information on the relative importance of snow related processes in comparison to runoff processes. In the study area, which is an avalanche path characterized by intense snow movements, soil redistribution rates were quantified with two methods: (i) by field measurements of sediment yield in an avalanche deposition area during 2009 and 2010 winter seasons; (ii) by caesium-137 method, which supplies the cumulative net soil loss/gain since 1986, including all the soil erosion processes. The snow related soil accumulation estimated with data from the deposit area (27.5 Mg ha−1 event−1 and 161.0 Mg ha−1 event−1) was not only higher than the yearly sediment amounts, reported in literature, due to runoff processes, but it was even more intense than the yearly total deposition rate assessed with 137Cs (12.6 Mg ha−1 yr−1). The snow related soil erosion rates estimated from the sediment yield at the avalanche deposit area (3.7 Mg ha−1 and 20.8 Mg ha−1) were greater than the erosion rates reported in literature and related to runoff processes; they were comparable to the yearly total erosion rates assessed with the 137Cs method (13.4 Mg ha−1 yr−1 and 8.8 Mg ha−1 yr−1). The 137Cs method also showed that, where the ground avalanche does not release, the erosion and deposition of soil particles from the upper part of the basin was considerable and likely related to snow gliding. Even though the comparison of both the approaches is linked to high methodological uncertainties, mainly due to the different spatial and temporal scales considered, we still can deduce, from the similarity of the erosion rates, that soil redistribution in this catchment is driven by snow movement, with a greater impact in comparison to the runoff processes occurring in the snow-free season. Nonetheless, the study highlights that soil erosion processes due to the snow movements should be considered in the assessment of soil vulnerability in mountain areas, as they significantly determine the pattern of soil redistribution.