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New insights in the relation between climate and slope failures at high-elevation sites

Paranunzio, Roberta, Chiarle, Marta, Laio, Francesco, Nigrelli, Guido, Turconi, Laura, Luino, Fabio
Theoretical and applied climatology 2019 v.137 no.3-4 pp. 1765-1784
altitude, case studies, climatic factors, global warming, hazard characterization, probability, spring, temperature, winter, Alps region, Italy
Climate change is now unequivocal; however, the type and extent of terrestrial impacts are still widely debated. Among these, the effects on slope stability are receiving a growing attention in recent years, both as terrestrial indicators of climate change and implications for hazard assessment. High-elevation areas are particularly suitable for these studies, because of the presence of the cryosphere, which is particularly sensitive to climate. In this paper, we analyze 358 slope failures which occurred in the Italian Alps in the period 2000–2016, at an elevation above 1500 m a.s.l. We use a statistical-based method to detect climate anomalies associated with the occurrence of slope failures, with the aim to catch an eventual climate signal in the preparation and/or triggering of the considered case studies. We first analyze the probability values assumed by 25 climate variables on the occasion of a slope-failure occurrence. We then perform a dimensionality reduction procedure and come out with a set of four most significant and representative climate variables, in particular heavy precipitation and short-term high temperature. Our study highlights that slope failures occur in association with one or more climate anomalies in almost 92% of our case studies. One or more temperature anomalies are detected in association with most case studies, in combination or not with precipitation (47% and 38%, respectively). Summer events prevail, and an increasing role of positive temperature anomalies from spring to winter, and with elevation and failure size, emerges. While not providing a final evidence of the role of climate warming on slope instability increase at high elevation in recent years, the results of our study strengthen this hypothesis, calling for more extensive and in-depth studies on the subject.