The rust-colored snow on the glaciated peak of Mount Elbrus in the Russian Caucasus unveiled its bright white interior when it came tumbling down the mountain toward a ski resort parking lot on March 24.
Most snowstorms in this region do not lead to avalanches. The trigger in this case was the accumulation of meltwater, which made the snow heavier and more prone to falling.
The avalanche did not cause any deaths or injuries, but it did cover at leastt a dozen cars that stood in its path. The blaring car alarms and rumble of the snow can be heard in the background of several videos taken from the parking lot. Some people on the automotive website Jalopnik questioned whether the avalanche was “evidence that Mother Nature is claiming revenge for climate change by consuming these internal combustion vehicles.”
The unusual color of the snow had made headlines in recent days, bringing international attention to the remote glacial area.
Stanislav Kutuzov, head of the Department of Glaciology at the Institute of Geography at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, told GlacierHub that the “atmospheric front of March 22 to 24 brought large amounts of precipitation together with dust from the Libyan desert.” The dust, from North Africa, reached the Caucasus Mountains on March 23, one day before the avalanche.
“A large number of particles were scavenged from the atmosphere by the precipitation which resulted in yellowish/red colored dust deposition in the region,” Kutuzov explained.
The discolored snow is not unusual for the region, which has experienced similar events over the past several years. Kutuzov added that “dust transportation from the Sahara is less frequent but results in higher dust concentrations.” The evidence of this can be seen in ice cores taken from Mt. Elbrus.
Although the timing might seem to suggest the dust instigated the avalanche event, the dust didn’t influence the avalanche directly, according to Kutuzov. Wet avalanches are typical for this time of the year in the Caucasus, he said. In the days leading up to the event, warm conditions had dominated the area, causing substantial melting and the subsequent avalanche.
The avalanche originated from a peak, which is located at an elevation of 2,300 meters and known for the Greater Azau Glacier. The ski resort is a jumping off point for people who climb the mountain on the southern slopes of Mt. Elbrus.
Similar to other glaciers in the area, Azau Glacier is retreating. The rate of retreat has increased in recent years, but it still has an extensive accumulation zone, where snowfall gathers.
The avalanche characteristics of the Azau glacier and Mt. Elbrus are not unfamiliar to the ski resort management and others nearby. “This avalanche is well-known, and happens almost every year,” assures Kutuzov. The area had previously installed snow nets to protect from avalanches such as this one, but a wet avalanche of this volume was more than this safeguard could handle.
Catch a view of the avalanche as it took place below— a reminder of the importance to take care around glaciers, even retreating ones.