Measurements of snow properties across and down snow slopes have been used to calculate a safety margin — the difference between the basal shear strength and the applied static stress. Areas of basal deficit exist when the applied shear stress exceeds the basal shear strength (the safety margin is negative), and basal areas are pinned when the safety margin is positive. As the size of deficit increases, stresses within the overlying slab also increase, and these may be sufficient to cause an avalanche.
Measurements made on five slopes (four of which had avalanched) were characterized by considerable spatial variability, and the safety margin has been treated as a random function which varies over the slope. Statistical models of Vanmarcke (1977[a], 1983) have been applied to determine the most likely size of deficit required for avalanching (95% confidence). In one case, an avalanche occurred when the length of deficit was only 2.9 m, and in the other cases the length was always less than 7 m. This size of deficit is small compared with the total area of many avalanche slopes which suggests that avalanches initiate from small zones of deficit, and makes it difficult to locate a deficit with just a few tests.
The optimum sampling interval and number of tests required to yield an adequate estimate of the statistical parameters of the safety margin are also discussed.