The science of landslides, and why they’re so devastating in PNG

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A magnitude 7.5 earthquake took place on February 25, 81km southwest of Porgera, Papua New Guinea.
US Geological Survey

Benjy Marks, University of Sydney

A magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck the Southern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea on February 25, 2018. This was followed by a series of aftershocks, producing widespread landslides that have killed dozens and injured hundreds. The same landslides have cut off roads, telecommunications and power to the area.


The PNG government has declared a state of emergency in the region. There is growing concern over several valleys that have been dammed by landslides and are beginning to fill with water – now ready to collapse and surge downstream, directly towards more villages.

Why is Papua New Guinea so susceptible to landslides? It’s a combination of factors – steep terrain, earthquakes and aftershocks plus recent seasonal rains have created an environment that is prone to collapse.

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How land becomes unstable

The Earth around us is generally pretty stable, but when the ground shakes during an earthquake it can start to move in ways we don’t expect.

Pressure changes during an earthquake create an effect in the soil called liquefaction, where the soil itself acts as a fluid.

When wet soil is exposed to physical pressure, other physical changes take place.

When lots of water is present in the soil, as is the case now during the monsoon season in Papua New Guinea, liquefaction can happen even more easily.

When liquefaction occurs, the earthquake creates changes due to friction. Imagine a visit to the greengrocer, where an accidental bumping of a carefully stacked pile of apples can cause cause them all to suddenly collapse. What was holding the pile together was friction between the individual apples – and when this disappears, so does the pile.

In an earthquake, two tectonic plates slip past one another deep underground, rubbing together and cracking the nearby rocks. The effects of this movement up at the surface can vary depending on the nature of the earthquake, but one feature is fairly common: small objects bounce around. The sand grains just below the surface do the same thing, but a bit less excitedly. A few metres down, grains could be bouncing around just enough to lose contact with each other, removing the friction, and becoming unstable.

A 2012 landslide in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea.
dfataustralianaid/flickr, CC BY

Things are normally stable because they’re sitting on top of something else. When that support suddenly disappears, things tend to fall down – this is the classic dodgy folding chair problem experienced by many.

In engineering, we call this “failure” – and in the building industry it usually occurs immediately before the responsible engineer receives a call from a lawyer. Mechanically, this failure happens when the available friction isn’t enough to support the weight of the material above it.

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When soil acts like fluid

Once a slope fails, it starts to fall downhill. If it really slides, then we’re back to the same situation of grains bouncing around. Now, none of the grains are resting against each other, and the whole thing is acting like a fluid.

A couple of interesting things happen at this point. First, as the grains are bouncing around, small particles start to fall through all the newly formed holes that have opened up. This occurs for the same reason that you find all the crumbs at the bottom of your cereal box, and all of the unpopped kernels at the bottom of your bowl of popcorn. Once these smaller fragments accumulate at the bottom of the flowing landslide, they can help it slide more easily, accelerating everything and increasing its destructive power.

Second, landslides typically flow faster at the surface than below, so as large particles accumulate at the top they are also the ones moving the fastest, and they start to collect at the front of the landslide. These large particles, often boulders and trees, can be incredibly damaging for any people or structures in their path.

Simulation of a landslide impacting a structure.
Benjy Marks/USyd

The image above shows a laboratory simulation of a landslide flowing down a slope and hitting a fixed wall. The spherical particles are coloured by size (small is yellow; large is blue). Data from these sorts of studies can help predict the forces that an object will feel if it gets hit by a landslide.

Watching and waiting

These complex dynamics mean that we really need to know a lot about the geography and geology of a particular slope before any kind of reliable prediction could be made about the behaviour of a particular landslide.

In the remote areas of Papua New Guinea, accumulating this data at every point on every slope is a tough challenge. Luckily, huge advancements have recently been made in remote sensing, so that planes and satellites can be used to extract this vital information.

Using sophisticated sensors, they can see past foliage and map the ground surface in high resolution. As satellites orbit quite regularly, small changes in the surface topography can be monitored. Scientists hope that by using this information, unstable regions that haven’t yet failed can be identified and monitored.

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Papua New Guinea is located on an active fault line and has had nine major earthquakes in the past five years. Combined with the often remote and steep terrain, together with a monsoon season that delivers repeated heavy rainfall events, it is a particularly active area for landslides to develop.

The ConversationThe dry season in Papua New Guinea will not arrive until June. During the current wet season we may see even more slopes fail due to destabilisation by the recent earthquakes.

Benjy Marks, Lecturer in Geomechanics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Scars left by Australia’s undersea landslides reveal future tsunami potential

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The Byron Scar, left behind by an undersea landslide. Colours indicate depths.
Samantha Clarke, Author provided

Samantha Clarke, University of Sydney; Hannah Power, University of Newcastle; Kaya Wilson, University of Newcastle, and Tom Hubble, University of Sydney

It is often said that we know more about the surface of other planets than we do about our own deep ocean. To overcome this problem, we embarked on a voyage on CSIRO’s research vessel, the Southern Surveyor, to help map Australia’s continental slope – the region of seafloor connecting the shallow continental shelf to the deep oceanic abyssal plain.

The majority of our seafloor maps depict most of the ocean as blank and featureless (and the majority still do!). These maps are derived from wide-scale satellite data, which produce images showing only very large features such as sub-oceanic mountain ranges (like those seen on Google Earth). Compare that with the resolution of land-based imagery, which allows you to zoom in on individual trees in your own neighbourhood if you want to.

But using a state-of-the art sonar system attached to the Southern Surveyor, we have now studied sections of the seafloor in more detail. In the process, we found evidence of huge underwater landslides close to shore over the past 25,000 years.

Generally triggered by earthquakes, landslides like these can cause tsumanis.

Into the void

For 90% of the ocean, we still struggle to identify any feature the size of, say, Canberra. For this reason, we know more about the surface of Venus than we do about our own ocean’s depths.

As we sailed the Southern Surveyor in 2013, a multibeam sonar system attached to the vessel revealed images of the ocean floor in unprecedented detail. Only 40-60km offshore from major cities including Sydney, Wollongong, Byron Bay and Brisbane, we found huge scars where sediment had collapsed, forming submarine landslides up to several tens of kilometres across.

A portion of the continental slope looking onshore towards Brisbane, showing the ‘eaten away’ appearance of the slope in the northern two-thirds of the image, the result of previous submarine landslides.
Samantha Clarke

What are submarine landslides?

Submarine landslides, as the name suggests, are underwater landslides where seafloor sediments or rocks move down a slope towards the deep seafloor. They are caused by a variety of different triggers, including earthquakes and volcanic activity.

The typical evolution of a submarine landslide after failure.
Geological Digressions

As we processed the incoming data to our vessel, images of the seafloor started to become clear. What we discovered was that an extensive region of the seafloor offshore New South Wales and Southern Queensland had experienced intense submarine landsliding over the past 15 million years.

From these new, high-resolution images, we were able to identify over 250 individual historic submarine landslide scars, a number of which had the potential to generate a tsunami. The Byron Slide in the image below is a good example of one of the “smaller” submarine landslides we found – at 5.6km long, 3.5km wide, 220m thick and 1.5 cubic km in volume. This is equivalent to almost 1,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.

This image shows the Byron Slide scar, located offshore Byron Bay.
Samantha Clarke

The historic slides we found range in size from less than 0.5 cubic km to more than 20 cubic km – the same as roughly 300 to 12,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds. The slides travelled down slopes that were less than 6° on average (a 10% gradient), which is low in comparison to slides on land, which usually fail on slopes steeper than 11°.

We found several sites with cracks in the seafloor slope, suggesting that these regions may be unstable and ready to slide in the future. However, it is likely that these submarine landslides occur sporadically over geological timescales, which are much longer than a human lifetime. At a given site, landslides might happen once every 10,000 years, or even less frequently than this.

A collection of submarine landslide scars off Moreton Island.
Samantha Clarke

Since returning home, our investigations have focused on how, when, and why these submarine landslides occur. We found that east Australia’s submarine landslides are unexpectedly recent, at less than 25,000 years old, and relatively frequent in geological terms.

We also found that for a submarine landslide to generate along east Australia today, it is highly likely that an external trigger is needed, such as an earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater. The generation of submarine landslides is associated with earthquakes from other places in the world.

Submarine landslides can lead to tsunamis ranging from small to catastrophic. For example, the 2011 Tohoku tsunami resulted in more than 16,000 individuals dead or missing, and is suggested to be caused by the combination of an earthquake and a submarine landslide that was triggered by an earthquake. Luckily, Australia experiences few large earthquakes, compared with places such as New Zealand and Peru.

Why should we care about submarine landslides?

We are concerned about the hazard we would face if a submarine landslide were to occur in the future, so we model what would happen in likely locations. Modelling is our best prediction method and requires combining seafloor maps and sediment data in computer models to work out how likely and dangerous a landslide threat is.

Our current models of tsunamis generated by submarine landslides suggest that some sites could represent a future tsunami risk for Australia’s east coast. We are currently investigating exactly what this threat might be, but we suspect that such tsunamis pose little to no immediate threat to the coastal communities of eastern Australia.

This video shows an animation of a tsunami caused by submarine landslide.

That said, submarine landslides are an ongoing, widespread process on the east Australian continental slope, so the risk cannot be ignored (by scientists, at least).

Of course it is hard to predict exactly when, where and how these submarine landslides will happen in future. Understanding past and potential slides, as well as improving the hazard and risk evaluation posed by any resulting tsunamis, is an important and ongoing task.

The ConversationIn Australia, more than 85% of us live within 50km of the coast. Knowing what is happening far beneath the waves is a logical next step in the journey of scientific discovery.

Samantha Clarke, Associate Lecturer in Education Innovation, University of Sydney; Hannah Power, Lecturer in Coastal Science, University of Newcastle; Kaya Wilson, , University of Newcastle, and Tom Hubble, Associate professor, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.