The landslide laboratory

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Science  22 Nov 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6468, pp. 938-940
DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6468.938

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In Taiwan, Taroko National Park, famous for a precipitous marble gorge that cuts through it, is in a futile fight with gravity. The scars of at least a dozen landslides punctuate the view in all directions. Maintenance crews are perpetually spraying concrete on slopes in a last-ditch effort to stabilize them. The park gives out safety helmets for free, and strongly encourages visitors to wear them. All this moving rock and soil makes for a perfect laboratory for a team of researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. For the past 3 years, they have scrambled and rappelled across the park, installing dozens of instruments in what will end up being Taiwan's most comprehensive landscape dynamics observatory. One goal is to monitor landslides and understand their triggers. A bigger aim is to investigate their hidden impact on the climate: As massive chemical reactors, landslides draw carbon dioxide out of the sky and sometimes belch it out, too. Understanding their role as both carbon source and sink could help researchers better model the carbon cycle that ultimately controls our planet's climate and habitability.

  • * Katherine Kornei is a journalist in Portland, Oregon. Her trip to Taroko National Park was supported by a science journalism fellowship from the European Geosciences Union.

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