Natural Hazards

Natural Hazards

What is coming at the next EGU’s General Assembly?

The next EGU’s General Assembly is taking place in three weeks! We bet you already started planning your program for the week, and that Natural Hazard (NH) sessions are included, and, especially if you are an Early Career Scientist, you have found many sessions and courses targeting your specific needs and interests.

What fits more to your interests: Attend talks and posters, learn and improve skills, or take an active role in a serious game? Or maybe all of them? To get to the point, the Natural hazards Early Career scientist Team (NhET) is organizing five activities during the General Assembly that you can find in the NH division program. Let’s have a look at them!

Monday 9th April

To start with, there will be a session about “Communicating and Managing Natural Risks” (1) on Monday. The aim of this session is to promote studies that improve communication and actions for the mitigation of natural risks, using different methods and tools. The session includes both oral and poster presentations. During the poster session, you will also have the possibility to meet the people currently and actively involved in NhET and get more information about ongoing and future activities! Last year, we expanded the network with many young scientists of various disciplines. This is another reason why we invite you to attend this session and get the chance to be part of this growing network of young scientists!

On the same day, there will be a special event where you can get in touch with people sharing common interests. We organize a “Research Speed Dating” (2) where you can meet other Early Career Scientists with similar interests and share ideas together through 3-10 min speed-dates. If you are interested in participating, we ask you to register at the following link https://goo.gl/forms/L7kDytQdMv7a18aM2; your registration will greatly help us to organize and better match you and your ‘dates’. Take part in this event, and even if you forget to register: you are more than welcome to stop by!

Wednesday 11th April

An interesting course will be held on Wednesday: during the time of the session, you can play an active role as a member of the society in a real case scenario of natural hazard, either as a scientist, a member of the population, the local authority or member of the media. This is the “Serious Games for Natural Hazard” (3). If you would like to attend this game, help us to organize it better by registering at the following link https://goo.gl/forms/Ou0HFxM19rB7MFGZ2. Anyway, the game is open to everyone who wants to attend and all of you are welcome!

Friday 13th April

Remember that the conference last until Friday, and we have interesting activities to convince you remaining at the conference until the very last minute. That day, there will be a workshop about “Open-Source software for simulating stability of slopes” (4) where you can get insights into the use of the open source software OpenLISEM Multi-Hazard model for landslide simulations through a practical demonstration. The software is user-friendly, available for Windows and Linux, and you can download it at the following link https://sourceforge.net/projects/lisem. Also, several test datasets will be made free for download before the workshop (https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BwWPZu9zWW2ReUJ6UUl3UVctWnM). Just bring your motivation… and the software downloaded if possible!

Finally, but not less important, there will be a PICO session about an emerging topic: the “Hazard effects of climate change on agriculture and forested zones” (5). Here the focus is on the use of remote sensing and modelling for monitoring and evaluating the risks for society and environment in climate-related hazard events. We encourage you to participate, especially because it is an important contemporary topic with high impact on our society and this session can help better understanding the current state of the art on the topic.

As you can see, the activities are varied and we hope we have moved your interest and curiosity to attend one, some or all of them. We are looking forward to seeing you and meeting you at these events!

The Natural Hazards Early Career Scientist Team (NhET).


(1) Methods and Tools for Natural Risk Management and Communications – Innovative ways of delivering information to end users and sharing data among the scientific community – Session NH9.12/AS5.17/CL5.30/ESSI1.9/GI0.4/GMPV6.12/HS11.44/SM3.15/SSS13.66 – Convener: Raffaele Albano | Co-Conveners: Valeria Cigala, Jonathan Rizzi. Monday, 09 Apr, 13:30-15:00 / Room L8 (Orals) and 17:30-19:00 / Hall X1 (Posters).

(2) Speed-dating: Research-match making – Session SC3.19/NH10.3 – Convener: Giulia Roder | Co-Conveners: Raffaele Albano, Luigi Lombardo, Jonathan Rizzi. Monday, 09 Apr, 15:30-17:00 / Room -2.31.

(3) Serious games for Natural Hazards: understand the different roles in natural hazard prevention and management through a simple exercise – Session SC2.18/NH10.2 – Convener: Valeria Cigala | Co-Conveners: Raffaele Albano, Graziella Devoli, Jonathan Rizzi, Giulia Roder. Wednesday, 11 Apr, 10:30-12:00 / Room -2.91.

(4) Open-Source simulations: slope stability and failure in a hydrological catchment model – Session SC1.30/NH10.1 – Convener: Luigi Lombardo | Co-Conveners: Raffaele Albano, Victor Jetten, Cees van Westen, Bastian van den Bout. Friday, 13 Apr, 10:30-12:00 / Room -2.85.

(5) Hazard and risk assessment of climate related impacts on Agricultural and Forested Ecosystems using Remote Sensing and modelling – Session NH6.7/GI2.23/SSS13.57 – Convener: Jonathan Rizzi | Co-Conveners: Mahesh Rao, Luigi Lombardo, Andy Nelson, Dennis Corwin. Friday, 13 Apr, 13:30-15:00 / PICO spot 4.

International Research Projects: what can we learn from CHANGES?

International Research Projects: what can we learn from CHANGES?

Today I have the pleasure to post an interview on International Research Projects. The interviewee, Dr. Cees van Westen, does not need any introduction for those who work in the field on Natural Hazards. Today, he will “speak” as the coordinator of the CHANGES project and further information can be asked directly to him if this interview will stimulate your curiosity (e-mail: c.j.vanwesten@utwente.nl, tel: +31534874263).

 Dr. Cees van Westen obtained MSc in Physical Geography from the University of Amsterdam in 1988. He joined the Division of Applied Geomorphology of ITC in 1988, and specialized in the use of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems for natural hazard and risk assessment. He obtained his PhD in Engineering Geology from the Technical University of Delft in 1993, with a research on “Geographic Information Systems for Landslide Hazard Zonation”.  He is working in the Department of Earth Systems Analysis, and contributes to the research theme 4D-Earth, specifically to Natural Hazards and Disaster Risk Management. Dr. Van Westen has worked on research projects, training courses and consulting projects related to natural hazard and risk assessment in many different countries. From 2005- 2015 he was Director of the United Nations University – ITC Centre on Geoinformation for Disaster Risk Management. From 2010 to 2015 he was Project coordinator of the EU FP7 Marie Curie Initial Training Network “CHANGES” 


1. What can you tell about the CHANGES project? (please click here to navigate to the website)

The name CHANGES stands for “Changing Hydro-meteorological Risks – as Analyzed by a New Generation of European Scientists”. This EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network project, which was running from 2011 to 2015, aimed to develop an advanced understanding of how global changes (related to environmental and climate change as well as socio-economical change) will affect the temporal and spatial patterns of hydro-meteorological hazards and associated risks in Europe; how these changes can be assessed, modelled, and incorporated in sustainable risk management strategies, focusing on spatial planning, emergency preparedness and risk communication.

2. What are the complexities in coordinating such an international project?

First of all the development of a good international consortium is a major challenge. The consortium had to consist of partners from academic and private sector, and should cover certain strategic regions in Europe. The network was very international, and consisted of 11 full partners from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Poland, Romania and Italy and 6 associate partners of which 5 private companies, from the UK, Spain, Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. The next complicating aspect, after the project was awarded, was to find suitable candidates that fulfilled the criteria established by the MSCA programme. Eventually the network employed a total of 17 young researchers, of which 13 were female and 4 male. They came from all over the world: New Zealand, Germany, Belgium, Slovenia, Romania, Netherlands, Italy, Myanmar, Colombia, USA, Switzerland, Macedonia, China, Iran, Moldova and Argentina. Twelve young researchers were hired for a period of 36 months, and carried out PhD research, whereas the other five were hired for 18 months and worked on the development of a web-based spatial decision support system for the analysis of changing risk. All young researchers have spent a considerable amount of time with other partners in secondments.

The large mobility of the project made it very complex to handle. The young researchers stayed generally with at least two partners for a period of time. Some of the partners were not Universities and for them also other academic partners were involved where the actual PhD defence took place. The contracts with the young researchers was for a period of 3 years, whereas in most of the cases the PhD takes more time, so it was also complex to find follow-up contracts so that all could complete their PhD, which they almost all did. Another complicating issue was the active stakeholders’ participation which required the involvement of organisations that were not partners, and who’s involvement could not be easily controlled.

3. I assume it is difficult to foresee the results of such a complex project when you first apply for a grant. Do you think you have reached the expectations you envisioned when you first applied for CHANGES? If yes, what are the main goals the project has reached in your view? If no, how could have it been improved?

Yes, this was indeed difficult to foresee in terms of the scientific results, but more easily in terms of the expected project results: helping young researchers to develop the right skills in order to become experienced researchers. As the funding in this project all went to the young researchers, and not to the salaries of the existing scientific staff, the scientific results were also obtained through the work of the young researchers. The scientific focus of the project was on a number of topics organized in five themes (work packages). The first objective was to analyse the changes in hydro-meteorological hazards that are expected as a result of environmental changes. Regional and local scale probabilistic hazard assessments for floods, landslides and debris flows were developed for four case study sites (Barcelonnette / Ubaye Valley in France; Buzau County in Romania; Fella River in Italy; and Wieprzówka catchment in Poland). The second objective was to evaluate environmental changes, triggered by global change (including climate change) and interacting with economic development, leading to changes in exposed elements at risk. The third objective was to integrate the techniques for hazard assessment with the results of the exposure and vulnerability analysis, into a platform for Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) using multi-hazard risk assessment techniques. The fourth objective focused sustainable risk management strategies, related to spatial planning and emergency preparedness, response and rescue activities. The outcomes were used for risk communication purposes, achieved by designing specific risk visualization and communication tools, aimed at local authorities, planning agencies, civil protection organizations, and also with a component directed to the general public. Most of the objectives that were stated in the proposal were addressed in the PhD research of the young researchers. One of the main challenges in this project was that some researchers were highly depending on the outcomes of others, and as all started at the same time, this caused difficulties for some that were further in the risk assessment and management chain.

4. CHANGES is clearly a rare if not unique project as it involved collaboration, coordination and focus across many different institutions and topics. How does this impact the development of a young researcher?

As the aim of the programme was to support the scientific development of young researchers, the network organized a large series of training events in which also participants from outside of the network were invited. This resulted in a total of 6 professional skill courses, 6 technical skills courses and 5 topical workshops. The project partners and young researchers actively collaborated with other Universities, research projects, NGOs and international organisations. Scientific output of the project was in the form of peer reviewed journal articles and numerous conference papers and abstracts. One of the main outputs of the project was the development of an internet-based Spatial Decision Support System called RiskChanges with the aim to analyse the effect of risk reduction planning alternatives and possible future scenarios related to climate change and landuse changes on reducing the risk now and in the future, and support decision makers in selecting the best alternatives. The project partners and young researchers actively collaborated with other Universities, research projects, NGOs and international organisations. The results of the project were all made available through the project website (http://www.changes-itn.eu/). At the end of the project the International Conference on the Analysis and Management of Changing Risk for Natural Hazards was organized to present and discuss research results in the above mentioned fields. The conference was held on 18 and 19 November, in Padua, Italy.

5. How frequent are this type of projects? Are you planning for applying for something similar in the near future?   

Such large EU networks are certainly not frequent, but are also not impossible to obtain. The competition for such projects is very large though. We were told that there is less than 2% change for such a proposal to get funded. This is also due to the fact that there are no specific thematic call. It is possible to submit a proposal on many different topics, but the selection procedure is very tough. The programme is now called Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks. It has regular calls, generally once a year. The proposed research training or doctoral programme should respond to well-identified multi- and interdisciplinary needs in scientific and technological research areas, expose the researcher to different sectors, and offer a comprehensive set of transferable skills (such as entrepreneurship and communication). The private sector involvement has to be very significant. Before the CHANGES project most of the partners were also collaborating within a previous network, called Mountain Risk, which was coordinated by Jean-Philippe Malet of the University of Strasbourg. After the Changes project we also tried to get a follow-up project with another partner taken the lead, but this was not funded. I am personally not considering to submit a new proposal in the coming years, as it is a lot of work to coordinate it.

The fantastic world of OBIA!

For today blog, we have interviewed Clemens Eisank about OBIA and its application in Natural Hazard.

Dr. Clemens Eisank is Remote Sensing Specialist & Project Manager at GRID-IT Company in Innsbruck (Austria). He obtained his Ph.D. from the Department of Geoinformatics – Z_GIS at Salzburg University in 2013. In his Ph.D. research, he proposed a workflow for automated geomorphological mapping with object-based image analysis (OBIA) methods. His research interests include remote sensing based mapping/monitoring of natural hazards and the development/automation of the related information extraction workflows and tools. During his career, he has worked on several research projects on natural hazards related topics.


1) Hi Clemens, can you tell us what OBIA is in simple words?

OBIA is short for Object-Based Image Analysis. OBIA is a powerful framework for the analysis and classification of gridded data, especially images. A typical OBIA workflow includes two steps:

  1. Segmentation to generate so-called “objects”. Objects are created by merging adjacent grid cells (pixels) of the input grid layer(s) based on specific criteria. For merging pixels into objects, many segmentation algorithms evaluate the similarity of pixel values against a user-defined threshold (fig. b).
  2. Classification of objects. Objects are defined by a plethora of attributes, including spectral (e.g. pixels mean brightness), geometrical (e.g. maximum slope) and spatial properties (e.g. relative border to class X). Based on statistical learning or knowledge models the best set of attributes is identified for each target class and used for object-based classification of the input grid layers (fig. c).


Image in fig. a is segmented in different objects (fig. b), which are classified as one class, i.e. “moraine deposits” (fig. c). Image credit: Gabriele Amato & GRID-IT Company.

In general, the segmentation and classification steps are applied in a cyclic manner to obtain an accurate classification result. Compared to pixel-based classification, OBIA results are more realistic, more accurate and visually more appealing, since the “salt-and-pepper” effect, which is typical in pixel-based classifications, is avoided. Moreover, classification results are typically in vector format allowing for straightforward integration with other GIS layers.

One reason for the success of OBIA may be the fact that it mimics human perception: humans perceive the world as an assemblage of discrete entities such as trees, mountains, buildings; they name these entities and distinguish them by properties such as colour, shape and spatial setting. In the OBIA world, objects are the digital representation of the perceived real-world entities, and the digital properties can be directly associated with the properties that humans use to distinguish different categories of real-world entities.

2) Why do you think OBIA can give a contribution in the field of Risk Assessment?

For a proper risk assessment, a comprehensive geodatabase with all kinds of layers ranging from terrain data and geology to images has to be established for the region of interest. OBIA is a great framework for integrating all these data coming at different spatial resolutions and for extracting the relevant risk information (e.g. risk zones), especially via the use of “objects”. By analysing multi-temporal data, natural-hazard objects such as landslides can be identified as polygons or the evolution of natural hazard objects can be monitored, including the change in attributes such as shape, which may help to improve the understanding of the relevant surface processes.  Other application scenarios are that natural hazard polygons, which have been extracted by OBIA, are used (1) as constraining areas for optimization of susceptibility models or (2) as basis for the mapping of risk “hot spots”.

3) In which kind of Natural Hazard do you think OBIA can provide the best performance?

OBIA performs best in detection scenarios’ changes:  in other words  when two or more images of the same area are compared. One prominent application example is the automated mapping of a new landslide to create event-based landslide inventories: a post-event image is segmented (ideally, in combination with terrain layers) and bare soil objects are automatically extracted using spectral, terrain and other thresholds. The extracted bare soil objects are put on top of a pre-event image and pre-event object properties are recorded. If a significant difference between pre- and post-event object properties (e.g. NDVI) is observed, these objects are regarded as new landslide areas and added as polygons to the existing landslide inventory. By repeating this extraction, a complete detailed landslide inventory can be established at national and regional scale. Such an inventory will be more objective than inventories usually created by multiple people with different background and experience.

4) In this regard, could you tell us something about the research projects you are involved in?

We have just finished a project on improving object-based landslide mapping (Land@Slide). The focus was on increasing the robustness and flexibility of object-based landslide mapping algorithms. These algorithms  should deliver high-quality landslide mapping results for different kinds of optical satellite data with varying spatial and spectral resolution. In close cooperation with potential end-users, we gathered the desired requirements and identified application scenarios ranging from landslide rapid mapping to inventory mapping. The improved algorithms were implemented in a prototypical web processing service, which allows the users to map landslides online by themselves.

Currently, I am managing the MorphoSAT project which can be seen as follow-up project of my PhD research. The idea is to bring digital geomorphological mapping to the next level. The motivation of this research is that digital geomorphological information is required for many applications (also in natural hazards), but is only rarely available for most regions of the world. We are positive that we can provide improved algorithms based on OBIA for automated extraction of geomorphological features (e.g. landforms, process domains) in digital terrain layers.

5) Which are the OBIA future perspectives?

I think the impact of OBIA will constantly increase in the future. OBIA has proven to be a powerful framework for integrative 2D data analysis. However, additional functions and methods are needed to analyse data in 3D and 4D, especially for multi-temporal LiDAR point clouds. OBIA will be of great value also for tracing objects in video streams such as the already recorded ones by mini satellites. We will hopefully also see new OBIA software tools that can reach the quality of commercial products. Especially in the open-source world, OBIA tools are still rare. Free tools are needed to widen the user community and to strengthen the position of OBIA as an innovative geodata analysis framework, also in the field of natural hazards.

“Twenty or more Leagues Under the Sea”: A journey to understand submarine canyons

“Twenty or more Leagues Under the Sea”: A journey to understand submarine canyons

As NhET, we have the pleasure to have Mauro Agate as our guest and interviewee today. We discuss about submarine canyons and related geo-hazards. Further details will be available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967064513002488  for a scientific-oriented audience;

or https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwWErQNoZYpJhhkxPa82x5g for a broader audience.


Dr. Mauro Agate is a marine geologist and a stratigrapher working at Earth and Marine Sciences Department of Palermo University (Italy) where he teaches Marine Geology and Sedimentology. He has taken part in more than 25 oceanographic cruises in the central Mediterranean Sea. He focuses on: i) effects of sea level change on sedimentary dynamics of shelf-to-slope systems; ii) geomorphological and geological mapping of seafloor; iii) origin and evolution of submarine canyon systems; iv) tectono-sedimentary evolution of continental margins.

He has contributed to several research projects: VECTOR (Vulnerability of Italian marine coasts and ecosystems to climatic change); CARG (Geological mapping); MAGIC (Marine geohazards along the Italian coasts); EMODNet (European marine observation and data network).




1) Which is the main topic of the research we are going to discuss today?

I will focus on submarine canyons as they are one of the most widespread morphologies shaping the ocean floor. These erosional features may extend seawards across continental margins for hundreds of kilometres (> 400 km) and occasionally have canyon wall heights of up to 5 km, from canyon floor to canyon rim. Submarine canyons play a key role in the framework of oceanographic and sedimentary processes, acting as conduits for the transfer of sediment from mainland to the deep sea, and controlling meso-scale oceanographic circulation as well as controlling the functioning of specific benthic habitats.

2) How do submarine canyons originate?

For years, the origins of submarine canyons have been the subject of debate among investigators, and various ideas have been proposed. As already suggested by Shepard in a famous paper dated 1981, multiple causes may contribute to the origin of a canyon. Canyons are fundamentally erosive features, yet some of them show a very complex evolution characterized by alternating erosive and depositional stages.

It is important to separate two main types of submarine canyons, because the origin, evolution and quality of related ecosystems are very different: a) shelf-indenting, sediment fed canyons and b) slope-confined, retrograding canyons. Marine geological and geophysical research documented as slope-confined canyons can retrogressively develop up to the shelf edge, and recent studies, also based on numerical modelling, suggested that these canyons formerly originated from downslope-eroding sediment flows. Some shelf-indenting canyons may cross the continental shelf in its entirety and link to current fluvial networks. Submarine canyons display many similarities with exposed river systems, but also relevant differences.

3) Why it is important to understand submarine canyon origins and evolution?

The unravelling of submarine canyon dynamics has been driven by the need to plan safe routes along which to place cables and pipelines across the seafloor. Often, at the down-slope end of the canyon, sedimentary submarine fans may occur. These represent modern analogues for ancient deposits of economic significance (hydrocarbon source-rock and reservoir). Moreover, oceanographic implication of canyon activity, by mixing of shallow water with upwelling of deep water can also enhance local primary productivity: consequently, commercially relevant fisheries are commonly located at the heads of submarine canyons.

Further on, among deep ocean geomorphic features, the heads of some shelf-incising submarine canyons have been identified as supporting ecosystems (e.g. cold-water coral communities). These are especially vulnerable to human activities, mostly as consequence of water acidification caused by anthropogenic climate change and bottom trawl fisheries. In particular, the trawling practise could have an enormous impact on canyon dynamics by altering deep-sea sediment transport pathways and ecosystems.

Ultimately, a more complete understanding of the canyon activity may help us in preventing some natural and anthropogenic hazards.

4) What types of hazards are related to the underwater canyons?

Two main types of hazards are associated with the presence of submarine canyons and their related processes: landslides and dispersion of pollutants.

Submarine slides can be generated by the failure of canyon wall and head-scarp. Usually mass wasting phenomena occurring inside the canyon are not very large in size. However, they can be dangerous for cables and pipelines. Moreover, in some canyons, the headward erosion driven by downslope-cutting sediment flows and the following landward shift of the canyon head may come to threaten harbor facilities or other anthropic settlements located along the coast. In 1979 a landslide in the head of the Var Canyon in the Gulf of Lions, involved a volume of about 9 million m3 of material and caused a tsunami wave of about three meters that damaged part of the work to extend the airport of Nice and killed 10 people. Similarly, in southern Italy, along the Tyrrhenian coast of Calabria, in 1977 a submarine landslide in the head of Gioia Tauro canyon mobilized about 5 million m3 of material generating a tsunami and a turbidity current which caused serious damage to the port and the break of submarine cables. Even away from settled regions, the retreat of the canyon heads can cause extensive damage such as the sudden disappearance of entire stretches of sandy coastline.

If the canyon walls and head were stable, however, the same morphology of a submarine canyon could represent a threat in case of earthquakes or tsunamigenic landslides because the bathymetric pattern of the canyon can amplify (or simply not mitigate) a possible tsunami wave. Such different effects of sea floor bathymetry on tsunami characteristics have been documented. Examples are the tsunami in 1998 affecting the island of Papa New Guinea and the Indian Ocean tsunami on 26 December 2004 affecting on the Bangladesh coast.

As concerns dispersion of pollutants, at present not many studies have been carried out. However, there is growing evidence that sediment transport along the canyon can contribute to contamination of pelagic sediments by industrial waste and chemical pollutants coming from coastal areas and subsequent accumulation in deep-sea fauna.

5) What are the most advanced methodologies for the investigation of submarine canyons and what further discoveries do you expect from the upcoming research?

During the past two decades, the wide-spread use of the Multibeam echo-sounder devices in underwater geological surveys have provided wonderful images of the seabed. This allowed for quantitative morphometric analysis of submerged geomorphological features, among which the submarine canyons. We currently know very well the shape, morphologies and sizes of these fascinating features. Probably further advances in understanding the mechanisms of the canyon function can only come from multidisciplinary research that integrates geophysical, sedimentological, oceanographic and biological analyses. A multidisciplinary approach, such as the one followed in the ISLAND Project (ExplorIng SiciLian CAnyoN Dynamics) recently promoted by the European program EUROFLEETS (www.eurofleets.eu), is now essential not only to better understand the sedimentary dynamics and evolutionary mode of submarine canyons,  but also to assess the impact of canyon activity in generating natural hazards and controlling benthic ecosystems stability.