As mountains slide in the U.S., Japan, and Canada, the looming question is: Are we seeing climate change at work? The short answer is: Yes.
A quick check turns up major slides in nine different areas in the past six weeks.
- June 11: A landslide registering magnitude 3.4 on earthquake monitors sent rock and debris smashing down an Alaskan glacier in Glacier Bay National Park. A pilot who flew over the area July 2nd was first to report the collapse of a 200-meter-wide section of Lituya Mountain.
- June 28: Heavy rain triggered a mudslide in China’s Sichuan province, forcing 2,500 people out of their homes. Rescuers had recovered 20 bodies by July 19, but another 20 were still missing.
- July 12 to 15: Massive flooding and hundreds of landslides in southwest Japan buried 28 people, damaged thousands of homes, damaged roads and bridges, and temporarily displaced a quarter of a million people. On northern Kyushu island over 5,000 were cut off from food, water and medical supplies when landslides blocked roads.
- July 12: A landslide tore down the mountain side, splitting the tiny community of Johnsons Landing, B.C., and killing four people.
- July 16: The resort community of Fairmont Hot Springs, near Johnsons Landing, was cut off from the outside world when a mudslide wiped out road and trail access to the hot springs. Nearly 600 visitors to the area were trapped but safe. Had the slide occurred five minutes earlier, a Global TV crew would have been wiped out.
- July 18: Mudslides closed the Yakima River Canyon road between Ellensburg and Yakima, Washington.
- July 20: A mudslide the size of a football field closed the Trans-Canada Highway 2 km west of Banff, Alberta.
- July 20: One man was killed, houses were destroyed, and several villages in the southeast of Austria were cut off by mudslides up to 10 metres high.
- July 21: About 400 vehicles were stranded on China’s National Highway 314 when mudslides blocked a major highway.
The danger remains high in areas where more heavy rain or unstable weather is expected. Human activity such as logging can trigger slides, but the recent slides are linked to heavy rainfall. Another contributing factor is permafrost degradation due to warming temperatures.
Natural Resources Canada warns:
Climate change, where the projected change involves increased temperature and precipitation and more extreme storms, will probably result in an increase in landslide events.
A joint symposium on landslides (11th International and 2nd North American) had just wrapped up in Banff when the first of these landslides buried 5 miles of an Alaskan glacier. Professor Erik Eberhardt, director of geological engineering at the University of British Columbia, warned that the combination of heavy rains and rapid melting of the snowpack that led to the Johnsons Landing slide will likely happen more frequently because of climate change.
Human activity and natural processes already create a level of instability in mountain areas. It appears the addition of climate change will add to the human, wildlife, and environmental toll of landslides in future.
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