Ellen K. Levy, Messenger, 2021, acrylic and gel over print, 40 x 60 inches

Which Way to Run?


Run Uphill for a Tsunami, Downhill for a Landslide
Read Responses From

Run Uphill for a Tsunami, Downhill for a Landslide” (Issues, Fall 2021), by Lisa Busch, Robert Lempert, Max Izenberg, and Annette Patton, is useful in addressing the complexities of landslides and the fact that individuals have differing risk tolerances. A great strength of the authors’ effort was their deep engagement with the people of Sitka, Alaska. The authors explain that after substantive engagement with the townspeople, they shifted their initial plans away from a siren-based landslide warning system to a digital data dashboard—one that affords individuals the ability to make their own informed decision on whether to evacuate from possible deadly landslides.

I enthusiastically applaud the group’s integration of “cutting-edge research from both the physical and social sciences.” In short, project personnel combined “scientific knowledge and expertise from the observation of various landscapes, local knowledge of Sitka in the present day, and long-term knowledge of the relationship between people and the landscape over generations” to develop a custom-designed warning system.

This effort in Sitka led me to consider other exciting possibilities of new landslide warning systems, both on regional and local levels. Although harmful landslides occur in every state, Sitka joins only a small handful of locations nationwide with landslide warning systems, including southern California, western Oregon, and Seattle. With the National Landslide Preparedness Act finally enacted in early 2021, there is hope for significant progress on landslide warning systems.

The new act authorized a National Landslide Hazards Reduction Program within the US Geological Survey. The act calls for expansion of a debris flow early warning system by “developing procedures with State, territorial, local, and Tribal governments to monitor stormwater drainage in areas with high debris flow risk,” and authorizes up to $25 million per year to address this and other landslide-related issues. If this were averaged across the nation, this would be a modest $500,000 per year per state.

Although harmful landslides occur in every state, Sitka joins only a small handful of locations nationwide with landslide warning systems, including southern California, western Oregon, and Seattle.

With more frequent extreme rainfall events expected, let us hope that Congress will fully fund the National Landslide Hazard Reduction Program so that landslide science and safety will flourish. Let us also hope that more fatalities are not suffered before Congress directs adequate funds toward better understanding and mitigating landslide threats.

Finally, as commendable as this article is, I found its title to be unnecessarily distracting and misleading. I imagine that other readers also raised an eyebrow when they saw its advice to “run uphill for a tsunami, downhill for a landslide.” While it may possibly be appropriate action for Sitka residents in their environs to run downhill in a landslide, it is questionable general advice for surviving fast-moving landslides. After all, landslides move downhill and trying to outrun a fast-moving one may prove futile. Although the authors are not proposing general public messaging on landslide survival, I raise this issue because, unfortunately, clear messaging on landslide safety is sorely lacking. It is crucial to develop and maintain clear, consistent, and accurate messaging to improve landslide safety. Perhaps we may someday develop a simple clear message on how to escape from dangerous landslides, similar to “move inland and uphill” to protect oneself from a tsunami.

Affiliate Faculty and Senior Advisor on Infrastructure Resilience and Risk

Civil and Environmental Engineering Department

Portland State University

In describing their participatory research in Sitka, Alaska, Lisa Busch, Robert Lempert, Max Izenberg, and Annette Patton note that bringing physical and social science to bear on residents’ concerns about natural hazards is difficult. This is especially true in the context of climate change and the need to communicate divergent protective actions to a public anxious about recent disasters.

Our team—which includes scientists from the University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez, the US Geological Survey, and the University of Colorado Boulder—has grappled with similar challenges in Puerto Rico, which experienced more than 70,000 landslides after Hurricane María hit the island in September 2017. What we’ve learned about collaborative risk communication led us to ponder the following issues:

Social vulnerability. The Sitka research group worked diligently to listen to the community, but without knowing the demographic characteristics of those who participated, it’s not clear who was heard. Were the perspectives of young children, people with physical disabilities, and others potentially incapable of “running downhill” represented? What about those who might not have reliable power and internet (and therefore lack access to the technological interventions the authors described)? These voices, or lack thereof, could greatly influence the usefulness and adoption of the planned landslide monitoring and warning system.

Bringing physical and social science to bear on residents’ concerns about natural hazards is difficult.

Clarity in messaging. Telling residents to “run uphill for a tsunami and downhill for a landslide” is catchy, but it also raises safety concerns. Aside from the fact that, as noted, some people cannot run, there are reasons to question this advice. It is hard to outmaneuver rapidly moving debris flows; and even if people did succeed, they could be injured or killed by the dangerous floodwaters that often accompany landslides. Because numerous context- and geographic-specific factors shape landslide risk, the recommended protective action is generally to evacuate the hazard zone well in advance. This points to a need to balance emergency communication, such as alerts and warnings,with longer-term risk communication. Many of the questions raised by Sitka residents involved broader risks to their homes and schools. Responding to these concerns requires additional resources that encourage preparedness and mitigation strategies on a much longer time scale.

Power of the collective. In the end, the data dashboard the authors describe is championed as a “decentralized warning system” that “lets individuals make their own judgments about risk.” While such an individualized approach may help some people personalize risk, it is important to acknowledge the powerful social forces that shape personal protective actions. People do not make decisions—even in high pressure and rapidly evolving hazard situations—in isolation. Research shows they often look for trusted, consistent, and credible sources of information and observe and engage with others (referred to as milling behavior) before deciding what action to take. These facts, along with the knowledge that it is our neighbors who are most likely to save us if trapped in a disaster, should reinforce the need to cultivate community connections and a sense of shared responsibility to one another.

Director, Natural Hazards Center

Professor, Department of Sociology

University of Colorado Boulder

Cite this Article

“Which Way to Run?” Issues in Science and Technology 38, no. 2 (Winter 2022).

Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, Winter 2022