Online landslide-warning system starts up in Sitka

After several years of research, Sitka’s new online landslide-warning system is now live.

But the site — which uses data from the National Weather Service alongside historical data to determine the level of landslide risk in Sitka — is only a start to the landslide research that remains to be done, said a scientist on the project.

“It’s a conclusion but it’s also kind of a beginning,” said Jacyn Schmidt, geoscience coordinator at the Sitka Sound Science Center.

Educating Sitkans on how to react to the possibility of landslides, and building landslide warning systems in other communities, are ongoing projects, Schmidt said.

Sitka’s landslide warning system — which was funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation — was in part a reaction to the August 2015 landslide that took the lives of three Sitkans.

The warning system’s online dashboard at communicates landslide risk in real time by coupling historical observations with recent rainfall over a three-hour period.

Schimdt said that most of the time, the risk will be low. Medium risk — meaning that landslides are possible given the conditions — occurs no more than three times a year, historically. High risk, or an event like the conditions Sitka experienced in 2015, has occurred only three times in the past 20 years.

The warning system isn’t set up to send users notifications when the landslide risk increases, so Schmidt encourages residents to check the dashboard whenever heavy rainfall is observed or forecasted.

“The goal is to give people information they need to take action,” she said, adding that needed action won’t be the same for everyone.

For instance, people who live in a location that could be in the path of a landslide would likely have a different plan of action than people who live far from a potential landslide area.

But plans for landslide risk response involve more than getting out of a potentially hazardous zone: There is also the potential that landslides affect family, neighbors, roads and utilities.

“You’re part of (an) ecosystem,” Schmidt said. “Making plans that include people in your circle who might be affected is why people should be interested in this, even if they don’t live in an area that’s susceptible to landslide damage.”

The work in Sitka has led to interest in regional efforts. “In February, the (Sitka landslide) project team was awarded a new grant to continue working on this with six other Southeast communities,” Schmidt said.

The new grant — also from the National Science Foundation — will support work in Sitka, Yakutat, Klukwan, Craig, Kasaan, Hoonah and Skagway to increase “environmental monitoring and precipitation hazards,” she said.

Partners on this new project include the Sitka Sound Science Center, the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and several others.


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