By Melinda Munson
In September 2020, Skagway Traditional Council (STC) sent a letter of support for Sitka Sound Science Center’s (SSSC) application to the National Science Foundation. SSSC sought a grant to expand geohazard monitoring in Southeast Alaska. Funding was approved for a five year period, and Skagway now has the chance to be included in landslide research and monitoring.
It’s a timely topic, promptly following the slide that occurred June 23 on Railroad Dock, causing slight damage to a Princess ship and temporality shutting down parts of the bustling dock.
Landslides are a frequent occurrence in Southeast Alaska communities. A December 2020 landslide in Haines killed two people. The same storm triggered a landslide along Dyea Road, causing damage that is scheduled to be repaired by 2023.
Sitka had their own geo-hazard tragedy. In 2015, a large rain event set off a landslide, causing three deaths. SSSC responded by forming a geo-task force which included a geologist, social scientists, emergency managers and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska. Thus, the Sitka Landslide Risk project was born.
The group first thought of using the already existing tsunami warning system, but then the question became, does one run up or down when they hear the siren? The task force eventually settled on a web page which lists landslide risk as low, medium or high.
Lisa Bush, executive director of SSSC, says this system and real-time information, which took five years to develop, puts the power in the hands of community members.
“Should I go home tonight, should I send my kids to school? It’s up to the individual, which we got to through lots of community discussions and talking to community leaders and inviting the community to voice their opinion of how this landslide system should work,” she said.
SSSC’s lead geo-scientist, Annette Patton, who described herself as a “nerdy data-driven geologist” will visit Skagway in August.
“We have two primary goals, Patton said. “The first is to take some of the geology experts from other parts of the world and introduce them to the area of Skagway, because they haven’t actually been there before, myself included. So, we really want to get the lay of the land, learn a little bit about the place from spending time there, but also chatting with folks who are knowledgeable about the area. But we also want to use it as an opportunity to start some conversations … with tribal government, city government and other community leaders, which is obviously a very long list.”
The SSSC team said they are focused on listening to the needs of the community. What areas are of the most concern? What kind of warning system would be most advantageous to Skagway? Does Skagway even want to benefit from an expansion of SSSC’s services into the upper Lynn Canal community?
“We have spent the last few years developing this great team of scientists and researchers who have experience now working in a rural community. We would love to share that with you and your community, but only if you want that,” Bush said.
Individuals with questions or wanting to express their interest in the program can email Reuben Cash, STC environmental coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Sitka Landslide Risk interface can be viewed at https://sitkalandslide.org.