Assessing the dangers of underwater landslides

In December 2004, the world saw the power of a deadly tsunami and the death and destruction that resulted from the substantial underwater earthquake in Indonesia. The tsunami killed 200,000 people, and its effects were felt as far away as Africa.

Laurie Gaskins Baise © BY MELODY KO

But tsunamis are also caused by underwater landslides. Laurie Gaskins Baise, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working as part of an international collaboration to study such landslides with the aim of understanding how they occur and finding ways to mitigate their effect. The collaboration, funded with a $2.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, links four universities and two international institutions.

For Tufts, which will receive nearly $600,000, the grant will be manifold: It will allow Baise to conduct research while also paying for two graduate students to work on their doctoral dissertations. In addition faculty, graduate students and undergraduates will have opportunities for research and travel.

“Underwater slides don’t happen very often, but when they do, they are catastrophic,” Baise said. A tsunami in Papua, New Guinea, on July 17, 1998, was generated by an earthquake-induced landslide that destroyed three villages and killed more than 2,000 people. The 1964 Alaskan earthquake also generated several submarine landslides and associated tsunamis, decimating homes, boats, wharves and infrastructure along the coast.

Baise and her students will study how soil properties change over a susceptible area and therefore, how they affect slope strength. “We will look at past events to understand offshore soil properties in areas where submarine landslides have occurred and use that information to help predict the extent and location of future landslides.”

Tufts will work with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Northeastern University, Vassar, the International Centre for Geohazards in Norway and the Center for Offshore Foundation Systems in Australia.

Joining Baise will be Peter Walker, director of the Feinstein International Famine Center at the Friedman School, whose expertise is in international relief efforts for war and famine. His knowledge in helping international entities communicate with each other and work together will come into play.

The research will be used to identify regions where underwater landslides might generate tsunamis and to educate people in the affected areas along with civil engineers, geologists and international aid agencies.

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer for Arts, Sciences and Engineering in Tufts Office of Publications. She can be reached at