An avalanche (also called a snowslide) is a cohesive slab of snow lying upon a weaker layer of snow in the snowpack that fractures and slides down a steep slope when triggered. Avalanches are typically triggered in a starting zone from a mechanical failure in the snowpack (slab avalanche) when the forces of the snow exceed its strength but sometimes only with gradual widening (loose snow avalanche). After initiation, avalanches usually accelerate rapidly and grow in mass and volume as they entrain more snow. If the avalanche moves fast enough, some of the snow may mix with the air forming a powder snow avalanche, which is a type of gravity current.
Slides of rocks or debris, behaving in a similar way to snow, are also referred to as avalanches (see rockslide). The remainder of this article refers to snow avalanches.
The load on the snowpack may be only due to gravity, in which case failure may result either from weakening in the snowpack or increased load due to precipitation. Avalanches initiated by this process are known as spontaneous avalanches. Avalanches can also be triggered by other loading conditions such as human or biologically related activities. Seismic activity may also trigger the failure in the snowpack and avalanches.
Although primarily composed of flowing snow and air, large avalanches have the capability to entrain ice, rocks, trees, and other surficial material. However, they are distinct from mudslides which have greater fluidity, rock slides which are often ice free, and serac collapses during an icefall. Avalanches are not rare or random events and are endemic to any mountain range that accumulates a standing snowpack. Avalanches are most common during winter or spring but glacier movements may cause ice and snow avalanches at any time of year. In mountainous terrain, avalanches are among the most serious objective natural hazards to life and property, with their destructive capability resulting from their potential to carry enormous masses of snow at high speeds.
There is no universally accepted classification system for different forms of avalanches. Avalanches can be described by their size, their destructive potential, their initiation mechanism, their composition and their dynamics.
During World War I, an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 soldiers died as a result of avalanches during the mountain campaign in the Alps at the Austrian-Italian front. Many of the avalanches were caused by artillery fire.