Report | Hill Slopes on the Move – Natural Hazards in Central Asia

Hangrutschung Sokutasch, Kirgisistan. Lawinenartiger Abgang der Löss-Rutschung am 27. April 2016, aufgenommen von einer GFZ-Drohne im Oktober 2016 (Foto: Dr. Robert Behling, GFZ).

Stefano Parolai (GFZ), Cornelia Zech (GFZ) und Bolot Moldobekov (Co-Direktor am ZAIAG) (Foto: GFZ).

Landslides, earthquakes, floods: Scientists from Potsdam and Bishkek investigating geohazards

Central-Asia belongs to the regions of the world where the risk of geohazards is particularly high: Earthquakes, landslides or flooding events, e.g. due to glacial lake outbursts, occur here more often than in other places in the world. How these natural hazards are investigated and how the resulting knowledge can then be used to better protect the population has been the topic of discussions between researchers from the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences and the Central-Asian Institute for Applied Geosciences CAIAG over the last days in Potsdam.

CAIAG is located in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan; still it has plenty of GFZ in it. Since the founding of the GFZ in 1992 geoscientists from Potsdam have been frequently travelling to Kyrgyzstan for research purposes. Over time, collaborations with colleagues in Central Asia strengthened and led to the founding of CAIAG in 2004. Since then, one of the Co-Directors has always been a GFZ scientist. Currently, the Heads of the Institute are Bolot Moldobekov from Kyrgyzstan and Jörn Lauterjung, also Director of the Department for Geoservices at the GFZ.

Several settlements are prone to landslide hazards

Most landslides occur in the foothills of the high mountains in Southern Kyrgyzstan, reports CAIAG researcher Cholponbek Ormukov. Roughly 400 settlements are prone to landslide hazard. “The number of events increases in humid years as the loosely consolidated sediments lose their stability and slide downhill.” The scientists plan to install sensors for direct observations of an active slide, he said. The data will help to understand the underlying processes and the findings could be transferred to other regions. “Large-area analysis of landslide occurrence requires the use of satellite remote sensing data, especially in data-scarce regions such as Kyrgyzstan”, said Sigrid Roessner from the GFZ-Section Remote Sensing. “An area of more than 10,000 square kilometres affected by landslides is too big for conventional ground-based mapping but it can be done with satellite data.” Using automated image analysis, she and her colleagues have identified hundreds of landslides which have occured within the last two decades. “Precise knowledge about when and where landslides occur is very important in order to improve landslide hazard assessment.” In the past, researchers often had to pay for commercial satellite remote sensing data. The new Sentinel Satellites of the Copernicus Programme of ESA have been a game changer. “The data are freely available at a global scale, this is a tremendous improvement for science and its practical application, especially in countries such as Kyrgyzstan”, said Roessner.

Earthquake Early Warning Systems 

Last summer, for the first time, geoscientists from the GFZ and CAIAG used a drone to map landslides in Southern Kyrgyzstan, she said. Roessner is convinced that “drones are a great tool for geosciences as they allow a view from above which is much closer to the object of interest than the satellite perspective.” In addition to the topic of landslides the researchers from Potsdam and Bishkek also collaborate in other fields including Early Warning Systems in the case of earthquakes, impacts of climate change and questions related to the supply of water. 

06.03.2017, Ralf Nestler