A year later, UW geologist reflects on Oso and the need for better application of landslide science

David R. Montgomery
David R. Montgomery

Earth and Space Sciences’ David Montgomery is one of many University of Washington researchers who have been working to develop and analyze critical data in the aftermath of last year’s landslide in Oso. March 22, 2015 marked one year since the largest recorded landslide in U.S. history decimated a western Washington community and killed 43 people. In the wake of that disaster, Montgomery has some thoughts about how to make landslides less deadly.

Reflecting on the past year in his recent New York Times op-ed, and in a UW Today interview, Montgomery calls for strengthened ties between science and the practical application of its findings, saying, “A key challenge is to close the gap between what we know how to do as a field, and what’s being done on the applied end, outside of the geological research community.”

In particular, Montgomery and Joseph Wartman, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, call for a national effort to provide useful landslide data. “Few homeowners have the expertise to realistically assess landslide hazards themselves, and even if they did, landslide insurance is not commonly available,” they said. “With extreme weather events expected to become increasingly common, we need to commit to a program to systematically map landslide hazards across the nation and use that information to reduce landslide risks.”

Landslide mapping has advanced rapidly over the past decade, and it would be possible to create high-resolution hazard maps for the entire nation for significantly less than the estimated $1 billion or more in losses that landslides cause each year in the United States, but state and local mapping programs have been hampered by a lack of money and, in some cases, by politics.

Wartman also urges a greater emphasis on connecting science to our communities, saying, “One of the things that’s become much more apparent to me is just the importance of making sure the science doesn’t die on the vine.”

Montogmery’s academic home, the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, is in fact helping to make sure science does not die on the vine and makes its way to end-users. One of those ways is through the MESSAGe program — Masters in Earth & Space Sciences: Applied Geosciences. It is designed for students who are seeking to go into the private sector or public agencies as practicing geologists. The program offers a unique blend of classroom and field experiences to build fundamental knowledge and practical skills that employers are seeking.

Read David’s New York Times op-ed »