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Landslide risk is on the rise thanks to climate change, and states are looking to identify hazards


For years, small planes have buzzed across the skies of Washington carrying specialized instrument packages that peer down through the belly of the aircraft. As they soar above mountains, rivers and valleys, the machinery paints the topography below with laser light thousands of times per second, reflecting the contours of the landscape back to onboard sensors as data, which is later processed to create detailed scans of the terrain.

This technology is known as LiDAR — Light Detection And Ranging — and the flights are the work of the state’s Landslide Hazards and LiDAR programs. The initiatives grew out of tragedy: In 2014, a massive slide broke loose above the small community of Steelhead Haven near Oso, Washington, in the foothills of the Cascades. Forty-three people were killed, making it the deadliest landslide in U.S. history.

Afterward, an influx of funding rapidly expanded the nascent programs, and the mandate was clear: Map slides, and identify potential hazard zones. “I don’t think we’re ever going to get to a place where there’s no destruction of property from a slide, because you can’t predict when that’s going to happen,” said Kate Mickelson, program manager for the Landslide Hazards Program with the Washington Geological […]

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