Mapping and Exploring Armenia

Latest update April 19, 2019 Started on April 9, 2019
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Utilizing a collaborative-participatory approach to map and explore remote mountainous areas of Armenia.

April 9, 2019
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In The Field

Day 9: Encountering the Volcanic Highlands of Lake Sevan


The last day began with a bus ride through the Vardenis mountain range to Lake Sevan. On this trip, we could gain further insights into the life of the periphery, the landscape and the culture of the country.

We could see the typical car wrecks at the roadsides for the last time, as well as dilapidated huts next to magnificent tuff stone houses. All these impressions were accompanied by Armenian music during our journey, which created the intense atmosphere. During the winding drive over the Wardenjaz Pass, numerous empty industrial plants struck us. These are relics of the former Soviet Union. After their disintegration, the region was restructured based on cattle breeding and agriculture.

The first stop allowed us a short glimpse of the sun, which gave us a clear view on the 2.829 m high volcanic cone of Armaghan. Due to the predicted weather, we decided not climb it as planned. The low hanging cloud cover and the unsafe weather situation brought the danger of bad visibility.

As predicted, the weather worsened before we could make our next stop at Lake Sevan. Despite the light rain and snowfall, we could see the water from the monastery Sevanavank. It was founded in 874 on Sevan Island and is one of the oldest Christian buildings in Armenia. According to the legend, the twelve apostles of Jesus appeared to the Catholicos Maschtoz at this place, according to which he had a monastery built here.

Lake Sevan, which stretches from our viewpoint to the horizon, is the largest inland waterway in the southern Caucasus. The lake has an area of 1.272 km2, which is more than twice the size of Lake Constance. In addition, with an altitude of 1.900 meters above sea level, it is one of the highest lakes in the world.

Around noon, we reached Yerevan. At the end of our trip, we could review all our experiences of the past nine days at the place where our excursion had started. From avalanche expertise, to climatology, to orientation in the field, varieties of practical and theoretical areas were covered. All these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were put together to form a picture which gave each of us a comprehensive understanding of the system in the areas of cartography, weather and culture. Armed with professional knowledge and personal experience, we are now ready to return to Vienna and terminate our journey exhausted but satisfied.

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Day 8: Exploring the Gegharkunik Mountain Range


After we had informed ourselves the day before about the weather conditions at our new location in Hermon, we planned the ski tour for today based on the weather forecast and knowledge about the snow conditions.

Due to the prevailing low pressure system, it was however difficult to choose an appropriate tour destination in the rainy morning hours. A predicted ridge of high pressure for the afternoon was decisive for our decision to go for a short ski tour on a west-exposed slope in the Gegharkunik mountain range near to the Selim pass.

On this tour, however, the weather was very unpredictable and we experienced phases of light snowfall, poor visibility and strong winds, as well as short sunny periods in which the immense power of the spring sun made us sweat. The regional difference in the meteorological conditions, influenced by the more complex topography, was not only noticeable in the weather, but also in the snow conditions.

In order to get a picture of the general snow and thus avalanche danger conditions in Armenia, it was therefore necessary to vary the terrain on a small and large scale and to carry out snow cover investigations at different locations, aspects and altitudes.

During our ascent, we undertook a snow cover analysis at the elevation of 2.600m and perceived the weather events of the past weeks. We detected graupel, which fell in combination with the last precipitation event, as well as the old snow cover layer, which was pervaded by moisture and exposed to high temperatures and melting processes in the last weeks. The LAWIS Extended Column Test (ECT) confirmed our assumptions about snow cover stability and allowed us to start the descent with a clear conscience.

Only the weather did not stick to the agreement, as a dense cloud cover still prevailed. Due to our thorough preparation, we decided to wait for the forecasted good weather. Barely 15 minutes later an incredible scene appeared, as the clouds actually vanished and the sun came out. The mood in the group reached its climax. The view was sensational and rewarded us for all the work we put into preparing and carrying out this field trip.

With the help of an avalanche warning service in Armenia, such experiences would also be easier to evaluate for the wider public, since not everyone has the expertise to make such decisions. We hope that our experience and knowledge can contribute to making this possible in the near future.

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Day 7: Surveying the Vardenis Mountain Range


After a few days of cartographic field work, it was time to leave the Aragats region. We made our way to the southern Armenian province of Vayots Dzor, which is characterized by its valleys and mountain ranges. Here we should expect different weather, snow and environmental conditions.

In the afternoon, we reached Hermon, which will be our base camp for the next three days. Hermon is a tranquil place with about 200 inhabitants, located at 1756m in the valley of the Yeghegis River in the province of Vayots Dzor. This "valley of lamentations" is surrounded in the north by the Vardenis Mountain Range and in the south by the Wajk Mountains, has a rich flora and fauna and above all offers individual tourists ideal conditions for outdoor activities.

Due to the rainy weather as well as the warm temperatures and the decreasing amount of snow at lower altitudes, it was not possible to do any fieldwork in the mountains today. The topics of the day therefore concentrated on weather, OSM and tourism.

A part of the group defied the bad weather and mapped the village of Hermon. The processed data were integrated on OSM. The original representation of the place was poor in OSM. As a result, some buildings, POIs and streets could be revised and supplemented. The delimitation of the town was specified by GPS data.

Central aspects of the weather topic are the analysis and development of the current situation as well as the forecast of the further days. The large cloud band, which currently stretches from Anatolia over the entire southern Caucasus to northern Iran, is the result of a low-pressure area with its center above the Caspian Sea. These conditions result in almost all of Armenia having the same pressure conditions and rainy weather.

The evening was used to prepare for the next day. In particular, the examination of snow conditions through the analysis of snow profiles is to be addressed.

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Day 6: Grasping the Past, the Present and the Future of Armenia


The history of Armenia is profound. Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Sassanids, Russians and Ottomans already ruled the country. What remains is faith, whose foundation stone dates back to 301 AD. Armenia was the first nation in the world to declare Christianity a state religion. Several monasteries and churches blend into the picturesque landscape and can be found even in the remotest mountain regions. Khor Virap, where it all started, and Norawank should be one of our destinations today, on our journey from Aragats to Hermon.

Today Armenia has 1.5 million visitors per year, mostly from the Armenian diaspora. An economic upswing is to emerge through the expansion of tourist structures and bring Armenia onto the map as a center of attraction. The obstacles that have to be overcome are spread across all levels. We looked at the example of the Aragatsotn region to see what approaches exist at a municipal level. We were welcomed in Ashtarak the major municipality of the region by Arthur Voskanyan the administrator of the Aragatsotn district and of the Ashtarak regional tourism sector.

Governmental representatives expect a positive economic shift for Armenia primarily through local investments as well as by the diaspora residents abroad. This positive effect should also reach the domestic population, which is currently divided between rich and poor by the oligopolistic character of the economy. Although there is no concrete tourism concept, those responsible are endeavoring to enter into cooperation with various foreign bodies in order to attract more tourists from abroad in addition to domestic tourism. In the opinion of the Chairman for Tourism in Ashtarak, the development of a flourishing tourism requires a profound established infrastructure.

We see our contribution in the creation of topographic maps that can serve as a basis for outdoor tourism and risk management. A cooperation between governmental representatives of the Aragatsotn region and the University of Vienna could serve as a basis for the exchange of knowledge and finally even promote in the near future tourism in Armenia.

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Day 5: Surveying the Aragats Mountain Range


After the comparison of our cartographic models with the reality of the terrain during the ascent of Mount Ara, two main topics were on the agenda today. These were an early morning site inspection of Mount Aragats, and in the afternoon the mapping of the village Tsaghkashen for the geodata service OpenStreetMap.

Our ascent to the eastern slopes of the stratovolcano of Mount Aragats started in the early morning hours in order to benefit from the frozen surface crust, which had formed overnight. The chosen route led us west over a ridge, along a scree field of volcanic rock. We crossed a channel that brought us to the end of our ascent at 2.800m. With increasing altitude, the wind from the south became stronger. The resulting wind chill effect made the cool morning temperatures appear much colder.

The subsequent descent turned out to be a challenge caused by slush snow at lower altitudes. A dissolved layer of wet snow characterizes this surface. It consists of separated rounded particles completely immersed in water with a liquid water content greater than 15%. At the end of the mountain slope, it was possible for us to reach our starting point again via snowfield bands as well as by crossing shallow meltwater runoffs.

Typical of spring meltwater accompanied our OpenStreetMap (OSM) data collection in the village of Tsaghkashen, where streams ran crisscross. There we mapped the village in four equally divided groups. The aim was to survey the road network, its condition, public buildings as well as other significant objects. This was achieved with GPS devices, sketches on printed OSM maps and aerial photographs.

Communication with the locals was a challenge. We found ourselves at times in conflict between the exact execution of our activities and the respect for the privacy of the inhabitants. During the post-processing phase, the collected data of the village was integrated into the OSM database.

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Day 4: Understanding the Aragats Mountain Range


With slight sunburn and sore muscles in our legs, we make our way to our second field trip goal on the 2.577m stratovolcano Ara (Armenian Araler). After the experiences of yesterday, we want to dedicate ourselves today to the comparison of map and reality. From the starting point at 1.850m on the northeastern slope of the Ara, a spring-like landscape, shaped by the melting snow, lay in front of us and released a narrow snow band for our ascent.

After an ascent of about 150 meters, we surprisingly came across an erosion channel, which was not depicted on the map presumably due to low resolution of the base data. The maps we made especially for the trip to Armenia were based on SRTM data for the contour lines and relief shading, OpenStreetMap and Treecover Survey 2000 (Tree-cover GLAD, University of Maryland, NASA) for vegetation.

SRTM data are available worldwide, but have a maximum spatial resolution of one arc second (approx. 30m). Small geomorphological terrain features relevant for orientation, such as erosion channels, depressions and other small natural objects can therefore not always be represented in detail by SRTM data.

Based on the map we decided to cross the slope in southeast direction. We planned to pass between two groups of trees towards the summit. While in the map the gap was recognizable, we suddenly found ourselves standing in front of dense undergrowth. The incorrect representation in our map is due to the tree-cover GLAD data. These are collected at intervals of several years and are therefore not always up to date.

After the forest, we climbed up to an exposed northern slope, where we had a spectacular panoramic view of the Aragats massif in the northwest, the foothills of the small Caucasus in the north, the Gegham mountains in the southeast and the Ararat in the south. Despite the strong discrepancies between map and reality, we finally reached the summit and could enjoy an amazing descent.

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Day 3: Exploring the Aragats Mountain Range


After exploring the bustling capital city of Yerevan yesterday, the rural villages and hamlets at the foot of Mount Teghenis formed a very interesting contrast. We felt quite exotic, passing by the brick houses with our back-country skiing equipment and GPS devices. Our group certainly caught some attention among the locals as well.

For today's tour, the sun was crucial - not only in terms of temperature and snow quality, but particularly in terms of risk management. Due to the fact that the snow structure changed drastically during the day as a result of the increased melt-freeze metamorphism, we chose a different descent route. In this sense, the exposure to the sun and the inclination of the slope played a crucial role in our routing.

As we were ascending the mountain, we could feel movements in the snow beneath our feet. This was caused by changes in the top layer of the snow cover, linked to increasing temperature and humidity during the day. The melt-freeze crust created by the nocturnal cooling was thereby destabilized and hence reduced its protective effect on the underlying, rather unstable layer of snow. In addition to that, our weight on the snow pack caused settling noises on the destabilized melt-freeze crust. Beneath this crust was a loosely built converted snow layer with a particularly faceting snow layer. Our body weight caused this loose layer of snow to collapse causing a strong sensational setting noise. To verify our assumptions about the snow structure, we examined the snowpack with a snow profile: www.lawis.at/profile/?id=10562

The result of the snow analysis showed a loose layer with angular-rounded crystals embedded between two melt-freeze crusts. The snowpack stability test (ECTP21) confirmed the instability of the weak layer. However, it stated that large additional weight pressure would be required to disturb the superficial melt-freeze crust, too.

In addition to the settling noise during the ascent, another aspect, which would come to determine our downhill route was noticeable: the area has several small canyons which were not marked in the data underlying our map that is based on USGS SRTM DEM with a spatial resolution of 30m. The canyons are of geomorphological origin and subsequently had to be considered in the route planning.

We ascended to a small plateau at approximately 2.651m, where we had a great view of Mount Aragats to the west. We choose north-west exposed slopes for the downhill descent to ensure good corn snow conditions. On the lower slopes, the descent remained challenging, due to very soft snow conditions. Nevertheless, the route taken was definitely the best choice.

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Day 2: Engaging the City of Yerevan


After a very short night, we awoke in bright sunshine with a view of Mount Ararat - otherwise mostly cloudy. The legend says that Noah's ark landed on its slopes. This is why Armenians call it the holy mountain. However due to existing neighboring conflicts it is currently not directly accessible from Armenia, although it is the landmark of Yerevan's cityscape. Our guide Srubhy Hambardzumyan brought us closer to the history and culture of Yerevan.

Buildings of tuff and basalt rock refer to the geological peculiarities of the region, whereby the architectural guideline of Alexander Tamanjan represents a combination of classical elements of Armenian medieval ornamentation with a bridge to modernity. A characteristic feature of former Soviet power are the numerous statues in and around the city: after the death of Stalin, in the course of the de-Stalinization, his image was removed and instead the statue of Mother of Armenia was erected. However, the dominant line of sight for us was the unobstructed view of Mount Ararat (5.137m), about 50 km south-west of the city, and Mount Aragats (4.042m), 30 km away. On the latter, our terrain exploration will commence.

To learn more about the approach of Armenian colleagues in the field of GISc and Cartography we visited the National Academy of Science of RA. The work of Shushanik G. Asmaryan, Head of the GIS and Remote Sensing Department, in the field of cartography and geoinformation was presented to us and thus initiating the basis for a mutual exchange of data and knowledge. More about their work in Armenia can be found at www.cens.am.

In addition, our excursion leader made new contacts during a meeting with Susanna Safaryan from the Ministry of Economic Development and Investments, Committee for Tourism. A possible cooperation in the areas of risk management in mountainous regions and the preparation of large-scale topographic maps was discussed. This exchange of knowledge - based on experience in the European Alps - should lay the foundations for risk management for winter tourism and backcountry skiing in Armenia. Further exchange of information and new meetings were assured in order to initiate further collaboration.

Afterwards we visited the Armenien Genocide Museum-Institute, which is an important memorial place for Armenians. During the First World War (from 1915) at least 1.5 million Armenians were deported and killed. In this spiritual and touching place, the cruel past is remembered. In conversation with Armenians we noticed how emotionally afflicted this topic is which also did not leave us untouched.

After this informative day, we continue to our next destination north of Yerevan - Aragats village. The place where we will explore the area around the mountainous region of Mount Aragats starting tomorrow.

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Day 1: Traveling to Armenia


With anticipation but also some uncertainty our field trip to Armenia started on 11th April 2019. With the aim to understand the history and culture of the country, as well as to explore the fascinating mountains of Armenia. We will be using GPS to check and improve the maps we have prepared and furthermore collect information on the snow and weather conditions in order to understand the regional avalanche situation of the areas we will be visiting. We are prepared for the challenge and ready to start.

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Expedition Background

Regions with increasing winter tourism in remote mountainous areas, as in Armenia, are being more and more confronted by avalanche hazards. Major efforts have yet still to be undertaken in such regions to assess and cope with avalanche prevention. The question posed is how such mountainous regions due to their circumstances of being remote and lacking substantial infrastructure can supply avalanche-relevant information in an appropriate way to both experts and to the public.


We, a group of geography and cartography students from the University of Vienna, together with researchers from the Department for Geography and Regional Research, Working Group Cartography and Geoinformation, are currently investigating and exploring processes for the development of high-quality topographic maps of arbitrary areas of the world based on OpenData and VGI data (Volunteered Geographic Information) and their usage for risk prevention.

We are particularly interested in remote mountain regions with limited infrastructure and the effects of avalanches and other natural hazards in these areas. The resulting findings will then be used for outdoor tourism purposes. However, the usage of crowdsourcing data for the production of such maps and the evaluation of risk management in connection with avalanches are scarce in these regions. Thus, we are confronted with special challenges in the creation of topographic maps and in the effective communication of hazard potentials.

Armenia's mountainous landscapes and sparsely populated areas represent a suitable research area. By generating topographic maps, we want to create a basis for the tourist use of these regions. These maps should be an aid for orientation and for the registration of the terrain in general. Outdoor-related tourist activities, such as hiking, mountain biking or backcountry skiing in winter, can be better planned and carried out on the basis of an appropriate topographic map. Thus, the potential for outdoor tourism in Armenia's mountain regions can be exploited.

By providing basic information about the terrain, such as a topographic map, in order to exploit the tourism potential, responsibility also grows. The danger of avalanches during the winter months in particular has led to fatalities in recent years. To respond this, we want to counter these dangers by communicating spatial information on potential avalanche danger areas through cartographic representations and on variable avalanche dangers through weather information. Here, too, a basis is to be created for an avalanche warning service adapted for Armenia.

The focus of our expedition to Armenia is therefore on remote mountain regions, which can be used for tourism during the winter months, especially when there is snow. On the one hand, we want to explore the terrain, the landscape and the infrastructure with regard to the outdoor tourism potential and on the other hand, we want to explore the cultural benefit of the respective regions.

As part of the “Mapping and Exploring Armenia” research project, we will be producing topographic maps of selected regions and will develop a concept for avalanche risk management for Armenia. We will check the topographic maps for completeness, correctness and accuracy and evaluate the avalanche risk management concept for its usability. Meetings with Armenia's government and other official bodies will help us to assess the usefulness and feasibility of the avalanche risk management concept.

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