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NOAA-USGS Debris-Flow Warning System—Final Report

By NOAA-USGS Debris Flow Task Force

This report was prepared in response to the Debris Flow Team charter and NOAA/USGS Memorandum of Understanding 052-49

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Landslides and debris flows cause loss of life and millions of dollars in property damage annually in the United States (National Research Council, 2004). In an effort to reduce loss of life by debris flows, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service (NWS) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operated an experimental debris-flow prediction and warning system in the San Francisco Bay area from 1986 to 1995 that relied on forecasts and measurements of precipitation linked to empirical precipitation thresholds to predict the onset of rainfall-triggered debris flows. Since 1995, there have been substantial improvements in quantifying precipitation estimates and forecasts, development of better models for delineating landslide hazards, and advancements in geographic information technology that allow stronger spatial and temporal linkage between precipitation forecasts and hazard models. Unfortunately, there have also been several debris flows that have caused loss of life and property across the United States. Establishment of debris-flow warning systems in areas where linkages between rainfall amounts and debris-flow occurrence have been identified can help mitigate the hazards posed by these types of landslides. Development of a national warning system can help support the NOAA-USGS goal of issuing timely Warnings of potential debris flows to the affected populace and civil authorities on a broader scale.

This document presents the findings and recommendations of a joint NOAA-USGS Task Force that assessed the current state-of-the-art in precipitation forecasting and debris-flow hazard-assessment techniques. This report includes an assessment of the science and resources needed to establish a demonstration debris-flow warning project in recently burned areas of southern California and the necessary scientific advancements and resources associated with expanding such a warning system to unburned areas and, possibly, to a national scope.

Version 1.0

Posted September 2005

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