NASA Landslide Project: Citizen scientists wanted

The deadly landslide along the Stillaguamish River killed 43 people and destroyed 49 homes and structures in Oso, Washington.

It’s the start of the rainy season in Oregon and Washington. That means it’s also the start of landslide season.

But there’s something different about this landslide season. Now, when the earth moves, researchers at NASA want to know.

“We have been working over the past 10 years to develop a global landslide database,” says Dr. Dalia Kirschbaum, a NASA researcher scientist whose body of work focuses directly on landslides.

NASA isn’t just in charge of the U.S. civilian space program; it’s a research organization. And with so many satellites orbiting the earth, there’s a lot more data available to look at, including landslide frequency and location, and other factors, like rainfall and slope angles.

“The goal of our research is to look at how satellite data, satellites orbiting earth with their eyes pointed down, can really help us to understand when and where landslides may happen around the world,” says Dr. Kirschbaum.

And with that database helping scientists model landslide activity, the new challenge is evaluating how their models are working.

“One of the challenges is that this is extremely time consuming,” explains Dr. Kirschbaum.

And that’s where you come in.

“What we’ve started is a citizen scientist project to allow other people who are interested, any interested citizens, to add landslides to our global catalog,” she says from her office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

NASA recently activated its Landslide Reporting website for people around the world to report landslides they see, either on TV newscast or in person.

“There are many different hot spots for landslides in the world,” says Dr. Kirschbaum. “We look at rainfall-triggered landslides only at this point, but we also look at the slope, the vegetation cover, the distance to road networks, the distance to fault zones, and then the type of geology.”

All those different variables can factor into a landslide.

Heavy rain can liquify soils and increase the weight on a weak area, until the hillside gives way. Steeper areas don’t have as much friction holding the soils back against the force of gravity. Trees and shrubs can hold soils in place, while recently cleared or grassy areas are less stable. Roads can destabilize a slope by undercutting the bottom and taking away its foundation. Earthquakes can shake an otherwise solid slope loose, and different soils and subsoils can make a slope more or less susceptible to a slide.

But for NASA, it all starts with rain.

“Our goal at NASA with the models and the data we’re developing, is to provide what we call that ‘situational awareness’, the potential areas of landslide activity, that then the operational groups and those that are in charge of making decisions about lives and property and alerts in those regions, might have that as an additional tool in their arsenals to decide how to help the different communities,” says Dr. Kirschbaum.

In Oregon and Washington, especially on the west side of the Cascades where rainfall is heavier and more frequent, landslides are a way of life. Situational awareness is important to save lives and protect property. And Kirschbaum says our two states are among the best partners NASA has in their landslide study.

In Oregon, the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, or DOGAMI, already has detailed slide maps for most of the state, ranging from huge historic landslides with the propensity to slide again to small landslides that may have no immediate impact.

“They have the best inventories and the most sophisticated methods in the United States,” says Dr. Kirschbaum. “And Washington [Department of Natural Resources] is right behind them.”

Dr. Kirschbaum says while NASA is looking at landslides globally, people in the Northwest should be looking to our state agencies for advice and emergency announcements.

“Looking at a specific road or a community, that’s really the role of the state geological surveys and the emergency management teams,” she says, “especially in Oregon and Washington, with such wonderful and capable groups, these types of efforts to mitigate or to alert communities is really intended for those communities.”

If you do see a landslide and want to get information to report it, Kirschbaum stresses safety first, science second.

“The first, most important thing is to stay safe, and make sure to follow the local evacuation warnings and weather reports,” she advises. “Please don’t go seeking these out. That is not the point of this!

“But if you are able to identify landslides from a media report or something that you happened across, is the place to start.”

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