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Alba Yerro-Colom to use National Science Foundation CAREER award to better predict and prevent landslides

Using computational modeling, the project will study how rainfall patterns interact with water, roots, and soil and takes climate change into account

( Almost one-fifth of the global land surface is classified as highly susceptible to rainfall-triggered landslides. According to the World Health Organization, landslides are more widespread than any other geological hazard to occur worldwide and are increasing because of climate change. 

Alba Yerro-Colom, assistant professor in the Charles E. Via, Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is motivated to advance the understanding of these natural occurrences while considering how vegetation and changes in rainfall patterns could better predict their potential damage. She has been awarded a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to address this issue.

Landslides are natural events that commonly develop when soil, rocks, or debris move down a slope that's often covered in vegetation. They are dangerous for people. Between 2007 and 2015, 7,000 rainfall-triggered landslides killed over 25,000 people and injured another 2,000, according to NASA’s Global Landslide Catalog.

Using plants to stabilize slopes has been considered an environmentally friendly solution, but it isn’t fully understood how different plant roots affect landslides. 

Yerro-Colom's $570,000 award aims to develop a numerical framework to study how rainfall patterns affect the interaction between water, roots, and soil during a landslide event and how different plants can make the outcome better or worse. 

This award, the most prestigious given by the National Science Foundation for early career faculty, encourages faculty to serve as academic role models in research and education and encompasses Yerro-Colom’s long-term research career goal: to improve the knowledge of geotechnical problems that threaten the stability of civil infrastructure and the safety of communities.

About the project Landslides can cause significant damage to homes, infrastructure, and lives.

With climate change affecting global weather patterns, the risk of landslides is expected to increase. Climate change brings altered rainfall patterns, including more intense rainstorms and longer periods of droughts and wildfires. These all can contribute to the frequency of landslides, posing a growing risk to communities, especially those already facing poverty.

“By understanding how vegetation and climate change interact to influence landslide risks, we can better prepare and protect vulnerable communities,” said Yerro-Colom. “It is crucial to invest in research to mitigate the impact of landslides in the face of climate change.”

Yerro-Colom's project will develop a tool to simulate the entire process of a landslide, from its initiation to its consequences. Additionally, the project will provide a comprehensive understanding of landslide dynamics by using physics-based mathematical tools combined with advanced machine learning models. This knowledge will serve as a foundation for creating new guidelines to enhance the effectiveness of solutions for landslide prevention and community preparedness.  

“The goal is to allow us to make better plans for preventing rainfall-triggered landslides and keeping communities safe. We want to better understand the effectiveness of vegetation reinforcement in natural and built slopes in a global climate change scenario,” said Yerro-Colom.

Yerro-Colom was recently awarded another National Science Foundation grant for the prediction of earthquake-triggered failures in complex sites. Additionally, she just wrapped up an Early-concept Grant for Exploratory Research project that used a similar computational method to improve the accuracy and resolution of data used to study soil liquefaction risk. 

The landslide study will contribute to reducing landslide-related losses by making better ways to predict them. The research findings, numerical tools, and tutorial manuals resulting from this study will be freely available online with open access. An outreach plan will disseminate the information to maximize its impact on societies at risk of landslides, which will improve the understanding and management of slope stability and landslide impacts. This information will help regulators, geotechnical engineers, and landowners to make responsible decisions about landslide risk. In the future, it could also help with other natural disasters.

“Eventually, the resulting knowledge and numerical software can also give us a baseline to better understand the consequences of other natural hazards also affected by climate change and vegetation, such as wildfires and erosion,” said Yerro-Colom.

She will teach these ideas through activities and exhibits at local museums such as the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke. There will also be graduate education to provide tools and expertise to future geotechnical engineers that will equip them with proficiency to approach challenges and to effectively communicate to non-technical audiences.

“We especially want to serve local, low-income, and rural communities in the Appalachia by increasing the literacy around the technical aspects of landslide hazards and climate change," Yerro-Colom said.



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[] Alba Yerro-Colom to use National Science Foundation CAREER award to better predict and prevent landslides
Using computational modeling, the project will study how rainfall patterns interact with water, roots, and soil and takes climate change into account