Climate change is causing more landslides

Landslides like this one in Cusco, Peru are causing more damage and becoming more frequent in part due to climate change. (credit: Courtesy of Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú via Wikimedia Commons) Landslides like this one in Cusco, Peru are causing more damage and becoming more frequent in part due to climate change. (credit: Courtesy of Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú via Wikimedia Commons)

While talking about the weather has always been a staple of idle chit-chat, if you’ve been keeping up with the conversation over the last few years — or even just the last few months — you might have noticed that it’s been a bit… wonky. Will it rain today, or snow tomorrow?

But it doesn’t end there. Over this past summer alone, extreme heat waves across Europe have led to countless deaths as new record highs were set. To add to the death toll, the high frequency of natural disasters over the past year (including fires in California and the Amazon rainforest) is also often attributed to climate change.

Earlier this year, researchers from the United Nations stated that climate change would reach an irreversible point by 2030, although action needs to be taken much sooner to prevent that.

It has long been known that climate change impacts temperatures, natural disasters, and wildlife among others. Now we can add yet another: researchers from the University of Reading recently published an article in Nature on their research into how climate change has affected the jetstream. The Guardian picked up this story in August.

Jetstreams are narrow bands of moving air that encircle the globe several miles above sea level, reaching speeds of up to 250 mph. The turbulence you may experience on transatlantic flights is frequently due to these jetstreams, and they are only getting worse.

According to Paul Williams, one of the researchers behind the study, in The Guardian, “the winds and temperatures are in a certain kind of balance in the atmosphere… it is impossible to change the temperature patterns without… [affecting] the wind patterns.” This argument was backed up by their data, which showed that there has been a significant change in the jetstream since 1979, consistent with climate change patterns. “The amount of severe turbulence… could double or triple by the period 2050-2080,” according to The Guardian.

But even if you don’t fly, climate change is still affecting us right here in Pittsburgh. Not only are we experiencing wonky weather, but now we’re also getting landslides.

The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the yearly death toll due to landslides is between 25 and 50 deaths, combined with two to four billion dollars worth of property damage. And in Pittsburgh, landslides have been on the rise, with over 131 properties damaged in 2018 alone, a trend that is expected to continue over the years. Worldwide, the death toll is in the thousands.

The natural question is: what does climate change have to do with this? The answer is surprisingly simple. “The issue is that many areas are becoming wetter,” said Karen Lightman, the executive director of the Metro21: Smart Cities Institute in a Carnegie Mellon press release. But even with such a simple explanation, predicting when and where landslides may occur is no easy task.

Enter Cristoph Mertz, the principal project scientist at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute and co-founder of RoadBotics, who is researching how deep learning, a subset of machine learning, can be used to detect an impending landslide before it occurs.

The potential for Mertz’s network extends beyond detection as he hopes to use it to direct a potential infrastructure change that would be better prepared to predict and prevent landslides. By developing a consistent metric of damage from landslides, Mertz’s model can guide budget decisions and resource allocations to areas that need it most, bolstering the American infrastructure as a whole.

Currently, Mertz’s team is working with specialists both inside and outside of Carnegie Mellon, including authorities on computer science, geology, infrastructure, and water and sewage, and collaborating with Allegheny County to test the viability of the network on potential landslide locations.

From student organizations to department “Green Teams,” there is a lot the student body is doing to mitigate the impact of global climate change.