Decoding China's Geological Disasters, Connecting IRALL SCHOOL with the World

——Fieldwork Documentary of iRALL 2019 International Doctoral Course


Editor's note:


On October 20th, the International Research Association Large Landslides Doctoral Training Course (referred to as iRALL School) sponsored by the State Key Laboratory of Geohazard Prevention and Geoenvironment ProtectionSKLGPwas opened as scheduled. Based on “large landslide survey, analysis and management”, the two-week advanced course was set for doctoral students in the field of earth sciences and engineering at home and abroad, and was taught by renowned international scholars in large landslides. This year marks the fourth year of IRALL SCHOOL. The past 4 years has seen the training of nearly 200 doctoral students from over 20 countries and regions such as Europe, America and Asia. From October 22nd, international doctoral students went to the two major practice bases in Kualiangzi of Zhongjiang County and Beichuan County to conduct field training, which has become one of the highlights of the course. Together with them, the Student Press Group of Yunlifang recorded this international study tour and embraced a real “Landscape Natural Museum”.

For this tour, Adaphro Ashuli from the Geology Department of the University of Delhi, India, waited for a whole year. Fortunately, she did not miss this chance, coming to an unfamiliar country alone;

When Cao Bohan from Taiwan University sent a doctoral thesis to his instructor’s mailbox and waited for a reply, he received a recommendation letter to attend IRALL SCHOOL, so he was curious to go to Chengdu make an exploration;

Daniel Camilo, who had been far away in Colombia of South America, also signed up with the recommendation of his tutor, taking a flight of more than 40 hours to China...

That’s how 32 PHDs from over 10 countries (regions) with different faces and reasons met and got acquainted at IRALL SCHOOL for 11 days of outdoor study.

During this journey, they went to the natural disaster site and exchanged with internationally renowned experts and professors as well as young researchers and benefited from them a lot. Besides, they learned the latest research fruits in dealing with landslides. From the top of the special "translational gliding landslide" Kualiangzi landslide to the earthquake site of Beichuan County’s old quarter (11 years after the Wenchuan earthquake), they explored the southwestern unique geological landform by themselves. Focusing on the world's leading monitoring and early warning system, they have been learning the rules of risk prevention of the earthquake disaster chain.

This is a story of the fourth year of IRALL SCHOOL, which has not only witnessed the participation of more and more countries along "the Belt and Road", but also the cultivation track of professionals in the field of large landslide research.

Visiting Beichuan Site

Exploration – the Secret of the Super Typical Kualiangzi Landslide

Nature is the most original and real teaching materials for the study of geological disasters. The first destination for the doctoral class was Kualiangzi located at the overlarge near horizontal rock landslide in Fengdian Town, Zhongjiang County, Deyang City. Together with professor Alexander Strom from the geodynamics research center of Russia, this team was led by professor Xu Qiang, vice President of our university and executive deputy director of SKLGP.

Through many houses, teachers and students arrived at the opposite of the colossal landslide mass, which measures 25.5 million cubic meters. It was the best place to see the whole mass. Many red rocks were exposed to the top of the mountain and many sets of groundwater monitoring equipment were hidden by the green jungle. The real-time data has been sent to SKLGP more than 70 kilometers away by the base station platform. On the screen of the 1st floor, real-time images, graphs and data of the landslide points of the country including those from Kualiangzi landslide, are constantly updating.

On-the-spot Explanation of Kualaingzi

The teachers and students walked along the mountain path toward the top of the landslide site, where silver water tanks were visible along the slope and pipes that jut into the ground for tens of meters to keep an eye on the fluctuation of the water table. Mohib Ur Rarino, a student from Pakistan, exclaimed that he had never heard of such a practical monitoring method, which inspired him to set up one in his own country.

The research of Kualiangzi has been part of IRALL SCHOOL curriculum for four consecutive years. Professor Hu Wei of SKLGP told us that different from the well-known gravity type landslide, Kualiangzi landslide was a near-horizontal rock landslide in red-bed areas, with a dip angle of only 2 to 5 degrees. It was a typical translational gliding landslide. It was complementary to the "sudden" landslides caused by earthquakes seen during the trip to Beichuan of IRALL SCHOOL, which enriched students' understanding of various special landslides.

The concept of "translational gliding landslide" was first put forward by professor Zhang Zhuoyuan of our university. In 1981, a heavy rainfall in Sichuan led to a second landslide in this mountain with extremely small rock strata dip angle, which could not explained by the traditional limit equilibrium theory. On the basis of the previous results, professor Xu Qiang started to monitor and study Kualiangzi landslide in 2011 and found that precipitation was one of the causes of the landslide. While rainfall was usually used to monitor landslides internationally, Xu Qiang came up with another idea—using water level changes to predict landslides. Xu said that some scholars in the field might not figure it out the reasons, but through years of monitoring and analysis of Kualiangzi landslide, it had been gradually verified. "We have a clear picture how much water level changes can cause landslides and how much they slide through a lot of scientific calculations."

Reaching the Top of Kualiangzi

Now Xu Qang's team has established a complete monitoring and early warning system based on the landslide, which is not only a diversified platform integrating scientific research and teaching, but also has reached the international leading level. In addition, SKLGP has become the first team in the world that dares to give an early warning of landslides.

Professor Xu Qiang told the journalist that in the era of limited equipment, they had to use a balloon to lift a camera to get orthophoto images of a landslide. But now what the students use is a large composite wing device equipped with multiple sensors and five cameras, which is the world's leading monitoring technology equipment. The high-definition images are made through rapid mapping and three-dimensional modeling. He said his team would focus on the integration of landslide monitoring with artificial intelligence in the future. “In the future robots will be monitoring here.” For the students of IRALL, knowing the special hidden landslides like Kualiangzi can help them to solve the problems of near-horizontal strata landslide disaster of, and also lay a foundation for "overcoming natural disasters" in the future.

Uncovering—the World's Largest Integrated Field Geological Disaster Experiment Site

On the next day, as the car drove past the misty mountain, iRALL School class arrived in Beichuan, one of the worst-stricken areas in the Wenchuan earthquake. It is the largest earthquake disaster site preserved in the world, which has been transformed from a former wasteland into the ultimate disaster research site. The class would complete a 10-day indoor theoretical course and field trip.

Combining theory with practice, one-day of academic lectures would be followed by one-day inspection. In addition to visiting the old Beichuan quarter sites and Beichuan museum, all the members of iRALL School were divided into two groups to study three routes by turns: the team on route 1 led by professor Mauri McSaveney from New Zealand GNS institute, Janusz Wasowski of Italy's national institute of geology and hydrology protection and professor Hu Wei in Yangjiagou, launched an onsite research of the occur of large landslides and the risk of the big collapse; the team on route 2 led by Tang Xiaochen, a member of SKLGP of our university, carried out the field data collection, landslide mapping and cascade effect analysis in Tangjiawan. The team on Route 3 was led by Vince Del Gaudio and Nicola Venisti to collect and monitor geophysical data of large landslides.

Indoor Teaching

Route 2: Tangjiawan Field Site

During the period, the teachers and students in doctoral walked through Yangjiagou, with landslides of a scale of 10 million tons. Different sceneries were on both sides: a huge black mountain formed by high temperature friction on one side and a colorful fault with rich smell of rotten eggs emitted by sulfur on the other side. Between the two rock masses, an artificial 245 meter-long cement channel was laid straight down the mountain, and a curved path about one meter wide extended at the top. It joined the main water channel on the hillside, and a large engineering outline similar to the Arabic number "9" was presented to the students of the doctoral class. Hu Wei introduced, "This is a large-scale comprehensive field geological disaster experimental site built by Mianyang City and our university which is going to be the largest in the world when the project is finished."

The journalists learned that building large field experiment site was an important development trend in the field of engineering geology, and it was very significant for scientific research, discipline construction and talent cultivation. Compared with the prototype of field mudslide, this site was only one magnitude smaller than that. It was a large-scale experimental site proposed by Huang Runqiu, Director of SKLGP, designed to carry out large-scale physical simulation experiments, including multi-type geological disasters such as landslides and mudslides, etc.

The project, which was under construction when IRALL SCHOOL students visited last year, is almost complete and expected to be used the next spring. After the students climbed the mountain and had a close view of the experimental site, Hu Wei further explained that we could make use of natural rainfall and sediment for on-site simulation on the experimental site and recycle resources relying on the surrounding landslides and quake lakes caused by the Wenchuan earthquake. Indian student Sandeep Kumar admired, "It is more realistic and accurate than the laboratory simulation. It’s fabulous that many conditions are naturally inspired.”

Route 1: Yangjiagou Field Site

Active geological phenomena emerge endlessly in Yangjiagou section, and the human power cannot be ignored. More than a dozen of the barriers were destroyed that IRALL SCHOOL teachers and students witnessed last year. However, a "safety lock"—a protection slope has been built this year. Layers of stairs in front of the remaining dams reduced the fluid speed and kinetic energy and prevented from further erosion and became the "guardian army" of the "surviving" dams. "This is an important measure worth learning from in the field of geological engineering for disaster prevention and reduction," Hu told the doctoral students.

The journalist onsite saw many students take pictures of these geological landscape and protection works, and for them these photos are far from souvenirs.

Using the pictures, Cao Bohan of Taiwan University made a sketch in the Field Work Manual, and carefully marked directions and other details with the compass, so that he could continue to observe and explore after the trip.

Zhang Bei of Tongji University told the journalist, "It is a very rare opportunity for us to go to the geological disaster site to make deep exploration. After this trip I have a more intuitive understanding of the landslide mechanism." He valued the geological pictures he took, "So I can insert my own pictures in my paper!"

Sharing -- an International Friendship Across Regions

For geologists around the world, field is the most precious treasure. By IRALL SCHOOL courses, students have closer access to landslides. When Xia Mingyao, a doctoral student from Kyushu University in Japan saw a sliding surface in Kualiangzi, he jumped excitedly to the bottom, and carefully touched the slippery soil that had appeared in books for many times, " I research data simulation but we have few opportunities to see such a landslide surface in Japan due to the dense vegetation, let alone the chances of being in a primary geological disaster site."

From the condition mechanism of the whole landslide to a palm-sized stone, teachers and students of the international doctoral program created some "fun" in the mountain. As they waded down a landslide pile in Yangjiagou, professor Janusz Wasowski gathered students to approach him and asked: "Why are rocks angular when they have been washed away by a stream?" The discussion about the stone by questions and answers began.

The shapes, grains and colors of broken granites and marbles were various. They might be the results of complicated geological structure movement after large landslides. Many students picked out some stones to put into their pockets by the stream as they were not only the best "gift" from nature and "souvenir" of IRALL's trip, but of great scientific research value.

The Thought Provoked by a Stone

A "Gift" from Nature

The rainy days made the mountainous roads too muddy to go both in Kualiangzi and Tangjiawan of Beichuan. Every now and then a lurch occurred on the slippery road, and the trousers were covered with mud. Sometimes we had to bow to push the "superior" straws to beat out a path, but our pants might be split a cut by barbed branches. Despite the rough road, teachers and students kept rushing forward. "It is normal for geologists to get excited when they are in the wild," said Yang Shuocheng from the University of Hong Kong.

Many students extended their hands to their fellow students. They held hands to hold up "protective umbrellas" for each other and marched toward the top of the landslide to comprehensively explore the deformation characteristics of the landslide and its cause mechanism.

The Tough Road to the Top

On October 28, the clouds and mists cleared away. It was the 6th day of the international doctoral class in Beichuan, which was also the Spring Festival in Qiang calendar. Huang chao from Kyoto University in Japan brought the Qiang's people’s manger wine and highland barley wine back from the town to share with foreign friends in Beichuan publicizing and education center. Bathed in the warm atmosphere, the festival atmosphere got stronger as the bleak town gradually got warmer.

It is said that in this year's IRALL SCHOOL, we have invited professor Theo van Asch, a winner of 2018 Tianfu Friendship Award, Chris Massey, an expert from the institute of geology and nuclear science in New Zealand, and professor Zheng Hu, who studied in Duke University in the United States and Tongji University to open various courses in terms of debris flow modeling, landslides induced by earthquakes, granular material stability, which explained the initiation of large-scale geological disasters and the process of kinematics. Hu Wei told the journalist that in the future, IRALL SCHLOOL would embrace more diversified teaching team to expand the scope of the curriculum.

Group Photo