Scientists again halt work on Barry Arm landslide that requires water access

Friday, scientists released their update on the potential for a landslide in Barry Arm, about 30 miles from Whittier.
Published: Sep. 16, 2022 at 6:27 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Friday, scientists released their update on the potential for a landslide in Barry Arm, about 30 miles from Whittier, which is slowly sliding toward the deep fjord water.

When scientists first told the public about the newly discovered landslide in 2020, a worst-case scenario predicted the landslide could fall into the water. They said an up-to 30-foot-tall tsunami could hit Whittier.

Since then, more data has led to a downgrade in the potential impacts on Whitter, but the impacts could still be dangerous in the town and life-threatening to people recreating in the area immediately around the landslide.

In Friday’s update, scientists noted that while one area of the slide has been slowly creeping down the mountainside in recent weeks, more of the slide is also moving.

According to the Interagency Information Statement, data shows a portion of the slide is moving at a rate of about 1.6 to 2.7 inches a day. While movement in this part of the slide is historically common, a larger area is moving at least two times quicker than “the last period of similar patterns of motion in 2020.”

“In the last few weeks, the groups and agencies that are monitoring the rock in motion there in the landslide continue to notice that motion at times accelerating over what has been noticed and past observations there,” said Dave Snider with the National Tsunami Warning Center.

Scientists with some government agencies — including the National Tsunami Warning Center, the United States Geological Survey, and the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys — have indefinitely postponed work on the landslide that requires water access. Snider said it is out of an abundance of caution for personal safety.

“At the end of the day, personal lives are our greatest asset. And we want to make sure that we’re protecting the people that are doing the scientific work, and helping us get out there,” Snider said.

He said this is not the first time work has been halted in the area.

Barry Arm Landslide
Barry Arm Landslide

Friday’s update does not mean the slide will fall or fall in a worst-case scenario. But scientists warn that if it does, it could be a life-threatening impact to people in the immediate area, like Barry Arm and Harriman Fjord.

“This ground motion does not mean that a failure will occur,” the status update from the statement said. “However, it is notable because of the areal extent of motion, elevated rates of motion, and that the portion of the landslide experiencing movement is right above the water.”

They also say it can create dangerous currents and onshore impacts in areas between Barry Arm and Whittier.

Snider said the National Tsunami Warning Center has been working hard with other agencies to get a warning system running that can alert agencies if a tsunami wave is leaving Barry Arm. He said it is an experimental system and is not live yet.

“It will look very much like a tsunami warning when it comes across all the systems, including your cell phone if you’re in the area,” Snider said. “But that is a developmental system. And we’re getting closer and closer each day to turning that on.”