22 June 2009

Fatal landslides in 2009 so far – a review on the solstice

Posted by Dave Petley

The summer solstice today seems like a good time to take stock of the position with fatal landslides to date, as collected in the Durham Fatal Landslide Database. Globally the fatal landslide season really starts in early June, the point at which the Asian monsoon starts to generate substantial amounts of rainfall in South and East Asia. Of course the greatest proportion of landslides occur in July and August, so we are before the main event.

So, how does the year look so far. Well, interesting actually. The graph below provides the cumulative number of recorded fatal landslides for 2007, 2008 and 2009, excluding the ones triggered by earthquakes (which obviously don’t have a seasonal pattern). Obviously for 2007 and 2008 the full year graph is available.

You should be able to see that for 2007 and 2008 the normal S-shaped curve is clear, with a fairly low rate of increase in the first and last c.120 days. The time before this period, the northern hemisphere summer, shows a much greater rate of fatal landslides (i.e. a steeper line). It is also clear that in 2009 to date the number of fatal landslides is above the previous two years, although it is converging a little of late (of which more below). 2008 was anomalously low – 2007 is far more of an “average” year – although note that this is mostly because of the low number of recorded fatal landslides in the early part of the year.

The second graph, below, shows the recorded number of fatalities (again excluding those caused by earthquake-induced landslides). The coincidence between the patterns in 2007 and 2009 is very striking; again 2007 was very close to an average year on this measure. The comparatively low total at this point in 2008 is notable – but it is also clear that the rainy season resulted in a large number of fatalities (the large step is mostly due to hurricane-induced landslides in Haiti, plus a very active monsoon at this time).

One other aspects of this years data is really interesting. You may have noticed that in both the number of fatal landslides and the number of fatalities the trend in the last few weeks is a little anomalous. In particular, I would expect to see the steepening trend becoming clear as the Asian rainy season starts. However, this is clearly not the case as yet, as the graph below shows more clearly:

Here the blue line is the cumulative total of fatalities and the green line is the trend for fatal landslides. The recent flattening off is clear. This is mostly a clear indication of the rather strange pattern in the development of the South Asian monsoon this year. The northern passage of the monsoon appears to have stalled, as this map from the Indian Meteorological Agency shows:

Here the red lines are the average position of the monsoon front, whilst the green are the conditions observed this year. It appears that the northward advance is two weeks or so late at present – and it appears that this is being reflected in the fatal landslide data. However, the northward advance of the monsoon has apparently restarted this weekend, so the more usual trend may start to be displayed shortly.

Interestingly, there is some evidence that the SW Monsoon is weaker in El Nino years, and conditions are changing from La Nina to El Nino present. We are also recording more fatal landslides in South America than in recent years. However, it is far to early to tell whether the patterns that we are seeing this year are really associated with the possible El Nino conditions. It will be an interesting summer!