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Landslide warnings from satellites may save lives

A build-up of groundwater within a slope increases its weight and decreases its cohesiveness, weakening the slope's ability to resist the remorseless pull of gravity. The heavy earth flows downward. For all in the path of a landslide the results are devastating, and frequently lethal.

"In Italy, landslides have claimed an average of 54 victims per year during the last half century," says Nicola Casagli of Italy's National Group for Hydro-geological Disaster Prevention (GNDCI),a research network working with Italy's Civil Protection Department.

"The extreme rainfall of our climate, our mountainous geography and recent uncontrolled urbanisation of unstable land makes us one of the countries most affected by landslide hazards. The total cost of direct damage done by Italian landslides is estimated at between one and two thousand million Euro per year."

Very gradual ground shifts are known to precede more major landslides. Often these are on a scale of millimetres too slight to even be noticed by local observers, but enough to be detected via satellite using a powerful technique called radar interferometry.

It involves mathematically combining multiple radar images of the same site - acquired using instruments such as the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) aboard ESA's ERS spacecraft - in such a way that tiny changes in the landscape occurring between images are highlighted.

This technique is the basis of a new project called Service for Landslide Monitoring (SLAM), enabling landslide susceptibility mapping across parts of Italy and Switzerland, two of the European countries most under threat. GNDCI is one of three national-level users working with SLAM, along with Italy's Ministry of the Environment and Switzerland's Federal Office for Water and Geology (FOWG).

"Surface movements assessed over wide areas are one of the best indicators of landslide activity, and can be employed for risk forecasting," added Casagli. "Ext
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Contact: Marc Paganini
marc.paganini@esa.int
39-6-941-80-563
European Space Agency
4-Feb-2004


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