What comes next

by | Jan 7, 2021 | Feature Stories, Lead Story, Winter 2021 | 0 comments

As a child growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Rebecca Kramer ’09 always flipped to the back of her family’s encyclopedia to stare in awe at the pictures of erupting volcanoes. She begged her parents to buy her more books about this powerful natural phenomenon.

Today, Kramer is living out her childhood dream of working with volcanoes, but she’s taken a slightly different, more nuanced path. Kramer helps protect communities in the Pacific Northwest from the aftereffects of volcanic eruptions, which can be just as bad as—if not worse than—the initial event.

Kramer is a geophysicist at Cascades Volcano Observatory, a U.S. Geological Survey office in Vancouver, Washington, where she helps repair and maintain the specialized equipment used to monitor volcanoes in the Cascades. She’s currently helping install a modern detection system around Mount Rainier to protect nearby communities from lahars, a dangerous and destructive mudflow that can occur after eruptions and other seismic and weather events. “They are one of the deadliest volcanic hazards,” she said.

Kramer is one of the many scientists and engineers around the world who examine and mitigate the aftereffects of natural disasters, such as the rock slides that follow wildfires and tsunamis after earthquakes, for example.

Many of these aftereffects present short- and long- term problems that can disrupt entire communities and the systems they rely on every day. Wildfires can burn so hot that they melt a city’s underground water pipes, causing widespread damage to vital infrastructure and water contamination. Hurricanes and high-wind events can knock power lines to the ground, leading to monthslong power outages and, potentially, wildfires.

Because of continued population growth, increasing urbanization, climate change and other factors, these and other aftereffects are top priorities in fields such as civil and electrical engineering, geology and geophysics, where industry professionals and researchers alike are studying and taking steps to mitigate their impact on health, safety and local economies. Their focus is on community-wide resilience, which encompasses everything from individual homes and businesses to above- and below-ground utilities, highways and natural landscapes.

“With these natural disasters, often what you see is the impact at the ground level, but because of the nature of our infrastructure, the effects go down into the ground or even above in the air,” said David Ray ’91, a former commander with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who now works as a senior program manager at HDR Engineering. “You have to go in and assess all the different aspects and not just repair and replace them but rebuild them in a manner that they will be more resilient.”

Early warning system

Mount Rainier looms over much of western Washington—on a clear day, you can see the towering fourteener from Seattle. The active stratovolcano has erupted many times over the last half-million years. But even when it’s not erupting, it’s still dangerous.

To help protect against lahars, which can contain giant boulders, debris and water from rapidly melted glaciers on the surface, Kramer’s team is installing broadband seismometers and infrasound sensors along high-risk drainages on the mountainside. Together, these devices serve as an early warning system by detecting ground-shaking activity and low- frequency sound waves in the atmosphere.

This system is an important tool in its own right, but it’s made even more effective by the people living in Mount Rainier’s shadow—communities such as Orting and Ashford—who are well aware of the volcano’s potential for destruction and deeply engaged in emergency preparedness and mitigation efforts.

“One thing that really impresses me is how much a lot of these communities really own their hazards,” Kramer said. “People really get excited about volcanoes in their backyards, and with that knowledge, they’re able to make judgment calls about preparedness.”

Post-fire debris flows

As prolonged drought continues to plague much of the Western U.S., scientists are also studying one of the most destructive potential aftereffects of wildfires: rock, mud and landslides, which are collectively referred to as post-fire debris flows.

Mines researchers such as Paul Santi and Danica Roth are leading efforts to better understand these debris flows by researching topics such as rock behavior, drainage systems, erosion and soil mobility, among others.

Roth, assistant professor of geology and geological engineering, helped develop an important new model for characterizing and predicting how sediment moves downhill after wildfires. Students in Roth’s surface processes and geomorphology group are also investigating questions around water infiltration and factors affecting surface roughness following wildfires.

In addition to deepening the scientific understanding of geomorphology, their research is helping inform the work of the USGS’ Geologic Hazards Science Center, headquartered on the Mines campus. Often working in collaboration with Mines faculty and students, geologists within the center’s Landslides Hazards Program create maps and other resources to help warn the public about debris-flow hazards after wildfires.

“Wildfire often consumes a lot of the material that’s on the ground surface, which makes the ground smooth and easier for water to run across the surface,” said Francis Rengers, a USGS research geologist. “Fire can also make the soil really water- repellent. Those two things create a direct link between fire and debris flows. After the fire is out, unfortunately, it’s a hazard that still needs to be on people’s minds and should definitely be a concern for people in a burned area.”

Mines graduates are putting this knowledge into practice in Colorado, where record-breaking wildfires wreaked havoc across the state this summer. As an engineering geologist for the Colorado Department of Transportation, Matt Tello MS ’20 is using slope evaluation and rockfall modeling techniques to help protect drivers from dangerous rockslides on Colorado’s busy highways and mountain passes.

Wildfires—and the ensuing soil and surface conditions—are a leading cause of rockslides on the road, along with high-intensity rainstorms and the state’s repetitive freeze-thaw cycles. CDOT mitigates rockslides with tactics such as scaling (rock removal), blasting and netting.

“[Fire] creates, basically, a double whammy, so we’re looking at preventative measures for the debris-flow potential in areas affected by wildfire,” Tello said.

Keeping the lights on

In addition to wildfires, earthquakes are also a constant threat in California, a state with many heavily populated metropolitan areas. Initial destruction aside, these powerful natural disasters can also disrupt the infrastructure that delivers electricity to homes and businesses, which can make response and recovery efforts all the more challenging.

Electrical engineers at Southern California Edison are working to make the power company’s equipment and systems more resilient in the face of natural disasters and other potential disruptions across their 50,000-square-mile service area. As the senior manager for Southern California Edison’s substation projects group, Lindsey (Ozark) Sayers ’02 helps design, engineer and install new technologies to help reduce the impact of earthquakes, wildfires and high winds on the company’s five million customers.

“We try to make the system as reliable as possible and have as many backups in place as we can,” she said. “Loss of power is definitely a concern because so many of our emergency resources need power—the police stations, the fire stations, the hospitals.”

To help keep the lights on during earthquakes, her team built steel support structures to help stabilize substations’ voltage transformers, which often sway back and forth during seismic activity.

They’re also installing several technologies to help reduce the energy and duration of faults. The benefits of these measures are twofold: they help keep the power on during and after natural disasters, and they also help prevent wildfires, which can spark from wires toppled by high winds and other events.

“It doesn’t matter what causes the faultage incident, it’s all about reducing current and reducing time so you can reduce the amount of fault energy,” Sayers said. “By reducing the fault energy, you reduce the potential of a fire.”

The community’s role

At the city and county level, communities should carefully evaluate proposed new developments or retrofits in existing disaster-prone areas. They should also factor in the changing severity and frequency of natural disasters and their aftereffects because of climate change, according to Karen Berry, director of the Colorado Geological Survey, the Mines department that works with local communities to turn hazard research into actionable land-use plans that protect public safety, costly infrastructure and local economies.

Similarly, individuals should spend time researching the potential hazards in their community and fully understand all the risks they may face, including the aftereffects, then take steps to avoid or prepare. Buying a mountain cabin may sound idyllic, but an uninformed buyer may find it’s located in an area that’s ripe for wildfires and the ensuing post-fire debris flows, Berry noted.

“People feel like, ‘If the government lets somebody build there, it must be safe,’” said Berry. “And there are all kinds of reasons why that’s not necessarily true. People need to be aware of what the potential hazards are and be prepared.”