Landslide Forum aims to bridge knowledge gap

SEATTLE — Scientists, engineers and planners gathered at the University of Washington this week to learn about landslides and how to best work toward eliminating risks to people and property.

The Landslide Forum, organized by the Association of Environmental and Engineering Geologists, has been in the works for some time.

In fact, the scientific and technical information on display has been developed steadily over decades of work, said the group’s president Ken Fergason.

“Oso was a catalyst for the work to plan it to get here,” Fergason said of the mudslide that killed 43 people nearly one year ago.

But the result of the forum will not just be environmental and engineering professionals returning to their jobs with a bit more networking under their belts. The conference, especially the second day’s sessions and workshops — dubbed “Where do we go from here?” — was set up to generate new ideas that can be later implemented across the country.

“It really will come to mean more than geologists talking to geologists,” said Fergason, who works as a senior geologist with AMEC Environment and Infrastructure Inc. in Phoenix.

The overall objective is to help share the knowledge in the scientific community with planners, managers, insurers and even political leaders, he said.

Bridging the knowledge gap presents a challenge, especially when risks as they are understood by scientists are not easily grasped by people perhaps unaccustomed to thinking in scientific concepts.

David Montgomery, professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, pointed to this problem during his keynote address.

“We tend not to understand risk very well,” he said.

As an example he cited a 1982 landslide in Pacifica, California, that killed three children and destroyed two homes.

Upon learning that the landslide was considered to have a probable 1,000-4,000-year recurrence window, Montgomery said, “the gentlemen next door wanted to buy the lot as he thought it was now safe for at least another 1,000 years.”

Joseph Wartman, an associate professor of geotechnical engineering at the University of Washington, drew on the experience of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose Port Hills neighborhood was heavily damaged by landslides and rockfalls after a series of earthquakes in 2011.

Officials in New Zealand, where Wartman consulted with local government, put together a successful public education program. It coupled community outreach with bold political leadership and strong support of the scientific team, all working with one goal in mind.

“They basically adopted life safety as the single metric,” Wartman said.

The result was a generous government buyout program for properties at risk, based on pre-earthquake values, with a two-year window in which the public could decide either to sell or remain — with the caveat that they would be unable to obtain any hazard insurance if they chose to stay.

In the end, most people took the buyout, he added.

Elements of such an aggressive program might or might not work in the U.S., but any program would have to start with better science, Wartman said.

Three-dimensional LiDAR mapping is one such tool that will allow planners to create accurate risk assessments for communities, said David Sherrard, a Seattle environmental planner.

“I think there’s going to be another tipping point now with Oso and we’re finally going to get some money to do some decent mapping,” Sherrard said.

And there has been progress on that front. The U.S. Geological Survey’s 3DEP initiative (3D Elevation Program) would do LiDAR mapping of the entire United States within the next decade.

That program has not been fully funded yet, but it is an important step.

“The LiDAR stuff is very important, it’s a prerequisite for everything else. But the LiDAR then needs to be interpreted,” Wartman said.

To that end, the USGS’s Landslide Hazards Program saw its funding increase last year to $3.5 million, and President Barack Obama’s budget for the next fiscal year proposes another $500,000 increase.

“Even with 2015 bump it’s still funded at the level of what it costs to send two soldiers to Afghanistan for a year,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery closed his address with several questions that he said could be starting points for future research, such as how many landslides in Washington state are caused by rainfall compared with those caused by earthquakes.

“We don’t have a big data set to answer that first question you’d want to know,” he said. “And yet, if you actually want to get to risk-based management… we need that kind of information.”

The answer lies in sustained support for more research and to translate that research into a format that non-scientist leaders and other decision makers would easily understand.

“I think as a community we’re not particularly good and getting our information out,” Montgomery said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_at_Herald.

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