Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Landslides: How rainfall dried up Panama's drinking water

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.

Deforestation of steep slopes is the primary factor determining the number of landslides. Six decades of aerial photographs analyzed by USGS researchers in similar landscapes in Puerto Rico showed that landslide frequency doubles outside protected nature preserves, and that roads and infrastructure make landslides eight times more likely. Although landslides happen in natural forests, the objective is to limit their impact through appropriate land-use practices.

"With development, landslide intensity increases dramatically," said Stallard. "In its history, the Panama Canal watershed has experienced huge floods. It's still hard to say whether future floods will be accompanied by disastrous landslides like those produced by Hurricane Mitch in Central America." In 1998, Hurricane Mitch swept across Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador causing more than 10,000 deaths and incalculable economic damage. Panama's proximity to the equator puts the country outside the usual hurricane zone, but prolonged tropical storms may occur.

Erosion control is possible. Partnering with the Panama Canal Authority and Panama's Environmental Authority, the Smithsonian is conducting a 700 hectare experiment in the canal watershed funded by the HSBC Climate Partnership to compare the effects of land-use choices, such as cattle ranching or reforestation with native tree species on water supply, carbon storage and biodiversity. Stallard hopes that this research will provide new information about which land uses provide a steady supply of clean water for the Canal.

With the first rains in May, the eight-month wet season begins anew in central Panama. Drinking water flows freely, the rivers are clear and the Panama Canal is open for business. But bare slopes of past landslides continue to create secondary erosion, which will dislodge sediments from the steep, rainy and rugged Panama Canal watershed in 2011. The long-term effects of the 2010 storm may continue as renewed interruptions in the water supply in 2011.

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, headquartered in Panama City, Panama, is a unit of the Smithsonian Institution. The Institute furthers the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, trains students to conduct research in the tropics and promotes conservation by increasing public awareness of the beauty and importance of tropical ecosystems. Website:

Beth King | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic
24.10.2016 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Oasis of life in the ice-covered central Arctic

24.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

‘Farming’ bacteria to boost growth in the oceans

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

24.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

More VideoLinks >>>