Did You See It? The Landslide, I Mean

If you see a landslide, a swirling mass of unmoored dirt and rock and debris tumbling downhill at speeds of several tens of meters per second, run away as fast as you can. If it doesn’t bring you down, grab your computer and report it to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Landslide Hazards Program through their recently launched Did You See It? website.

Photo by North Carolina Department of Transportation. Courtesy of USGS.
Photo by North Carolina Department of Transportation. Courtesy of USGS.

The USGS will use your information to build a crowd sourced, national landslide database, a valuable resource for both scientists and citizens. The data will not only help researchers identify the areas of the country where landslides are most prevalent and better understand the conditions that most often lead to their occurrence, but also serve as a way for people to learn about risks to their persons or property.

“In the United States, more people have a chance of experiencing a landslide than any other natural disaster,” said Peter Lyttle, coordinator of the Landslide Hazards Program and a 36-year veteran of the USGS. “It’s kind of a stealth hazard.”

Thousands of landslides occur every year, claiming upwards of 25 lives and resulting in billions of dollars in damages and lost productivity, but unlike, say, earthquakes, there are relatively few scientists (perhaps 50, according to Lyttle) tracking and studying them in the United States. Lyttle hopes that Did You See It?, an homage to the enormously successful Did You Feel It? earthquake survey, will provide researchers with the vast amount of data his small staff could never collect on their own.

“The science is still in its very early days,” said Lyttle. “We’re still using a very broad brush.”

Photo by National Park Service. Courtesy of USGS.
Photo by National Park Service. Courtesy of USGS.

Knowing the exact location and time of a landslide will help the USGS pinpoint the areas at risk when other hazards–heavy rainfall in the East, sweeping wildfires in the West–threaten to undermine the underground. The need for awareness grows with us, as our population swells and communities demand development into vulnerable hillside areas.

“We’re putting ourselves at risk by expanding into these areas,” said Lyttle. “It takes a lot of manpower to make predictions and give early warning. We’re not capable of doing that for the whole country, so we want people to educate themselves if they’re in danger and learn what they can do to protect their homes.”

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