If you’re like most kids, you probably love snow. Not only does it occasionally get you out of school, but it’s also fun to play with. Who doesn’t love to sled and build snowmen?

Snow can also be dangerous, too. You’ve probably heard your parents talk about how difficult it can be to drive in snow. Automobile accidents aren’t the only dangers created by snow, though.

If you’re ever skiing in the mountains, you’ll want to be aware of the possibility of avalanches. An avalanche is a sudden flow of snow down a slope, such as a mountainside. The amount of snow in an avalanche will vary based upon many factors, but it can be such a huge amount as to bury the terrain at the bottom of the slope in dozens of feet of snow.

Avalanches can be caused by many different things. Some of them are natural. For example, new snow or rain can cause accumulated snow suddenly to dislodge and cascade down the side of a mountain. Earthquakes and the natural movements of animals have also been known to cause avalanches.

Artificial triggers can also cause avalanches. For example, snowmobiles, skiers, gunshots and explosives have all been known to cause avalanches.

Avalanches usually occur during the winter and spring, when snowfall is greatest. In addition to being dangerous to any living beings in their path, avalanches have destroyed forests, roads, railroads and even entire towns.

Although avalanches occur suddenly, warning signs exist that allow experts to predict — and often prevent — them from occurring. When over a foot of fresh snow falls, experts know to be on the lookout for avalanches. Explosives can be used in places with massive snow buildups to trigger smaller avalanches that don’t pose a danger to persons or property.

When deadly avalanches do occur, the moving snow can quickly reach in excess of 80 miles per hour. Skiers caught in such avalanches can be buried under dozens of feet of snow. While it’s possible to dig out of such avalanches, not everyone is able to escape.

If you get tossed about by an avalanche and find yourself buried under many feet of snow, you might not have a true sense of which way is up and which way is down. Some avalanche victims have unknowingly tried to dig their way out, only to find that they were upside down and digging themselves farther under the snow rather than to the top!

Experts suggest that people caught in an avalanche try to “swim” to the top of the moving snow to stay as close as possible to the surface. Once the avalanche stops, do your best to dig around you to create a space for air, so you can breathe more easily. Then do your best to figure out which way is up and dig in that direction to reach the surface and signal rescuers.

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    • Thanks for telling us how you feel about the snow, Bryleigh! We bet it can get very cold in Colorado, especially in the winter! We’re glad you’re visiting us today at Wonderopolis though! Stay warm! :)

  1. I loved the wonder of the day today! It was sooo cool! But the sad thing is my dad got caught in an avalanche. He died. BE SAFE KIDS.

    • We’re so very sorry to hear about your father, Megan. We are thinking of you– thanks for reminding us to be safe, too! :)

    • WOW, what an interesting fact to add to today’s Wonder, Mark! Thanks for sharing that information with us, Wonder Friend! :)

    • We’re glad you learned something new today, Josephine! We are happy to know that you visited Wonderopolis today– we love learning with new friends! :)

  2. I hate snow well I don’t hate hate snow I just don’t like it because I LOVE school. I have watched videos online about when people get out of the snow by swimming to the surface.

    I think tomorrow’s wonder will be about people who do track or about lighting bolts and how they are formed.

    • WOW, we bet you like to stay nice and warm, Danny! Snow can be fun, but sometimes it makes you want to enjoy the warmth of the indoors! We can’t wait to find out what tomorrow’s Wonder will be! :)

    • It’s important to be safe, especially when a storm is brewing! Thanks for pointing that out, Autumn! Have a super day! :)

    • WOHOO, we’re glad you liked the Wonder video, Kadija! We Wonder if you read the Wonder of the Day® to find out how avalanches start and end! There’s lots of fun WONDERing to do! :)

    • We’re so glad you learned something new, Janhavi! Avalanches can be scary, but that’s why it’s important to be prepared and aware of your surroundings. And always travel with a buddy! Thanks for sharing your comment, Wonder Friend! :)

    • Hi there, Wonder Friend Achia! While you cannot always prevent avalanches from happening, it’s important to pay attention to the warning signs of an avalanche. Take a look at the excerpt below for more information:

      “Avalanches usually occur during the winter and spring, when snowfall is greatest. In addition to being dangerous to any living beings in their path, avalanches have destroyed forests, roads, railroads and even entire towns.
      Although avalanches occur suddenly, warning signs exist that allow experts to predict — and often prevent — them from occurring. When over a foot of fresh snow falls, experts know to be on the lookout for avalanches. Explosives can be used in places with massive snow buildups to trigger smaller avalanches that don’t pose a danger to persons or property.” :)

    • If avalanches could talk, we bet that’s exactly what we’d hear! Nice work, Tyler J! We hope you never encounter an avalanche in your lifetime! :)

  3. I think the simplest way to deterime your up or down position in the snow would be to melt a little snow in your hand and just watch which direction it drips.

    • Hey there, Wonder Friend George! Thanks for sharing your awesome tip! We think it’s cool that gravity can help someone when an avalanche occurs. We’re so proud of you! Thanks for visiting us! :)

    • That’s a great question, Wonder Friend Isaac! We’re happy you’re thinking about avalanches and how they are formed! Scientists may have different answers about the biggest avalanche ever, but there have been quite a few big ones in history! Sometimes it’s measured on the amount of snow, sometimes it depends on the length of time, and sometimes it is determined by the number of people involved. Keep up the great WONDERing! :)

    • Jake, wow, what an amazing experience! We are so glad you told us all about what happens in Colorado! Good thing we learned all about how avalanches are formed, and how they are prevented, too! It sounds like you’ve been traveling a lot lately, Jake! What a way to Wonder! :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What causes an avalanche?
  • Can avalanches be predicted or prevented?
  • Is it possible to dig out of an avalanche?

Wonder Gallery

AvalancheVimeo Video

Try It Out

Would you believe that experts have caught avalanches live on film? Some have even captured video from within an avalanche! How does that work?

Check out NOVA’s Capturing it on Film online. You’ll be walked through the process of how filmmakers managed to film an avalanche from inside the avalanche. You’ll also be able to see several other videos of avalanches in action.

Still Wondering

In Science NetLinks’ Ping-Pong Avalanches audio update, you’ll hear how ping-pong balls may help predict the path of a deadly snow avalanche.

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