Monitoring (Natural) Environmental Mayhem

E-mail Melanie Martella

Yesterday was Earth Day so how fitting to discuss sensors to monitor extreme natural events, especially after a week of erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, and tropical storms. Specifically, U.K. researchers are using sensors to help predict landslides and flash flooding.

To my knowledge (and this isn't an exhaustive list), we've got sensors watching for tsunamis, erupting volcanoes, earthquakes, sliding hillsides, snow fields, glaciers, and burning trees, as well as the sensors monitoring infrastructure to see how dams, buildings, pipelines, railways, roads, and bridges react to extreme weather, seismic activity, or possibly alien invasion. (Just kidding on that last one.) We want to understand our environment, but we really want to get as much early warning as possible before Nature pulls out the big guns.

In another development along these lines, University of Southampton researchers Dr. Kirk Martinez and Professor Jane Hart are using small wireless sensors to measure the erosion rate of hillsides, which is very handy if you live in a region prone to landslides, such as Mexico, Malaysia, Nepal, California, and the Andes in South America.

The fist-sized devices pack a radio, low-power microcontroller, batteries, and sensors for pressure, temperature, movement, and moisture into a waterproof housing and were originally developed for glacier monitoring. The probes communicate with each other, store the data, and relay them to a Web server. Based on how well the probes performed in the field, Martinez sought to apply them to solve other problems.

From the Guardian article, "Scientists develop sensor to predict freak weather, from flash flooding to landslides", the researchers have installed, as part of the San Diego Coastal Storms real-time remote erosion monitoring and outreach program, several of the sensor probes in the Los Laureles canyon in Tijuana, northwestern Mexico, to see whether the erosion data the probes acquire can provide more information about the conditions that cause landslides and thus give some kind of warning if landslides are likely to occur.

As Martinez says in the article, "The canyon area has no proper drainage system, and very poor-quality housing that faces massive flooding problems. The streets are not paved and when water flows, it picks up sediment and becomes quite aggressive. So we put our probes in place to measure the ground's tilt, how moist it is, the temperature, and the crushing pressure, to help local scientists prevent landslides. The probes measure every 10 minutes. Put together with meteorological predictions for rainfall and storms, the data can show how and why things are moving, and indicate the start of a landslide. It means that the local experts are receiving regular, accurate data and are working on preventative slope management."

Because we live in wonderful times you can view the data from these probes online.

I hope that this project is successful and that it's possible to make the probes more cheaply to enable their more widespread use; £200 a pop (albeit for a bespoke bit of engineering) is a bit steep. And I say this not just because it's a good idea! Here in New Hampshire our climate seems to have shifted toward the wetter end of the spectrum, and torrential rains and steep, stony hillsides are not a great mix, as portions of Route 101 can attest. As long as we humans persist in living downslope we're going to have to deal with landslides—it would be lovely to know when they're likely to happen.

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