Historic drought puts the breaks on earthflows in Northern California

G.L. Bennett, J.J. Roering, B.H. Mackey, A.L. Handwerger, D.A. Schmidt, B.P. Guillod

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California's ongoing, unprecedented drought is having profound impacts on the state's resources. Here we assess its impact on 98 deep-seated, slow-moving landslides in Northern California. We used aerial photograph analysis, satellite interferometry, and satellite pixel tracking to measure earthflow velocities spanning 1944–2015 and compared these trends with the Palmer Drought Severity Index, a proxy for soil moisture and pore pressure that governs landslide motion. We find that earthflow velocities reached a historical low in the 2012–2015 drought, but that their deceleration began at the turn of the century in response to a longer-term moisture deficit. Our analysis implies depth-dependent sensitivity of earthflows to climate forcing, with thicker earthflows reflecting longer-term climate trends and thinner earthflows exhibiting less systematic velocity variations. These findings have implications for mechanical-hydrologic interactions that link landslide movement with climate change as well as sediment delivery in the region.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5725–5731
Number of pages7
JournalGeophysical Research Letters
Issue number11
Early online date1 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2016


  • landslide
  • drought
  • earthflow
  • pixel tracking
  • aerial photograph
  • Worldview

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