August 16, 2012

Study: Landslide Fatalities Exceed Previous Estimates

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Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

A new study by researchers at Durham University in the United Kingdom asserts that landslide deaths have been underestimated by tenfold.

The result of their research has been compiled in a new database, the Durham Fatal Landslide Database (DFLD), which shows that 32,000 people died in landslides between 2004 and 2010. Previous estimates pegged the range of fatalities at 3,000 to 7,000.

According to their report published in the journal Geology, the researchers said the new database can inform officials who prepare for and manage the aftermath of these deadly events, particularly those living in highly susceptible regions.

“Landslides are a global hazard requiring a major change in perception and policy,” said report author David Petley, a professor of geography at the university´s International Landslide Centre.

The researchers found that landslide fatalities happen most frequently during the northern hemisphere´s summer, particularly during the Asian monsoon season. They also discovered that densely populated Asian slums built on deforested slopes contribute to the toll these events have on the local populace.“¨“¨The team´s report and accompanying web video highlighted hotspots in southern and Southeast Asia, including the southern edge of the Himalayas, Sri Lanka, and the Sichuan basin in central China. Pacific island nations like those on the Philippines and Indonesia were also disproportionately affected by landslides, according to the study.“¨“¨ In the western hemisphere, deadly landslides occur more frequently in poorer areas of Mexico, Haiti and all the way down Central and South America to Chile. The deforested slopes in these areas are highly vulnerable to the violent tropical storms that pass through the regions.

While these areas are considered hotspots for deadly landslides, other areas around the globe experience this tragedy on a less frequent basis. Last month, floods and the landslides that can with them killed more than 100 people in southern Russia after the area was hit with a massive rainfall. In June, a landslide in Uganda killed about 30 people and more than 100 went missing.

The U.K. researchers noted that they may have underestimated the number of landslide deaths as well, since they had to exclude fatalities that were recorded following an earthquake. They added that it was often difficult to determine if deaths had been caused by a landslide or other after effects of a quake in some situations.

The major culprit responsible for landslide deaths is difficult to single out. Some theories point to rising populations and the clearing of forests or other human activities that makes the earth in these areas more susceptible to heavy rainfall. Others implicate climate change, saying the increased odds for the kind of extreme weather can be linked to an uptick in landslides and other disasters.

"Areas with a combination of high relief, intense rainfall, and a high population density are most likely to experience high numbers of fatal landslides,” Petley said.

“There are things that we can do to manage and mitigate landslide risks such as controlling land use, pro-active forest management and guiding development away from vulnerable areas,” he suggested.