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September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

September GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, major geoscience headlines, as well as unique and quirky research, this monthly column aims to bring you the latest Earth and planetary science news from around the web.

Major stories

This month has been a whirlwind of Earth and space science news; the majority focusing on natural hazards. Powerful cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis have received significant coverage from the geoscience media. Quickly recap on an action-packed month with our overview:

On 14 September, Hurricane Florence, made landfall in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, making first contact near Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina then traveling up the East Coast. By the time Florence had reached the US coastline, the cyclone’s sustained wind speed had dropped considerably, downgrading the hurricane from a category 4 to category 1 storm on the Saffir–Simpson scale.

This designation may sound mild, but as many scientists and journalists have pointed out, sluggish hurricanes are especially dangerous, since they are more likely to dump heavy rainfall over a relatively small surface area compared to faster storms that distribute their rainfall over more territory. This proved to be true for Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 150 centimetres of rain onto some areas of Houston, Texas.

Hurricane Florence’s record-breaking rainfall forced more than a million people to evacuate their homes, and experts estimate that the storm inflicted damages worth more than $38 billion (USD). The hurricane also produced very concerning environmental damages. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for instance, the the rainfall flooded a pit of coal ash at a power plant, releasing more than 1,530 cubic metres of ash, with much of it likely ending up in a nearby lake.

Across the planet, just one day following Hurricane Florence’s landfall, Super Typhoon Mangkhut wreaked havoc on southeast Asia, pounding the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam with strong wind and rain. Reaching wind speed over 240 kilometres per hour, Mangkhut is the most intense storm of the year so far. The New York Times created an interesting three-dimensional visual of the storm’s intensity, using NASA satellite data.

In addition to unleashing incredibly strong winds, the typhoon’s rainfall also triggered deadly landslides. Just outside of the city Baguio, which recorded more than 75 centimetres of rain, more than 40 gold miners were buried under a landslide that hit their bunkhouse.

Big storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut are expected to be more frequent in the future as our climate changes. And this stems from many factors; a recent article from the New York Times explains that, due to climate change, the world’s oceans are warming (fueling more hurricane formation), the atmosphere is holding more moisture (leading to wetter storms), hurricane wind speeds are slowing down (causing more concentrated rainfall), and Earth’s sea levels are rising (increasing the risk of flooding).

Last week, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, sending a massive tsunami, with waves up to 6 metres high, into Palu Bay, causing massive devastation in the regional capital Palu and surrounding areas. Officials report that nearly 1,350 people have died from the earthquake and tsunami, and the death toll is expected to rise as rescue workers make their way towards more remote places. Scientists told BBC that “a combination of geography, timing and inadequate warnings meant that what happened in Palu was a worst case scenario.”

Map of the September 28, 2018 Palu, Indonesia Earthquake. Credit: USGS.

Indonesian aid workers and humanitarian relief envoys are currently working to provide supplies and assistance to the affected communities. At the same time, scientists are still puzzling over the tsunami’s strength, which caught many experts by surprise. This is because the earthquake’s behavior isn’t known for generating catastrophic tsunamis.

Powerful tsunamis are typically caused by earthquakes with vertical motion, where part of the seafloor juts forward, disturbing the water column and consequently sending massive waves to the coast. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, was caused by a 9.1 magnitude megathrust earthquake. On the other hand, last week’s quake is known as a ‘strike-slip earthquake,’ where the ground shifts horizontally. This kind of movement doesn’t move ocean water as dramatically.

“Some early calculations suggest a floor displacement of perhaps half a metre. Significant but generally insufficient to produce the waves that were recorded,” reported the BBC.

While it is too early to tell what exactly happened, scientists suspect that a number of factors could have played part in helping the tsunami gather strength. For example, underwater landslides have been known to trigger tsunamis of similar strength. Additionally Palu Bay’s narrow geometry could have amplified the waves’ height.

The underlying factors that contributed to the event will hopefully become more clear as scientists analyse the series of events in more detail.

What you might have missed

This month, the Japanase spacecraft Hayabusa 2 has sent three robots to the rocky surface of an asteroid near Earth, known as Ryugu. The spacecraft had successfully reached the asteroid this June, after travelling for more than three years. The craft first released two small devices, no bigger than frying pans, which tumbled around the rock’s surface and even sent digital postcards and a short video back home. A few days ago, Hayabusa 2 released a third rover, which will use a suite of different scientific instruments to collect data on the asteroid. “Hayabusa2 itself is likely to make the first of three touchdowns on the asteroid to collect samples later this month,” said Science Magazine.

Links we liked

  • StarTrek creators once said that Spock’s fictional home planet Vulcan orbited the 40 Eridani A star. Now scientists have found an exoplanet that fits the description.
  • Rediscovered: the 19th century geological drawings of Orra White Hitchcock, a pioneering female scientific illustrator
  • Researchers discover that kidney stones grow and dissolve much like geological crystals
  • We all know about lava volcanoes, but have you heard of ice volcanoes? New study suggests that cryovolcanoes have likely been erupting for billions of years on Ceres.
  • This new map of Antarctica is like ‘putting on glasses for the first time and seeing 20/20’

The EGU story

Last week, the EGU hosted its first science-policy dinner debate in Brussels. The event, ‘Horizon Geoscience: overcoming societal challenges, creating change’, was organised in collaboration with the European Federation of Geologists (EFG) and brought together geoscientists, policymakers and industry representatives. On the EGU website, we report on the outcome of the discussion and publish the key findings from the Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey conducted earlier this year.

Panel members during the Horizon Geoscience dinner debate. From Left to right: Jonathan Bamber, John Ludden Lieve Weirinck, Jean-Eric Paquet and Vitor Correia

In the past few weeks, we have also issued three press releases highlighting research published in some of EGU’s open access journals. Follow the links to find out how bombing raids in the Second World War impacted the ionosphere, how glacial geoengineering could help limit sea-level rise, and what the point of no return for climate action might be.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

August GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

August GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, major geoscience headlines, as well as unique and quirky research, this monthly column aims to bring you the latest Earth and planetary science news from around the web.

Major story

The south Indian state of Kerala has suffered unusually heavy monsoon rainfall this month, triggering the worst flooding the state has seen in more than a century.

Officials have reported nearly 500 deaths, while more than one million people have been evacuated to over 4,000 relief camps.

Between 1 and 19 August, the region received 758.6 milimetres of rain, 2.6 times the average for that season. In just two days (15-16 August), Kerala sustained around 270 milimetres of rainfall, the same amount of rainfall that the entire state receives in one month typically, said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to BBC News.

Due to the heavy downpours, rivers have overflowed, water from several dams has been released, and lethal landslides have swept away rural villages.

“Officials estimated about 6,000 miles (10,000km) of roads had been submerged or buried by landslides,” reported the Guardian. “Communications networks were also faltering, officials said, making rescue efforts harder to coordinate.”

Experts report that the event’s severity stems from many factors coming together.

For instance, a recent study led by Koll has shown that in the past 50-60 years, monsoon winds have weakened, delivering less rain on average in India. However, the distribution of rainfall is uneven, with long dry spells punctuated by heavy rainfall events. Koll’s research suggests that central India has experienced a threefold rise in the number of widespread extreme rain events during 1950-2012. In short, it doesn’t rain as often; but when it rains, it pours.

Scientists also say that increased development in the region had exacerbated the monsoon’s impact.

For example, usually when storms release heavy rainfall, much of that water is absorbed or slowed down by vegetation, soil, and other natural obstacles. However, scientists point out that “over the past 40 years Kerala has lost nearly half its forest cover, an area of 9,000 km², just under the size of Greater London, while the state’s urban areas keep growing. This means that less rainfall is being intercepted, and more water is rapidly running into overflowing streams and rivers.”

To make matters worse, increased development can also change how effectively rivers handle heavy downpours. For instance, canals and bridges can make rivers more narrow and can create sediment build-up, which slows water flow. “When there is a sudden downpour, there is not enough space for the water so it floods the surrounding area,” explains Nature.

Some experts have added that badly-timed water management practices are also partly to blame for the flood’s devastation on local communities.

“A contributing factor is that after the heavy rain, authorities began to release water from several of the state’s 44 dams, where reservoirs were close to overflowing. The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu also purged water from its over-filled Mullaperiyar dam, which wreaked yet more havoc downstream in Kerala,” Nature adds.

While floodwaters began to recede in late August, rescue teams are still searching submerged neighborhoods to deliver aid and evacuate survivors.

What you might have missed

Water on moon confirmed

Recent research published this month suggest that there is almost certainly frozen water on the moon’s surface.

The image shows the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right). Blue represents the ice locations, plotted over an image of the lunar surface, where the gray scale corresponds to surface temperature (darker representing colder areas and lighter shades indicating warmer zones). (Credit: NASA)

“Previous observations indirectly found possible signs of surface ice at the lunar south pole, but these could have been explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil,” NASA officials said in a published statement.

Now, scientists involved with the new study claim that they’ve found definitive evidence that ice is located within craters on the moon’s north and south poles.

During daylight hours, the moon’s surface can be brutally hot, often reaching temperatures as high as 100 degrees Celsius. However, due to the moon’s axial tilt, some parts of the lunar poles don’t receive sunlight. Scientists estimate that some craters situated within these permanently dark polar regions are cold enough to sustain pockets of water-ice.

Because the moon’s poles are so dark, scientists have had a hard time studying the lunar craters. But Shuai Li, a planetary researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and lead author of the study, and his colleagues tried a creative way to shed some light on shadowed craters, using data collected from India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe ten years ago.

“They peered into dark craters using traces of sunlight that had bounced off crater walls,” reports the New York Times. “They analyzed the spectral data to find places where three specific wavelengths of near-infrared light were absorbed, indicating ice water.”

As of now, the researchers still aren’t sure how much ice there is, or how it found its way to the moon’s poles. But if enough accessible ice exists close to the lunar surface, the water could be used as a resource for future missions to the moon, from a source of drinking water to rocket fuel.

Mapping Earth’s winds from above

Also this month, scientists from the European Space Agency launched a satellite that will profile the world’s winds, in hopes that the data will greatly improve weather forecasts and provide insight for long-term climate research. The satellite, named Aeolus after the celestial keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, was sent to orbit from French Guiana on Wednesday 22 August.

The rocket was due to lift off on Tuesday, but the launch was postponed – ironically – due to high altitude winds,” reports BBC News.

Aeolus profiling the word’s winds (Credit: ESA)

Equipped with a Doppler wind lidar, Aeolus will send powerful laser pulses down to Earth’s atmosphere and measure how air molecules and other particles in the wind scatter the light beam.

Researchers expect that wind data from Aeolus will greatly improve current efforts to forecast storms, especially their severity over time. While scientists have many ways to measure wind behavior, current methods are unable to capture wind movement from all corners of the Earth. Aeolus will be the first mission to monitor winds across the entire globe.

Using data collected by Aeolus, experts estimate that the quality of forecasts will increase by up to 15% within the tropics, and 2-4% outside of the tropics.

“If we improve forecasts by 2%, the value for society is many billions of dollars,” said Lars Isaksen, a meteorologist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), to Nature.


Learn how Earth’s wind is generated and why we need to measure it. (Credit: ESA

Links we liked

The EGU story

Do you enjoy the EGU’s annual General Assembly but wish you could play a more active role in shaping the scientific programme? Now is your chance! Help shape the scientific programme of the 2019 General Assembly.

Before the end of today (6 September), you can suggest:

This month we released two press releases from research published in our open access journals. Take a look at them below:

Landslides triggered by human activity on the rise

More than 50,000 people were killed by landslides around the world between 2004 and 2016, according to a new study by researchers at UK’s Sheffield University. The team, who compiled data on over 4800 fatal landslides during the 13-year period, also revealed for the first time that landslides resulting from human activity have increased over time. The research is published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

Deadline for climate action – Act strongly before 2035 to keep warming below 2°C

If governments don’t act decisively by 2035 to fight climate change, humanity could cross a point of no return after which limiting global warming below 2°C in 2100 will be unlikely, according to a new study by scientists in the UK and the Netherlands. The research also shows the deadline to limit warming to 1.5°C has already passed, unless radical climate action is taken. The study is published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Earth System Dynamics.

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

Geosciences Column: Landslide risk in a changing climate, and what that means for Europe’s roads

Geosciences Column: Landslide risk in a changing climate, and what that means for Europe’s roads

If your morning commute is already frustrating, get ready to buckle up. Our climate is changing, and that may increasingly affect some of central Europe’s major roads and railways, according to new research published in the EGU’s open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences. The study found that, in the face of climate change, landslide-inducing rainfall events will increase in frequency over the century, putting central Europe’s transport infrastructure more at risk.  

How do landslides affect us?

Landslides that block off transportation corridors present many direct and indirect issues. Not only can these disruptions cause injuries and heavy delays, but in broader terms, they can negatively affect a region’s economic wellbeing.

One study for instance, published in Procedia Engineering in 2016, examined the economic impact of four landslides on Scotland’s road network and estimated that the direct cost of the hazards was between £400,000 and £1,700,000. Furthermore the study concluded that the consequential cost of the landslides was around £180,000 to £1,400,000.

Such landslides can have a societal impact on European communities as well, as disruptions to road and railway networks can impact access to daily goods, community services, and healthcare, the authors of the EGU study explain.

Modelling climate risk

To analyse climate patterns and how they might affect hazard risk in central Europe, the researchers first ran a set of global climate models, simulations that predict how the climate system will respond to different greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Specifically, the scientists ran climate projections based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s A1B socio-economic pathway, a scenario defined by rapid economic growth, technological advances, reduced cultural and economic inequality, a population peak by 2050, and a balanced reliance on different energy sources.

They then determined how often the conditions in their climate projections would trigger landslide events specifically in central Europe using a climate index that estimates landslide potential from the duration and intensity of rainfall events. The index, established by Fausto Guzzetti of National Research Council of Italy and his colleagues, suggests that landslide activity most likely occurs when a rainfall event satisfies the following three conditions: the event lasts more than three days, total downpour is more than 37.3 mm and at least one day of the rainfall period experiences more than 25.6 mm.

The researchers also incorporated into their models data on central Europe’s road infrastructure as well as the region’s geology, including topography, sensitivity to erosion, soil properties and land cover.

Overview of a particularly risk-prone region along the lowlands of Alsace and the Black Forest mountain range: (a) location of the region in central Europe and median of the increase in landslide-triggering climate events for (b) the near future and (c) the remote future.

The fate of Europe’s roadways

The results of the researchers’ models suggest that the number of landslide-triggering rainfall events will increase from now up until 2100. Their simulations also find while that these hazardous rainfall events slightly increase in frequency between 2021 and 2050, the number of these occurrences will be more significant between 2050 and 2100.  

While the flat, low-altitude areas of central Europe will only experience minor increases in landslide-inducing rainfall activity, regions with high elevation, like uplands and Alpine forests, are most at risk, their findings suggest.

The study found that many locations along the north side of the Alps in France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic may face up to seven additional landslide-triggering rainfall events as our climate changes. This includes the Vosges, the Black Forest, the Swabian Jura, the Bergisches Land, the Jura Mountains, the Northern Limestone Alps foothills, the Bohemian Forest, and the Austrian and Bavarian Alpine forestlands.

The researchers go on to explain that much of the Trans-European Transport Networks’ main corridors will be more exposed to landslide-inducing rainfall activity, especially the Rhine-Danube, the Scandinavian-Mediterranean, the Rhine-Alpine, the North Sea-Mediterranean, and the North Sea-Baltic corridors.

The scientists involved with the study hope that their findings will help European policy makers make informed plans and strategies when developing and maintaining the continents’ infrastructure.  

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Geosciences Column: Extreme snowfall potentially worsened Nepal’s 2015 earthquake-triggered avalanche

Three years ago, an earthquake-induced avalanche and rockfalls buried an entire Nepalese village in ice, stone, and snow. Researchers now think the region’s heavy snowfall from the preceding winter may have intensified the avalanche’s disastrous effect.

The Langtang village, just 70 kilometres from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, is nestled within a valley under the shadow of the Himalayas. The town was popular amongst trekking tourists, as the surrounding mountains offer breathtaking hiking opportunities.

But in April 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake, also known as the Gorkha earthquake, triggered a massive avalanche and landslides, engulfing the village in debris.

Scientists estimate that the force of the avalanche was half as powerful the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The blast of air generated from the avalanche rushed through the site at more than 300 kilometres per hour, blowing down buildings and uprooting forests.

By the time the debris and wind had settled, only one village structure was left standing. The disaster claimed the lives of 350 people, with more than 100 bodies never located.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Since then, scientists have been trying to reconstruct the disaster’s timeline and determine what factors contributed to the village’s tragic demise.

Recently, researchers discovered that the region’s unusually heavy winter snowfall could have amplified the avalanche’s devastation. The research team, made up of scientists from Japan, Nepal, the Netherlands, Canada and the US, published their findings last year in the EGU’s open access journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

To reach their conclusions, the team drew from various observational sources. For example, the researchers created three-dimensional models and orthomosaic maps, showing the region both before it was hit by the coseismic events and afterwards. The models and maps were pieced together using data collected before the earthquake and aerial images of the affected area taken by helicopter and drones in the months following the avalanche.

They also interviewed 20 villagers local to the Langtang valley, questioning each person on where he or she was during the earthquake and how much time had passed between the earthquake and the first avalanche event. In addition, the researchers asked the village residents to describe the ice, snow and rock that blanketed Langtang, including details on the colour, wetness, and surface condition of the debris.  

Based on their own visual ice cliff observations by the Langtang river and the villager interviews, the scientists believe that the earthquake-triggered avalanche hit Langtang first, followed then by multiple rockfalls, which were possibly triggered by the earthquake’s aftershocks.

A three-dimensional view of the Langtang mountain and village surveyed in this study. Image: K. Fujita et al.

According to the researchers’ models, the primary avalanche event unleashed 6,810,000 cubic metres of ice and snow onto the village and the surrounding area, a frozen flood about two and a half times greater in volume than the Egyptian Great Pyramid of Giza. The following rockfalls then contributed 840,000 cubic metres of debris.  

The researchers discovered that the avalanche was made up mostly of snow, and furthermore realized that there was an unusually large amount of snow. They estimated that the average snow depth of the avalanche’s mountainous source was about 1.82 metres, which was similar to snow depth found on a neighboring glacier (1.28-1.52 metres).

A deeper analysis of the area’s long-term meteorological data revealed that the winter snowfall preceding the avalanche was an extreme event, likely only to occur once every 100 to 500 years. This uncommonly massive amount of snow accumulated from four major snowfall events in mid-October, mid-December, early January and early March.

From these lines of evidence, the team concluded that the region’s anomalous snowfall may have worsened the earthquake’s destructive impact on the village.

The researchers believe their results could help improve future avalanche dynamics models. According to the study, they also plan to provide the Langtang community with a avalanche hazard map based on their research findings.  

Further reading

Qiu, J. When mountains collapse… Geolog (2016).

Roberts Artal, L. Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Geolog (2016).