Post-Fire Landslide Problems Likely to Worsen: What Can Be Done?
By Lee MacDonald
Several weeks after a series of wildfires blackened nearly 500 square miles in Southern California, a large winter storm rolled in from the Pacific. In most places the rainfall was welcomed and did not cause any major flooding from burned or unburned hillslopes.
But in the town of Montecito, a coastal community in Santa Barbara County that lies at the foot of the mountains blackened by the Thomas Fire, a devastating set of sediment-laden flows killed at least 20 people and damaged or destroyed more than 500 homes. In the popular press these flows were termed "mudslides," but with some rocks as large as cars these are more accurately described as hyperconcentrated flows or debris flows, depending on the amount of sediment mixed with the water.
Why did these deadly flows happen? To what extent were these flows caused by the fire, the extreme burst of rainfall, or a combination? And what can we do to reduce similar risks in the future?
Causes of Post-Fire Erosion
Some national newspapers are saying that these post-fire flows are caused by the loss of vegetation, but as a scientist studying the effects of fires on soils, runoff and erosion, I can say this is not completely accurate. While many wildfires do burn trees and shrubs, the loss of this overlying vegetation canopy only slightly increases the amount of rainfall that reaches the soil surface and the kinetic energy delivered by the raindrops to the ground surface.
The far more important effect of high and moderate severity wildfires is that they can burn off all the surface litter and ground vegetation, leaving a layer of easily removed ash on top of otherwise bare soil.
Photo Credits: NASA Earth Observatory
In certain vegetation types, like chaparral and coniferous forests, fires will vaporize organic compounds found in the leaf litter. Some of these compounds are driven downward by the heat where they condense on cooler soil particles just below the soil surface. In sufficient quantity and especially in coarser-textured soils, the resulting water-repellent layer impedes the normal downward flow of water. Higher-severity fires also can consume some of the shallow soil organic matter that helps bind together larger soil clumps.
When winds and the first rains arrive, they quickly wash the ash away, and the impact of raindrops on the bare soil can detach and disperse small soil particles to create a surface seal or crust.
The net result is that after a high or moderate severity fire the ability of the soil to absorb water decreases from around several inches per hour to perhaps just one-third of an inch per hour. Any additional rainfall becomes surface runoff, and a rainstorm of only one inch per hour can generate 1.5 million cubic feet of runoff per square mile.
The raindrops and surface runoff can easily erode and transport the unprotected soil on the hillsides. The resulting accumulation and concentration of flow and sediment in stream channels can rapidly mobilize massive amounts of rocks and soil.
The resulting mixture of water, eroded soil and rocks can quickly bulk up to a concentrated mix of water with 10 to 40 percent sediment, or an even more concentrated and deadly debris flow moving at up to 20 miles per hour. Once these flows reach flatter areas or encounter obstacles, the velocity decreases and the rocks and mud are deposited. The potential for such flows is exacerbated in much of Southern California because the mountains are steeper than normal due to rapid uplift along regional faults.
With population growth there are ever more houses and other developments at the base of the mountains. Of even greater concern is the placement of houses and other structures on the alluvial fans where streams have been depositing sediment and rapidly changing their course over many thousands of years.
No Easy Fixes
When hillslopes are denuded of their surface soil cover by fire or other processes, the resulting increase in runoff and erosion is nearly inevitable. Mulch or other surface cover can be applied to help protect the soil from the raindrop impact, but mulching is difficult and expensive to quickly apply over large areas, and is progressively ineffective on steeper slopes or during more intense storms that produce more surface runoff.
Debris basins can be constructed to capture the runoff and sediment, but there are problems of finding locations and sizing their capacity for extreme events, as well clearing them prior to large storms.
In Montecito an exceptional storm cell developed over a severely burned area, with nearly an inch of rain in just 15 minutes and over half an inch of rain in just five minutes. Montecito is particularly at risk as the hillslopes above town are oversteepened by faulting and rapid uplift, and much of the town is built on deposits laid down by previous floods.
The Dunsmir Sediment Basin in Los Angeles County, CaliforniaFEMA
Some debris basins were in place, but they were quickly overtopped by the hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of water and sediment. While high post-fire runoff and erosion rates could be expected, it was not possible to accurately predict the exact location and extreme magnitude of this particular storm and resulting debris flows.
There is a long history of comparable post-fire debris flows in the Los Angeles area with a greater loss of life. Comparable events also have occurred elsewhere in the western U.S., but in most cases the consequences have been much less tragic because wildfires more commonly occur in much less populated areas. This means the resultant effects are often limited to degraded water quality, loss of aquatic habitat and excess reservoir sedimentation.
Looking to the future, it is very clear that the problem is only going to get worse.
First, climate change is increasing the length and severity of the fire season by reducing snowpacks and increasing temperatures. Warmer temperatures increase fire risk as well as the capacity of the atmosphere to hold water, which is increasing rainfall intensities.
Second, a policy of suppressing wildfires has increased the amount and density of vegetation in some areas. This greater fuel load can result in higher severity fires and more denuded hillslopes. Future wildfires are inevitable, and when there are high temperatures, high winds, low humidity and large fuel loads, it is not possible to safely fight or control a large wildfire.
Nor is it possible to stop the subsequent hillslope runoff and erosion. Debris basins or diversion structures can be built to reduce damage, but these are expensive and often do not have sufficient capacity for extreme post-fire storm events. While we are getting much better at predicting the risk of sediment-laden flows after wildfires through improved modeling and weather forecasting, the starting point has to be stricter zoning rules to minimize construction in vulnerable areas. And once an area does burn, residents must heed the calls for evacuation when post-fire rainstorms are predicted.
On the positive side, most burned areas generally revegetate within two to four years. Once there is less than about 30-35 percent bare soil, there is a greatly reduced risk of high runoff and erosion rates.
In Montecito the rapid delineation of risk zones led to the evacuations that undoubtedly helped save many hundreds of lives. What is now important is that the lessons from the Thomas Fire are applied in other areas to help minimize future losses of life and property. This is true in both the short term as more rain falls on the recently burned areas, and over the longer term given our increasingly fire-prone future.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
Many people shop online for everything from clothes to appliances. If they do not like the product, they simply return it. But there's an environmental cost to returns.
- Are We Doomed If We Don't Curb Carbon Emissions by 2030 ... ›
- California Winery Cuts Carbon Emissions With Lighter Bottles ... ›
- Wealthy One Percent Are Producing More Carbon Emissions Than ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Dolf Gielen and Morgan Bazilian
John Kerry helped bring the world into the Paris climate agreement and expanded America's reputation as a climate leader. That reputation is now in tatters, and President-elect Joe Biden is asking Kerry to rebuild it again – this time as U.S. climate envoy.
Energy Is at the Center of the Climate Challenge<p>The <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/1/" target="_blank">effects of climate change</a> are already evident across the globe, from <a href="https://theconversation.com/100-degrees-in-siberia-5-ways-the-extreme-arctic-heat-wave-follows-a-disturbing-pattern-141442" target="_blank">extreme heat waves</a> to <a href="https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/" target="_blank">sea level rise</a>. But while the challenge is daunting, there is hope. Solar and wind power have become the <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2020/Jun/Renewable-Power-Costs-in-2019" target="_blank">cheapest forms of power generation globally</a>, and technology progress and innovation continue apace to support a transition to clean energy.</p><p>In the U.S. under a Biden administration, long-term national climate legislation will depend on who controls the Senate, and that won't be clear until after two run-off elections in Georgia in January.</p><p>But there is no shortage of <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2020-biden-climate-change-advice/" target="_blank">ideas for ways Biden</a> could still take action even if his proposals are blocked in Congress. For example, he could use executive orders and direct government agencies to tighten regulations on greenhouse gas emissions; increase research and development in clean energy technologies; and empower states to exceed national standards, <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-autos-emissions-california/defying-trump-california-locks-in-vehicle-emission-deals-with-major-automakers-idUSKCN25D2CH" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">as California did in the past with auto emission standards</a>. A focus on a just and equitable transition for communities and people affected by the decline of fossil fuels will also be key to creating a sustainable transition.</p><p>The U.S. position as the world's largest oil and gas producer and consumer creates political challenges for any administration. U.S. forays into European energy security are often treated with suspicion. Recently, France blocked <a href="https://www.wsj.com/articles/frances-engie-backs-out-of-u-s-lng-deal-11604435609" target="_blank">a multi-billion dollar contract</a> to buy U.S. liquefied natural gas because of concerns about limited emissions regulations in Texas.</p><p>Strengthening cooperation and partnerships with like-minded countries will be critical to bring about a transition to cleaner energy as well as sustainability in agriculture, forestry, water and other sectors of the global economy.</p>
Creating a Global Sustainable Transition<p>How the world recovers from COVID-19's economic damage could help drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix.</p><p>Nearly one-third of Europe's US$2 trillion economic relief package <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-21/eu-approves-biggest-green-stimulus-in-history-with-572-billion-plan" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">involves investments that are also good for the climate</a>. The European Union is also strengthening its 2030 climate targets, though each country's energy and climate plans will be critical for successfully implementing them. The <a href="https://joebiden.com/clean-energy/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Biden plan</a> – including a $2 trillion commitment to developing sustainable energy and infrastructure – is aligned with a global energy transition, but its implementation is also uncertain.</p><p>Once Biden takes office, Kerry will be joining ongoing <a href="https://www.un.org/en/conferences/energy2021/about#:%7E:text=The%20overarching%20goal%20of%20the,2030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development.&text=Accelerate%20delivery%20of%20United%20Nations,related%20issues%20at%20all%20levels." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high-level discussions on the energy transition</a> at the U.N. General Assembly and other gatherings of international leaders. With the U.S. no longer obstructing work on climate issues, the G-7 and G-20 have more potential for progress on energy and climate.</p><p>Lots of technical details still need to be worked out, including international trade frameworks and standards that can help countries lower greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep global warming in check. <a href="https://www.carbonpricingleadership.org/what" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Carbon pricing</a> and <a href="https://www.csis.org/analysis/how-can-europe-get-carbon-border-adjustment-right" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon border adjustment taxes</a>, which create incentive for companies to reduce emissions, may be part of it. A consistent and comprehensive set of national energy transition plans will also be needed.</p><p>The global shift to <a href="https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jan/A-New-World-The-Geopolitics-of-the-Energy-Transformation" target="_blank">clean energy will also have geopolitical implications for countries and regions</a>, and this will have a profound impact on wider international relations. Kerry, with his experience as secretary of state in the Obama administration, and Biden's plan to make the climate envoy position part of the National Security Council, may help mend these relations. In doing so, the U.S. may again join the wider community of countries willing to lead.</p>
- 14 States On Track to Meet Paris Targets - EcoWatch ›
- Biden Vows to Ax Keystone XL if Elected - EcoWatch ›
- Biden Names John Kerry as First-Ever Climate Envoy - EcoWatch ›
By Maria Caffrey
As we approach the holidays I, like most people, have been reflecting on everything 2020 has given us (or taken away) while starting to look ahead to 2021.
We Need More Than Listening<p>By now we have all become sadly accustomed to the current administration sidelining scientists, most prominently Dr. Anthony Fauci, because the facts they provide do not fit with the political rhetoric of the moment.</p><p>I have <a href="https://www.csldf.org/2019/08/22/csldf-helps-climate-scientist-maria-caffrey-fight-for-scientific-integrity/" target="_blank">my own history</a> of filing a scientific integrity complaint with the National Park Service (which falls under the Department of the Interior) after senior ranking employees attempted to censor one of my scientific reports. I know all too well the damage and pain that these actions cause, not just for the individual scientist, but also because these <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/attacks-on-science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">attacks on science</a> over the last few years have undermined sound, evidence-based decision making.</p><p>President-elect Biden has repeatedly said that he will <a href="https://thehill.com/homenews/521638-trump-biden-will-listen-to-the-scientists-if-elected" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">listen to the scientists</a>. While this is certainly a welcome change, listening can only take us so far. This past week Lauren Kurtz from the <a href="https://www.csldf.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Climate Science Legal Defense Fund</a> and my colleague <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/about/people/gretchen-goldman" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gretchen Goldman</a> published <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ten-steps-that-can-restore-scientific-integrity-in-government/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an article</a> listing 10 actions the new administration should implement to show their commitment to strengthening government science:</p><ol><li>Clearly prohibit political interference and censorship.</li><li>Protect scientists' communication rights.</li><li>Acknowledge that attempts to violate scientific integrity, even if ultimately not fruitful, are still violations.</li><li>Protect federal scientists' right to provide information to Congress and other lawmakers.</li><li>Commit to incorporating the best science as part of agency decisions.</li><li>Elevate agency scientific integrity policies to have the full force of law.</li><li>Publicly release anonymized information about scientific integrity complaints and their resolutions at every agency.</li><li>Institute an intra-agency workforce, potentially under the White House <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/strengthening-science-and-si-at-ostp.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Office of Science and Technology Policy</a>, to coordinate scientific integrity efforts across agencies, foster discussion of policy improvements, and standardize criteria for policies across agencies.</li><li>Strengthen whistleblower protections.</li><li>Ensure that policies cover all actors who will be dealing with science.</li></ol>
Time for Action<p>I have spoken to many scientists, particularly federal scientists, who are eager to turn the page so they can hurry back to the work they had been doing before this administration, but I urge caution in assuming that things can be "normal" again.</p><p>Before Trump, I naively thought the scientific integrity policies established during the <a href="https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/12/19/scientific-integrity-policies-update" target="_blank">Obama administration</a> would be sufficient. I never imagined that any administration could so willfully ignore and attack expert advice and evidence that is intended to protect us and our public lands.</p><p>I have personally witnessed how hard our federal scientists work. They put in long hours with minimal pay (far less that what they could get if they worked in private industry) to pursue one simple goal: to make things better for the nation.</p><p>We need stronger scientific integrity policies to protect these people and their work. But more than that, we need stronger scientific integrity laws because they also benefit society.</p>
By Andrea Germanos
Environmental campaigners stressed the need for the incoming Biden White House to put in place permanent protections for Alaska's Bristol Bay after the Trump administration on Wednesday denied a permit for the proposed Pebble Mine that threatened "lasting harm to this phenomenally productive ecosystem" and death to the area's Indigenous culture.
<div id="da98c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="478a197b7c59c92787c92bec92f1ac39"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1331662923710693376" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Bristol Bay forever, Pebble mine never. #NoPebbleMine #SaveBristolBay https://t.co/CBQ9zuy8A5</div> — Save Bristol Bay (@Save Bristol Bay)<a href="https://twitter.com/SaveBristolBay/statuses/1331662923710693376">1606328156.0</a></blockquote></div>
- Pebble Mine Threatens One of the Last Great Salmon Rivers ... ›
- The Pebble Mine Is Too Toxic Even for the Trump Administration ... ›
- Trump Admin Reverses Obama-Era Restrictions on Pebble Mine ... ›
OlgaMiltsova / iStock / Getty Images Plus
By Gwen Ranniger
In the midst of a pandemic, sales of cleaning products have skyrocketed, and many feel a need to clean more often. Knowing what to look for when purchasing cleaning supplies can help prevent unwanted and dangerous toxics from entering your home.