On the 9th of January 2018 a destructive mudslide, in Santa Barbara and Ventura County, California, hit the community of Montecito the hardest. Houses and businesses were literally swept off of their foundations. Days later the death toll had risen to 20 with scores more injured.
100 homes were destroyed and 300 more were damaged. Vehicles were among the losses too.
Freeways and hotels have been closed indefinitely as the community faces an enormous cleanup. Power had been cut off to some areas, and drinkable tap water was not available. Search and rescue teams were very active as people remained missing.
California has just undergone a destructive, dry season that produced many wildfires; these were followed by heavy rains. This dangerous cocktail of events is often followed by mudslides.
With climate change a serious threat, some are thinking California could continue to experience such disasters. Professor of Geography at UCLA, Glen MacDonald, spoke to CBC News about what could become California’s “new normal”.
“What is happening is climate change. We have been experiencing temperatures warming year after year now – this is exacerbating the contrast between our very dry summers and our wet winters. It’s essentially priming the pump for big fires, which are then followed by these landslide events. The new normal? It’s sort of like the normal that we had in the past, but on steroids.”
In 2014, California’s San Bernardino County experienced a mudslide that displaced 2,500 people and left one dead. California has become accustomed to possible mudslides, but it was the unprecedented torrential downpour that caused the latest mudslide.
Engineering around the climate
Demolition workers have begun the process of breaking down boulders that came off of the mountain during the mudslide of the 9th of January.
University Professor Laura Sullivan-Green who works in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department at San Jose University explained how the wildfires in California had a ‘direct impact’ on the mudslide.
Talking to Fox News’ KTVU, she said that California’s Thomas Fire had caused 280-thousand acres of scorched earth. The burned vegetation, mixed with the heavy rains, made the hillsides of Montecito a prime candidate for flash flooding and a mudslide.
The consensus from most experts is that the woes experienced in California are because of civil engineering practices of old. Despite the dangers, even back then, construction in California continued. The situation is similar to that in Mexico City: arguably humans should never have inhabited areas prone to natural disaster.
Mexico City was hit by an earthquake last year, highlighting its unfortunate geographic positioning. This capital city is likely to experience violent earthquakes as it is was built on an ancient lake bed. For more on Mexico City, read our report from last year.
Sullivan-Green explains that other areas of California may also be in danger of mudslides, especially if they too have suffered the triggers experienced by Montecito. She says:
“Making sure that water can drain easily, and sandbagging to prevent erosion are, really, the key things right now. It can take up to two years for the soil to recover significant vegetation, as well as reduce the water-repelling chemical change.”
Encouragingly, research is being conducted at the University of Arkansas. In 2014, a team of researchers were given US$1.4 million to develop a system of remote-sensing technologies. These were designed specifically to help the relevant authorities predict a mudslide, rockslide or similar event in the area of California.
Richard Coffman, the assistant professor of civil engineering, and head of the project said:
“The hazard to infrastructure resulting from wildfires includes the initial damage associated with the wildfire and then secondary effects from the wildfire denuding the soil. To combat these hazards, transport officials typically rely on various maps that document burn severity, soil composition, geology and topography - but these tools do not offer the high spatial and temporal resolution of remote-sensing data.”
California has suffered, but the researchers will benefit as they have yet more data to add to their current studies. It will also assist those civil engineers hard at work figuring out how to protect vital infrastructure in areas where mudslides may simply be unavoidable.
Ktvu. “Environmental Engineering Expert on SoCal Mudslides.” KTVU, www.ktvu.com/news/environmental-engineering-expert-on-socal-mudslides.
McGowan, Matt. “Grant Will Help Researchers Develop System to Assess Risk of Mudslides, Rock Falls.” University of Arkansas News, news.uark.edu/articles/25619/grant-will-help-researchers-develop-system-to-assess-risk-of-mudslides-rock-falls.
cbcnews. “Weather Extremes: California's New Normal?” YouTube, YouTube, 9 Jan. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Akqrda6QhU.