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Earthquake technology helps detect remote landslides

Landslides, or rock avalanches, can travel for many kilometers, devastating the environment. To detect and characterize catastrophic landslides, NSF-funded scientists developed a technique similar to one geologists use to remotely detect earthquakes.

A combination of seismic signals and satellite images allow the scientists to identify and characterize large landslides that occur in remote regions almost as they occur. Data gathered in this way may shed light on the physics of landslides as well as their impact. The information could also improve landslide hazard assessments.

In the past, days could pass before anyone realized that a landslide had occurred. Like earthquakes, landslides create seismic waves, vibrations that travel through the Earth's subsurface. Sensors distributed around the globe detect these waves. However, landslides create very different wave patterns because the slides last for several minutes rather than several seconds--the duration for a typical earthquake.

Seismic data permits researchers to calculate a landslide's magnitude and location, while satellite images can confirm that the detected event was, in fact, a landslide. With this combined data, scientists can estimate such factors as landslide duration, mass and direction of travel. Such data enhances understanding and prediction of catastrophic landslides.


  • images from siachen landslides
Siachen landslides (a) pre- and (b) post-event; (c) inferred trajectories for the landslides.
Colin Stark, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

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