Glynis Board Published

Getting a Grip on Landslides in W.Va.


Land in West Virginia is prone to sliding. We see it throughout the state along many steep slopes: retaining walls, rock falls, and road slips, and more. One geologist from West Virginia University says there’s more we can do to help prevent these landslides.

Steve Kite is the chair of the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University says West Virginia has one of the greatest landslide risks of any in the country. Steep slopes and prevalent shrink-swell soil components make for reliable land movement throughout the state’s four seasons.

“We may in fact have the highest per capita landslide damage rate of any of the 50 states,” he said. “A lot of the costs of land sliding is the prevention of landslides through things like retaining walls and structures that prevent fatalities and injuries and damage.”

But more data is needed to get a better grasp on the land—so to speak. Kite says while the U.S. Geological Survey has thousands of stream gages deployed to monitor flood and stream activity, there’s nothing comparable for detecting and characterizing landslides. Moreover, almost none of the state geological surveys have an organized landslide reporting system.


Credit Steve Kite

But new technology is changing the way we see the world. Light Imaging and Detecting Radar—or LIDAR—is breaking new ground—no pun intended. Thousands of laser beams per second scan the earth from their position attached to fixed-wind planes or helicopters flying through the air and create a map of the landscape beneath with truly impressive accuracy. Once processed, trees and buildings can be removed to reveal what the true ground surface looks like, down to foot trails and roads.

Graduate student Marla Yates is working with Kite, studying LIDAR images of the New River Gorge. She’s been able to identify over 200 individual landslides throughout the gorge. She points out that LIDAR not only makes finding landslides easy, it also makes it pretty easy to guess what caused the movement.

“It seems as though a lot of these bigger land slides or landslide complexes are often related to human disturbances—particularly the coal mining in the gorge,” she says. “It seems like a lot of these landslides are related directly to the mining in the area.”

While LIDAR can help us identify some of the more problematic areas in the state where landslides have happened, Kite says it takes a trained eye to know where undisturbed land might be prone to slipping. To that end, Kite says W.Va. would do well to consider creating a professional licensure requirement for geologists. Kite says civil engineers and trained geologists would make a bang-up, knock-down development team for projects in West Virginia (so to speak).