Galtür Avalanche

In February 1999, a catastrophic avalanche at Galtür in Austria claimed 31 lives.

Over the next six months, Horizon followed a team of scientists as they pieced together the extraordinary chain of events that led to the disaster. The scientists' investigations into the extreme forces of nature responsible for the tragedy are making people re-evaluate their calculations about avalanches.

The picturesque skiing resort of Galtür was considered by everyone to be a relatively safe area. Most years a small avalanche follows the same route, but trickles out safely long before the village.

Huge snowfalls over the past two weeks have touched off a series of deadly avalanches at ski areas in the mountains of Europe. In the last two days, two giant snow slides have ripped through popular Austrian resorts, killing more than 30 people, including a dozen foreign tourists. Five people are believed still buried.

The initial avalanche hit the heart of Galtur, Austria Tuesday afternoon, a tiny town near the Swiss border whose population swells to 4,000 during the ski season. Overturned cars and damaged buildings showed the force created by the traveling the 16-foot wall of snow hit. One tourist said: "That was not snow. It was like concrete."

On February 23, 1999 the worst Alpine avalanche in 40 years occurred, killing 31 people in the small Alpine village of Galtür, Austria. Three major weather systems originating from the Atlantic accounted for large snow falls totalling around four metres in the area. 'Freeze-thaw' conditions created a weak layer on top of an existing snow pack, further snow was then deposited on top. This, coupled with high wind speeds creating large snow drifts, caused roughly 170,000 tons of snow to be deposited.

A massive avalanche in the Austrian Alps buries homes and kills 13 people in Valzur on this day in 1999. The avalanche came only one day after an avalanche in the neighboring village of Galtur killed 25 people.

The winter of 1998-99 featured continuously heavy snow in much of Austria, as well as in Switzerland and the French Alps. On February 17, dry, light snow came down across the region. This was followed a couple of days later by warmer temperatures and heavy wet snow and rain in some locations, creating ripe avalanche conditions. In addition, gale force winds left the tops of the mountain peaks bare and forced the snow onto overloaded sheltered slopes.