Morbid Fact Du Jour For December 4, 2016

Today’s Precipitated Yet Truly Morbid Fact!

Switzerland is known for its snow avalanches, but large rockfalls are also a regular occurrence in the Alps, as they are in other great mountain ranges of the world. One of the worst in recent times happened in September 1881; as with other falls, man’s activities had some part to play in precipitating it.

The Plattenbergkopf is one of the outliers of the Glarner Alpen, and there was extensive slate-mining on the mountain in the 18th and 19th centuries. This activity must have steadily reduced the underlying stability of the hill, and a number of small rockfalls had taken place before 1881.

The great avalanche that September may also have been precipitated by heavy rainfall in the preceding days. There were, again, small rockfalls, and these became so regular that people gathered to watch them. On September 11, a larger fall brought rocks down almost to the valley where the watchers had gathered. Less than half an hour later, another, still greater fall detached a large amount of rock from the side of the mountain.

The top section of the Plattenbergkopf was by now resting precariously on a narrow base, much of its previous supporting rock having fallen. It was plain that this could not continue, and before long the now alarmed watchers saw the whole top part of the mountain begin to move. Gathering speed and accumulating more mass as it came, the rockfall hurtled down the mountain towards Elm.

By the time it reached the valley, the fall probably contained some 10 million cubic yards (7.5 million square metres) of rock and dust. Much of the mass hit another hill, the Duniberg, and ricocheted off. Accompanied by a thunderous roaring, groaning sound, the rock covered a mile in less than a minute, burying much of the valley around Elm and the village itself.

Another September 11th.

Where there had been green fields, houses and crops there was now a grey mass of rock, and the air was thick with dust. the village schoolmaster survived and described what the experience was like. He talked of a great wind which uprooted trees and moved houses bodily. This ‘air blast’ is a common feature of all avalanches, and is often more destructive than the avalanche material itself. The edge of the fall cut one house in two, slicing through it like a knife through butter. People were annihilated in an instant – ‘just as an insect is crushed into a red streak under a man’s foot’ was the vivid analogy used.

Elm lost 150 men, women and children, and all its productive land.

Culled from: Catastrophes and Disasters

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