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Slopes, slides and falls: landslides in a changing world

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Vice-Chancellor’s inaugural lecture highlights landslides as social justice issue

On 12 October, the University of Hull was delighted to invite our new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dave Petley, to present on his specialist research topic – Slopes, Slides and Falls: Landslides in a Changing World – for his inaugural lecture.

Dave provided insights into how, where and why landslides occur, and outlined the role of climate change in increasing their occurrence globally.

Dave began by breaking down the science of landslides; what is it that makes them the deadliest natural hazard for humans? How do these dynamic and violent processes cause problems for society? And how can we predict their occurrence? He used the local example of Holbeck Hall in North Yorkshire, which was destroyed by a landslide in 1993, to highlight the unpredictable nature of these natural hazards. He also explored the extraordinary range of damage that these hazards can cause, examining their relationship with extreme rainfall and describing how they can exploit natural or unnatural weaknesses in the ground. For this latter part, Dave pointed to the ways in which humans are exacerbating landslides, for example by over-steepening slopes for mountain roads, illustrating the complex and fraught relationship between humans and this natural hazard.

Prof Dave Petley Lecture 12-10-22-6121
Vice-Chancellor Professor Dave Petley provided insights into how, where and why landslides occur, and outlined the role of climate change in increasing their occurrence globally

Dave outlined how landslides have featured throughout his academic research and career, and particularly his work – the first of its kind – to identify the number of people killed worldwide by landslides, using novel approaches to interrogate global news reports. His work has uncovered several important discoveries: the number of people killed in landslides is much higher than had been appreciated; the number of fatal landslides is increasing with time; and that globally they have a strong seasonal pattern, peaking in the northen hemisphere summer. This peak results from the dynamics of the Asian monsoon, especially in South Asia, which dominates the occurrence of landslides worldwide and has led to the region becoming a global hotspot for this natural hazard.

Prof Dave Petley Lecture 12-10-22-6130
Professor Dave Petley presenting – Slopes, Slides and Falls: Landslides in a Changing World – for his inaugural lecture

Dave explained that the increase in landslides annually is in part related to climate change. For the South Asian region in particular, the number of extreme rainfall events are increasing, even though the total annual rainfall is declining. While the former is more likely to trigger landslides directly, the latter also indirectly contributes to their occurrence, with less rainfall leading to more periods of severe drought and forest fires, which then exposes and weakens the ground to heavy rainfall. Dave pointed to this as an example of the increasing instability of the natural environment due to human action, underlining the importance of immediate and robust climate actions to reverse these processes.

The pervasive influence of humans on landslides was explored by Dave through his research on the 1966 Aberfan landslide, the worst disaster of its kind in UK history. He pointed to the negligence of the mining operations, which included building waste tips on top of natural springs, ultimately leading to the disaster that killed 116 children and 28 adults. Most worryingly, he compared this disaster to a very similar occurrence that took place in Brazil only three years ago, showing that although we have known about the causes of such landslides for years, we are still failing to learn the lessons that can help prevent and mitigate these disasters today.

Dave’s lecture highlights a crucial aspect of the climate change discussion: the intersection between sustainability and social justice issues. Landslides are just one example where the effects of climate change can exacerbate the already significant inequalities that exist globally, disproportionally impacting the most vulnerable people and those who are the least equipped to face them. Given this, any meaningful attempt to tackle social injustice or address the climate crisis must recognise the interconnection between the two. The University of Hull is committed throughout its work, teaching and research programmes to promoting social justice and environmental sustainability.

The University of Hull is dedicated to creating a fairer, brighter, carbon neutral future, and this has underpinned the development of the University’s Strategy 2030, and in particular its focus on investing in its people, strengthening its partnerships, and developing its place in the local community and wider Humber region. From advancing healthcare to tackling climate change, the University of Hull is addressing inequalities and helping to secure a brighter future.

Nowhere is our work to address the intersection between climate change and social justice issues better exemplified than by the Energy and Environment Institute, which is leading efforts to promote global environmental resilience and energy sustainability. Alongside working to ensure the Humber and the UK are world leaders in the transition to a carbon neutral future, the Institute is delivering leading research into the relationship between changes to Planet Earth and the life it supports. It looks to develop our resilience so that when natural disasters such as landslides do take place, communities are well prepared to face them, ensuring that consequences to people and communities are reduced.

If you are interested in finding out more about Dave’s work, he frequently posts about geophysical hazards, including landslides, on his Twitter account, as well as on his dedicated Landslides Blog. If you want to find out more about his work as the Vice-Chancellor of the University, you can find updates on his VC Twitter account.

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