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Joe Wartman Honored with 2016 Burwell Award for Oso Landslide Research

July 1, 2016

A Picture of Joe Wartman
Joe Wartman

In recognition of his research on the deadliest landslide disaster in the history of the United States, Associate Professor Joe Wartman is one of two UW recipients of the Geological Society of America’s (GSA) 2016 Edward Burwell Jr. Award. Wartman is honored together with UW Earth and Space Sciences Professor David Montgomery, and five other researchers, who collaboratively collected data and published their findings in the aftermath of the Oso Landslide. The GSA’s most prestigious prize for engineering geology, the Burwell Award honors researchers who publish findings that advance current knowledge in the field.

“The award was a wonderful surprise,” Wartman said. “As a team, we put much work into the research under very challenging conditions, so it was deeply gratifying for us to receive this recognition from the professional community.”

Two months after the March 2014 Oso Landslide, which killed 43 people and caused an estimated $120 million in damage and loses, the National Science Foundation-sponsored Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance Association sent the team of seven researchers, which Wartman co-led, to the landslide site to collect data and document conditions. The research team published their report, “The 22 March 2014 Oso Landslide, Snohomish County, Washington: Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance,” within months following their field work.

In addition to data collected via aerial photographs, terrain models and satellite imagery, the team evaluated Doppler weather radar data, seismologic data and interviewed community officials and residents. In the report, the researchers detail how the landslide occurred in an area with a history of large landslides during the past several thousand years, many similar in scale to the 2014 landslide. The researchers documented how the landslide was preceded by an intense three-week rainfall and detailed several other factors that contributed to the catastrophe, such as changes in groundwater and weakening of geologic materials at the site. The researchers also presented a hypothesized mechanism for how the landslide was triggered and subsequently unfolded.

“Our hope is that this research provides the community with a clearer understand of the many factors that contributed to the disaster,” Wartman said. “This understanding will allow us to do a better job in the future of identifying that places that are most at risk and also permit us to develop more effective ways to mitigate landslide hazards.”

The report includes several recommendations, including the need to carefully assess the zoning of communities near sloping ground; implementing monitoring and warning systems to reduce the impact of landslides; and utilizing advancements in imaging technology to better monitor and understand slope behavior and changes over time.

The report was selected for the 2016 Burwell Award due to its high technical level and comprehensive nature, according to the award citation. The researchers were commended for their “exceptional job summarizing the event” and for making the report available in a timely manner following their field work.

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UW Today article