Scott Burns receives grant to research landslide potential

Scott Burns, a geology professor at Portland State University, was recently awarded a grant from NW Natural Gas. The study will look for ways to predict landslides.

The grant is worth almost $16,000 and will last nine months (one school year).

A graduate student, Brent Gaston, will also work on the project. Gaston will get his thesis out of the work he does on this project.

The geology department takes its masters and doctorate students out on field research around the Northwest. Burns said that the Northwest is a prime place for landslides.

NW Natural is interested in examining landslides because its pipelines are buried. If a pipeline is buried where a landslide occurs, there is a chance that the pipes could be damaged or broken, causing an explosion.

According to Burns, NW Natural has not had any explosions to date. He also said that NW Natural is concerned with safety and does not want to have any problems due to landslides.

Burns said the grant money will allow them to gather information that will characterize the soil, find out the geology of the area and try to predict when the next landslide will occur.

“If we can understand landslides … we can save money and lives,” Burns said.

As of yet, landslide prediction has not happened. Burns said that experts examine the conditions around the time of a landslide to help calculate when a landslide might occur.

He said that there are three reasons why landslides occur: weak soil, steep slopes and water. That combination is very prevalent in the Portland area.

According to Burns, major landslides cannot be prevented. However, the damage that they cause may be controlled. If it is known that a landslide is going to occur people can be evacuated, roads closed and pipelines turned off.

Burns said that Portland State has a great deal of interaction with the community in this field. In addition to Burns, one of the top landslide specialists in the United States, both Kenneth Cruikshank of the geology department and Trevor Smith, a professor of civil engineering, do research on landslides at PSU.

“The university has a mission of outreach in the community; this department does that,” Burns said.

Burns has taught and worked on landslides at Portland State for 12 years. But Portland State has a much richer history of studying on landslides, beginning in 1973.

Because the Northwest is so prone to landslides the examination of this phenomenon is necessary. In 1996, nine people died in one month from landslides. That same year, 35 million dollars worth of property damage accrued due to landslides.

Unfortunately Oregon made the record books in 1974, when one landslide killed nine people at once.

Burns explained another danger with landslides is the fact that people cannot really acquire landslide insurance. Burns said there is only one company which sells the insurance and, when available, it is very expensive.