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Seismometers can help predict earthquakes, but Caltech researchers think they might also signal mudslide warnings

Mud covered hillside in Montecito, California on January 12, 2018.
Mud covered hillside in Montecito, California on January 12, 2018.

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On January 9, 2018, a rainstorm followed the Thomas fire, creating conditions for deadly mudslides which killed 21 people and destroyed homes in San Ysidro Creek and Montecito.

Unlike earthquakes, which can be monitored via seismometers, mudslides are difficult to predict. But Caltech researchers think seismometers have the potential to also warn us about coming mudslides.  

A team of Caltech researchers went through seismometer readings from January 9 and found that they could be used to determine information about the incoming debris flow, such as speed, location and the size of boulders. This suggests that seismometer readings could help provide early warnings of a mudslide.

Larry talks to Caltech professor of geophysics Victor Tsai about how the research was conducted, what he learned from the January 9 seismometer readings and the potential of developing a mudslide early warning system.


Sharon McNary, KPCC reporter covering infrastructure

Victor Tsai, lead researcher and co-author of the paper “The Seismic Signature of Debris Flow: Flow Mechanics and Early Warning at Montecito, California;” he is a professor of Geophysics at Caltech