Massive landslides: in the face of natural risks, “the solution is not to equip the mountain excessively”

The mountain experiences its share of rockfalls or other landslides every year, sometimes with dramatic outcomes. But should we give in to one-upmanship in terms of safety in these natural areas?

The phenomena of landslides and landslides in the mountains have been particularly visible in recent years, whether in the media or on social networks. Very impressive natural movements, more and more frequently observed in the Alps. Events that can become all the more tragic as there are people in the area. This summer, it was the chimney of Canigou in the Pyrénées-Orientales which experienced a sad accident with the fall of large rocks injuring several people. A first, according to the oldest.

a fragility of the block, or of the environment, linked to the geology

However “what is happening in the Alps and in our department is not on the same scale”, warns Stéphane Nouguier, head of the RTM service (restoration of mountain terrain) for the Pyrénées-Orientales. “In the Alps, studies show that it is the increase in the average level of temperatures and the melting of permafrost that are at the origin of many landslides. In the Pyrénées-Orientales, the link between climate change and these phenomena is not obvious. It is in any case less studied and less known.”

The Canigou is a mountain with many ridges and by nature fragile.

“As far as our department is concerned, we see more frequent falls of blocks after or during periods of precipitation. This is mainly due to a fragility of the block, or of the environment, linked to the geology. Certain areas are more stressed with periods freezing and thawing. In fact there is a natural instability to which is added a triggering factor.” And the RTM agent to recall the episode of the Gorges de la Fou (October 2018), “We know that there is a direct link between the torrential rains that fell on the area and the large landslide that followed.”

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Pyrénées-Orientales: impressive images of the damage from the landslide in the Canigou chimney sector

Finding a balance between accommodation and accountability

But the increase in the number of people noticed for two years in our mountains necessarily changes the situation. Should we give in to everything safe? For Stéphane Nouguier the answer is clear: “Technically, there are solutions such as protective nets or drains, but that wouldn’t make sense. The costs of setting up and maintaining them would be enormous, with the added risk of disfiguring the sites. The mountain has its own own dynamic that must be respected.” For him, “we have to find the right balance between the accommodations which must be exceptional and the empowerment of individuals linked to the information they have.”

The chimney where the terrible accident occurred this summer.

The chimney where the terrible accident occurred this summer.

For Thomas Dulac, guardian of the Cortalets refuge (located at the foot of Canigou) and high mountain guide, “What happened this summer is dramatic but exceptional and we cannot base daily life on an exceptional event.” Aren’t humility and responsibility the basic values ​​when faced with the mountains? Check the weather forecast, equip yourself properly, take even more precautions in delicate places, do not walk along the edge of precipices, give directions to your itineraries to relatives… Follow the advice of mountain professionals and rescuers is not an absolute guarantee of safety but an essential passage for those who are aware of the potentially (very) hostile environment in which they evolve.

Read also :
Pyrénées-Orientales: the Canigou chimney cleared after the collapse of a rock “of at least 3 cubic meters”

The expertise of the RTM service

Today, within the national forest office (ONF), the RTM service is a service specialized in the prevention of natural risks in the mountains, which implements for the ministry in charge of ecology and the ministry in charge of agriculture missions of general interest on the entire chain of prevention of natural risks that threaten property and people: avalanches, landslides, rock falls, torrential floods.

The service intervenes in times of crisis as an expert for the prefect and local authorities. It ensures the management of the so-called “RTM” state perimeters, and in particular the management of the works. It contributes to the knowledge and memorization of natural phenomena. An expertise that allows, for example, the Prefecture of Pyrénées-Orientales to communicate following the landslides that occurred in Canigou this summer.

“A meeting chaired by the sub-prefect of Prades, took place in the sub-prefecture, which made it possible to move forward on three orientations which must now be specified: the strengthening of preventive information measures, in particular on websites of the various actors, from a message validated by all but also the installation of information panels and the work of purging the landslides (note, some of which are taking place this Thursday). The services of the Prefecture also specify that: “The diagnosis that the landslides would be consecutive to the drought period was not made by RTM.”

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Massive landslides: in the face of natural risks, “the solution is not to equip the mountain excessively”

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