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Landslides: How rainfall dried up Panama's drinking water
Date:5/17/2011

To understand the long-term effects of a prolonged tropical storm in the Panama Canal watershed, Robert Stallard, staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and research hydrologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and Armando Ubeda, the LightHawk Mesoamerica program manager, organized four flights over the watershed to create a digital map of landslide scars.

Two feet of heavy rain inundated the Panama Canal watershed between Dec. 7 and 10, 2010. Landslides tore down steep slopes, choking rivers with sediment and overwhelming Panama City's water-treatment plant. Flooding closed the Panama Canal for the first time since 1935. Despite the deluge, the influx of sediments in the water forced authorities to shut down the plant, leaving a million residents of central Panama without clean drinking water for nearly a month.

LightHawk, a conservation organization based in the U.S., donates flights for research and conservation efforts. Retired United Airlines captain David Cole flew the Cessna 206 aircraft, and the four flights yielded images of 191 square miles (495 square kilometers) of watershed. Stallard observed numerous new landslide scars left behind by the December storm, supporting his prediction that landslides supplied much of the suspended sediment that disrupted Panama's water supply.

The new watershed erosion map will allow Stallard and collaborators from the Panama Canal Authority to calculate the landslide risk of future storms and direct strategies to minimize the effect on Panama's water supply.

Tropical hydrologists agree that river-borne sediment originates from surface erosion or from deep erosion from landslides. In 1985, Stallard predicted that "deep erosion, not shallow surface erosion, is the primary process controlling the chemistry and sediment levels in many tropical rivers that pass through mountainous areas." Few studies have been conducted to test this prediction.

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Contact: Beth King
kingb@si.edu
703-487-3770 x8216
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Source:Eurekalert  

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