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| Solid ground for EU-backed research into landslides

Landslides and snow and rock avalanches make for spectacular images but they are among the deadliest natural threats to humans and wildlife. Difficult to predict, they move at high speeds, consuming all before them. Their knock-on effects are a real risk, too, such as avalanche-induced waves that sweep across lakes and fjords. Monitoring the conditions that trigger these ‘extremely rapid mass movements’ is the focus of two upcoming EU projects which aim to create harmonised prediction-and-reaction planning on a European scale.

The site of the landslide at La Clapière © DEVINE
The site of the landslide at La Clapière, in the Maritime Alps, France is used to demonstrate the utility of Global Positioning System measurements for monitoring landslide motion
With its geologically young and steep mountain ranges Europe is susceptible to violent shifts of terrain, snow and weakened glacial shelves. In Italy alone, for instance, recent estimates put the number of potentially risky landslides at a staggering 1 million. Few people outside Norway know or recall that, in 1990, a massive chunk of earth slid into the sea, generating a tsunami-like wave that swept along one of the country’s narrow coastal valleys, killing 175 people.

By their very nature, landslides and avalanches are local in impact, and often strain the resources of local authorities to deal with their effects. Yet the causes of extremely rapid mass movements are not exclusively localised. Human activity such as deforestation or urban development has an influence, of course. But researchers are increasingly turning their attention to continental climate change and its effects, such as extreme rainfall events, which can trigger mudslides, or hotter summers that destabilise alpine glaciers.

Local impact, cross-border approach

If climate change risks triggering more and wider-ranging movements of rock, snow and mud, common sense dictates that a broader perspective is needed – not only for strictly scientific purposes but for humanitarian ones as well. Disaster-relief authorities working together across local and regional boundaries in Europe will be more effective in their response to emergencies than working alone. Forging such a common approach lies behind two new projects that got off the ground in July 2005. Both are supported by the EU’s Sixth Framework Research Programme.

IRASMOS (Integral Risk Management for Extremely Rapid Mass Movements) will last for 27 months and involve a consortium of eight partners from five European countries with a budget of €2.4 million. The other is called GALAHAD (Glaciers Avalanches and LAndslides HazarD mitigation), which also has eight partners, but from four European countries. Although it has the smaller budget – €1.68 million – GALAHAD has a longer duration (36 months), largely because it is technology-oriented. The majority of its participants are small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that aim to commercialise the specialised hardware and systems.

Each project complements the other, with GALAHAD centred on fielding new technologies to monitor and collect data on areas at risk, and IRASMOS focused on the methodologies needed for a common approach in Europe to risk-management of extremely rapid mass movements.

Integrating risk

Although the European Commission supported a number of avalanche and landslide research efforts in its previous Fifth Framework Programme, these two projects assume a wider climate-change perspective on the subject.

IRASMOS participants are under the coordination of Jakob Rhyner whose organisation is intimately familiar with the risks associated with avalanches: SLF, the Swiss Federal Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos (CH). One of the project’s main goals is to define a set of disaster-prevention, detection, response and rehabilitation strategies. These will be folded into an ‘integral risk management’ reference handbook which, if used by local, regional and national authorities, could become a standard best-practice manual in Europe for dealing with landslides and avalanches.

“What is new in these two projects is their multiple perspectives,” said Denis Peter, environment and climate change research programme officer at the European Commission’s Research Directorate-General. “Instead of just looking at an avalanche from a local perspective, you take a wider regional and multi-risk approach.”

Another of IRASMOS’ objectives, he said, is to produce common ‘risk-mapping’ across Europe. “With such a map, you would pinpoint the areas of high risk and the potential impact of an event and define the red zones where houses and other structures should not be built,” he observed.

Developing a system to monitor, gather and continually update data on glaciers, avalanches and landslides for risk-maps and other purposes is GALAHAD’s contribution to this field of research. It is being coordinated by Giorgio Franchioni whose company in Milan (IT) – Centro Elettrotecnico Sperimentale Italiano Giacinto Motta SpA (CESI)– is a project participant.

GALAHAD aims at developing new solutions for terrestrial remote monitoring of landslides, avalanches and glaciers-related hazards.

The final objective is to retrieve, through the use of the developed technologies, field parameters that can be used in prediction algorithms for early warning in emergency management, long-term forecasting and pre-disaster planning. These will help mitigate the natural risk effects.

GALAHAD will test and validate advanced technologies in the field, such as terrestrial laser scanning and ground-based synthetic aperture radar (SAR) in order to develop reliable and cost-effective data monitoring and relaying systems. SAR uses a moveable antenna to extrapolate mathematically radar images the resolution of which is far greater than that achieved by a fixed antenna.

The results from GALAHAD will support decision makers (e.g. avalanche and torrent control agencies, landslides commissions, etc.) with an extended knowledge of spatial and temporal distribution of critical situations and for middle and long-term hazard zone mapping. The final goal is to contribute, with these new instruments, to a harmonised and standardised approach to the actions for the protection of citizens and their properties.

The research will be developed with the specific intent of generating operational tools, which could be widely used in a reliable and affordable way. Once the right mix of technologies and procedures have produced a workable system, GALAHAD’s entrepreneurs aim to sell it to public authorities across Europe, Peter concluded.

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European Commission, Research DG