Understanding Landslides through Physical and Computer Models

created by Ronda Strauch, UW Civil and Environmental Engineering


These exercises are designed to provide a broad introduction to hillslope stability and what drives the changes we see and experience in the landscape around us. Students study landslides from a civil and environmental point of view, using physical hands-on activities, data analysis, computer programming, and mock trial (in development) formats.

Part 1

Students build a physical model of a hillslope and investigate the conditions that lead to slope failure. The design is similar to the debris flow flume of large scale used by USGS. The model also exposes students to impact analysis using model houses.

Part 2

Here we employ one of the classic equations used by geologists and engineers to investigate and understand the stability of a hillslope-the “Factor of Safety” for slope stability. Students experiment with changing the parameters of the equation to explore sensitivity analysis.

Part 3

Students run a computer model to solve the factor-of-safety equation (introduced in part 2) over a spatial grid of a real world landscape, Thunder Creek watershed in North Cascades National Park Complex in Washington. The park is characterized by steep terrain with glaciers at the mountain tops and relatively frequent landslides. Students acquire data and access the “Landlab” landslide component through the internet. Landlab is a landscape modeling platform based in the Python computer programming language, although knowledge of Python coding is not required. The landslide component is one of many components available for Landlab users to access and link together to build their own landscape model. For more information about Landlab, see http://landlab.github.io/#/. Data and use of Landlab is provided online through HydroShare (https://www.HydroShare.org) – an internet resource designed for sharing, acquiring, and collaborating with hydrological data. The Landlab landslide component accessible through HydroShare will run the modeling on a super computer.

Part 4

In development. Applies what students have learned about landslides to a dramatic and experiential mock trial where students play different roles, including expert witness, jury, attorney, and judge. Want to help develop this piece for your classroom? Contact us! uwpcc@uw.edu

Expected Outcomes

By the end of this module, students will have a better understanding of what leads to landslides and how scientist study and model landslides. They will also gain experience in computer data analytics as well as both physical and computer modeling of earth science phenomenon used today by engineers, geologist, and hydrologist. Finally, students will grasp the relevance of what they have learned by applying their newly-found knowledge in a social situation by operating a mock trial of a landslide lawsuit.


Each activity has a detailed lesson plan that includes material needs, time estimates, background information, and performance expectations. Step-by-step instructions are provided for conducting each lesson and assessment/discussion questions are offered. The lesson plans also describe helpful prior knowledge, anticipated challenges, and safety issues.


Landslides — Overview of module

Part 1: Mini Landslide Physical Model
House Template
Student Handout (Part 1)

Part 2: Equations for understanding hill stability using Excel
Student Handout (Part 2)
Excel Exercise

Part 3: Computer Model

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