Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a hearing entitled "Gravity Never Sleeps: Landslide Risk Across the Country"at the Rayburn House Office Building that was intended to inform our lawmakers and government officials about the impacts of landslides in many parts of the United States. As the topic is related to our guiding investigative question for the ENSO Student Research Campaign- "What impacts does water, above and below ground, have on our environment?", I thought I would share some of the things that I learned.
Jonathan Godt, the Landslide Hazard Programs Coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey, gave a presentation focused on the devastation from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and included images and videos of the impact of the over 50,000 landslides that occurred as a result of the extreme precipitation. Not only were thousands of people in danger as the landslides were happening, but the damage caused by the landslides continues to make life very difficult for the majority of people two months later. As a result of many roads becoming impassable, people are unable to go to work and return to schools. Freshwater is generally delivered via PVC pipes which run under the roads, and now these have been broken and access to freshwater is an issue.
Eric Waage, the Director of Emergency Management for Hennepin County in Minnesota shared examples of several deadly landslides that have happened in a state where we would usually not expect them. In May, 2013 two fourth-grade students were killed and several others injured during a field trip they were on when gravel drenched by rain gave way suddenly. This horrible event spurred the local government to conduct a study and to develop landslide susceptibility maps and work on the emergency plans for first responders during these natural disasters. They also realized that most insurance companies do not cover damage from landslides, as there are few actuarial studies to use to determine the risks. They used LIDAR imagery to assist their work, and had graduate students assist them in scouring historical archives to find out when and where previous landslides had occurred in the region. They noted that landslides were most likely to occur after periods of extreme precipitation, which generally is in the spring and summer months for their region. As a result of their work, they came up with many mitigation strategies and zoning suggestions, and increased the education and public outreach so that the public was better informed and prepared.
Penny Luehring, from the USDA Forest Service, explained that "debris flow"- similar to landslides but with coarser types of debris, often happen after forest fires. Once the slopes are clear of vegetation and the soil has changed to be almost water repellent, these types of landslides are very common. As a result of the terrible forest fires this summer along the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, many popular hiking trails will be closed for at least a year while the Park Service determines whether the slopes will be prone to debris flows. The BAER Team-Burned Area Emergency Response-are completely burn severity maps which include the identification of high risk areas that are prone to debris slides.
Jennifer Bauer, the principal geologist and co-owner of the Appalachian Landslide Consultants NGO, shared her work in North Carolina. After Hurricanes Francis and Ivan inundated parts of North Carolina in extreme precipitation, over 400 landslides took the lives of five people and completely devastated several communities. People were dismayed to learn that they had no landslide insurance and thus lost everything. This hearing was an effort to educate government officials about the need to pass HR 1675, the "National Landslide Preparedness Act" in an effort to bring about many changes that would help to mitigate and respond effectively to the threat of landslides across the country.
We hope many of you will join us on Dec. 7th at 8 pm (EST) for our webinar which will focus on the impact of water- both above and below Earth's surface- on our environment. We will hear from Dr. Matt Rodell, NASA/GSFC, about the importance of being able to collect measurements during each phase of the water cycle. Then we will collaborate on ideas and resources for teaching others about these impacts, using both GLOBE and non-GLOBE resources. On January 9th, we will focus on the impacts of water- both above and below Earth's surface- in the regions of Asia and the Pacific. We will hear from several GLOBE scientists, teachers, and students about how they have observed and measured these impacts, as well as how they plan to communicate their findings with others.