Supporting response with science: the Oso, Washington, landslide

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 8:45 AM
Jonathan Godt, U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, CO, United States
On 22 March 2014 a large, rapidly moving landslide impacted the community of Steelhead Haven, near Oso, Washington, killing 43 people. The slide displaced about 8 million m3 of sand and silt from a 200-m high glacial terrace destroying 40 homes and burying more than 1.0 km of State Route 530. The landslide temporarily dammed the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River flooding an area of about 1.4 km2. The unusually long travel distance, in excess of 700 m from the base of the slope, and apparent speed of the slide led to the great loss of life and destruction. Landslide science was critical in supporting the response to the disaster. Landslide monitoring, process understanding, pre- and post-event high-resolution digital topography, and numerical simulations were used to advise search operations. Recognizing that buildings and their contents were swept tens to hundreds of meters from their original locations, maps of deposit thickness, and estimates of landslide trajectories were used to develop safer and more efficient search strategies. Teams of county, state, and federal scientists, engineers, and specialists were formed to assess the stability of the landslide dam and to monitor stream flow and the level of the lake impounded by the slide, and to assess the geomorphic response of the river to the landslide for gauging future effects on flood hazards and aquatic ecosystems. Another scientific team assessed the threat of additional landslide activity to search operations. This team’s activities included establishing a communications protocol among landslide watch officers and search operations, deploying instrument platforms developed for use on volcanoes (Spiders) to remotely detect ground movement by means of GPS technology and to detect vibrations indicative of landslide movement using seismometers. The team was responsible for monitoring and integrating data from the Spiders and other instruments and making determinations with regards to the potential for additional landsliding during daylight hours, 7 days a week, until the conclusion of active search operations on 28 April 2014. Landslide understanding, data collected prior to and during the response, and modeling results were critical for informing search operations, decision makers, and the community.