UO team aims to understand an Alaskan town’s landslide risk

Three University of Oregon scientists are in Sitka, Alaska, as part of an effort to study soil moisture conditions in a landslide-prone trio of ridges above 600 homes.

The UO team and colleagues from Oregon State University and the U.S. Geological Survey arrived in Sitka on June 16 to spend two weeks studying the steep terrain and deploying dozens of moisture sensors and other instruments along the ridges in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska.

The group is building an extensive network of sensors that provides real-time data for studying soil conditions that will help feed a hazards warning system, said Joshua Roering, head of the UO Department of Earth Sciences.

Since 2011, Sitka has had a series of landslides. In 2015, three people died. In response, the Sitka Sound Science Center organized a community-based effort to address landslide risks and pursue a warning system. That led to a $2.1 million National Science Foundation grant to the Rand Corp., which turned to Roering for his expertise.

The UO’s effort is being led by newly arrived postdoctoral researcher Annette Patton, a native of Corvallis who completed her doctorate in geology last month at Colorado State University. Roering and graduate student Eli Orland are with Patton on the trip.

“We want to build a system to improve hazards warning and increase our understanding of how, why and when landslides happen in this region,” said Patton, who studied landslide processes at Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve as part of her doctoral work. “It is steep topography, right on the coast and it gets some wild weather. We know that landslides and debris flows happen regularly, but we don’t know of details about the exact conditions.”

Lidar map with colors depicting hillslope steepness

The landslide risk affects about one-third of the homes in Sitka, a community on the west side of Baranof Island that had a population of about 9,000 in the 2010 census.

“The thing that makes this project unique is that while a landslide warning system that incorporates these pieces has been done before, what we’re trying to achieve is to fully involve the community from the beginning,” Roering said. “This was a community-initiated effort that would have never happened without the Sitka Sound Science Center.”

Earlier this spring, Roering attended a workshop with multiple community leaders, including representatives of the police and fire departments and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, to get their input on what a future warning system should look like. The project aims to draw from the sensor data, local historical records and imagery, and other information gleaned from geology, social science and risk management.

“We came up with an amazing set of descriptions and ideas, things that can actually work,” Roering said. “If you involve a community from the early stages of a scientific project, they are much more likely to be engaged and willing to use the system that emerges.”

Data from the sensors, which are being designed and built by OSU’s National Science Foundation-funded Openly Published Environmental Sensing Lab, will be relayed in real time via satellite to the internet for monitoring and hazard analysis.

“We want to take the pulse of the hill slopes at any given time and monitor changes over time,” said Roering, who heads the UO’s Earth Surface Processes Laboratory. “If this works for Sitka, this project could become a model that could applied to remote communities around the world that need this kind of help.”

After seeing how the initial sensors work, the UO team plans to return to Sitka later in the summer to make adjustments and install more monitoring stations.

The Rand Corp.’s Robert Lembert, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore in 2007 for their work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, heads the overall project. Other co-investigators with Roering, are Lisa Bunch, executive director of the Sitka Sound Science Center; Ryan Brown, an anthropologist and expert on social networking at the Rand. Corp.; and Phebe Vayanos, an expert on artificial intelligence at the University of Southern California.

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