What Happens When Climate Change Threatens to Bury Your Home – Rolling Stone

By Lois Parshley
This article was originally published by The Lever, an investigative newsroom. If you like this story, sign up for The Lever’s free newsletter.
The rain hissed as it fell, pinging off the awnings of Juneau’s downtown hotels and pitting the dark surface of the harbor, where the season’s remaining cruise ships swayed. The steady September drizzle transformed the streets into streams, slanting down the city’s steep hillsides. Sarah Wallace and her partner had slogged home from work and were just starting dinner when a faint rumble began. The ground began to vibrate. The thrumming grew, crescendoing like a piano tumbling down stairs. 
A neighbor dashed out of his side of the building just as a large Sitka spruce tree crashed onto the road behind him. A transformer blew. There was a flash of green sparks, and then Wallace was plunged into darkness. She scooped up her cats and ran into the night. 
“I was standing out there in the rain, just holding them,” Wallace says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

What felt like an earthquake was actually the house behind hers colliding into their duplex, a projectile landing with trees sticking out of its walls and windows. Even outside, she wasn’t sure if more of the hill would keep sliding.
Until that night in 2022, it hadn’t crossed Wallace’s mind that landslides were something to be worried about. Juneau sprang up around a gold claim in the late 1880s, and for the last century, the city has crowded up the fjord, steepling along the narrow shore toward the blue toe of the Mendenhall Glacier. In the winter, its slopes provide dozens of avalanche paths, while summer’s melt can bring mudslides.
“In southeast Alaska, the earth is very young, and it’s very steep, and things roll downhill,” says Tom Mattice, Juneau’s emergency programs manager.
Officials first published a combined map of the city’s hazards in 1987, building on research done a decade prior. Still, many make the decision to live in high-risk neighborhoods, which often have desirable views or are conveniently located near downtown. Some are just looking for a place to live; the city has a perpetual shortage of housing and prices have spiked.

“People will swallow risk at different levels,” says Mattice. “Some people are very aware of it, and some people would rather not know.” 
Yet as Juneau has grown — and Alaska has become one the nation’s largest oil-producing states — climate change has made the conditions for catastrophe more likely. 2022 was the wettest year in Juneau’s history, with almost a third more precipitation than normal. Rain is one of the most common drivers for landslides because it tends to reduce the structural strength of the soil. As a result, Mattice says, “In the last few years, we’re starting to see a large number of landslides on a regular basis.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency tracks landslide risk nationwide, but doesn’t include Alaska, the only state without such data. It finds the dangers are widespread nationally, though particularly concentrated in Oregon, Washington, and California, as well as around the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains.

Experts warn the problem is growing: Worldwide, the climate crisis is increasing the number of people exposed to landslides. These disasters take a disproportionate toll in the Global South; at the end of May, more than 2,000 people were buried alive in a slide in Papua New Guinea. 
Understanding where and how these calamities might occur is essential. Following a 2014 mudslide near Oso, Washington, that killed 43 people, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) spearheaded federal legislation to help communities like Oso and Juneau better identify their risks. 

While the resulting law instructed the United States Geological Service to develop a national strategy for landslides in 2022, including an interagency response plan, Congress has significantly underfunded mitigation efforts. According to a 2023 Congressional Services Report, the result has been insufficient “to the extent and on a time frame… to reduce landslide risks nationwide.”
In the meantime, like many cities across the country, Juneau is now faced with the terrible dilemma of acknowledging a climate threat that exceeds its capacity — or deciding to ignore the evidence. 
Researchers have found that roughly half of the capital’s downtown is in the potential path of landslides or avalanches. But when a heated debate sprang up in 2021 over whether to update outdated hazard maps to reflect the danger, officials began to agonize over the kind of questions more and more communities will have to tackle. As governments grapple with just how much climate risk they’re willing to allow, how do you balance looming safety concerns with potentially ruining people’s property values, stripping their ability to buy insurance, or forcing them out of the places they call home?“
As climate change continues,” said assemblymember Alicia Hughes-Skandijs at a recent public meeting on the matter, “I just want us to be clear-eyed as we go into this. There’s not a lot of really safe places to live in Juneau.”
WHEN AARON JACOBS moved to Alaska in 2002 to be a weather forecaster, he didn’t expect to deal with landslides. But a few years after he arrived in Juneau, a corridor of intensely concentrated moisture stalled in the sky over the coastal capital. It was an atmospheric river, though “we hadn’t defined the term yet,” he says. 

These rivers in the sky transport vast amounts of water, often several times the flow of the Amazon. They’re growing more frequent, due to changing air circulation patterns and warming temperatures. During the downpour, a landslide tore through Jacobs’ backyard. Though the debris flow narrowly missed his cabin, “it was scary just seeing the amount of destruction,” he says.
Since then, the city has broken precipitation records — and then broken them again. As a senior service hydrologist and meteorologist at the National Weather Service, Jacobs says, “We’ve seen two of our wettest days ever in the last four years. These events are exceeding anything that we’ve seen in the past, and at a higher frequency.” 
Southeast Alaska was already one of the wettest places on the planet, with underlying geology that’s known to be unstable, says Dave Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator at the National Tsunami Warning Center, a government agency. As the climate changes, he says the region is seeing extreme precipitation events “that don’t necessarily fit the normal pattern. All it takes is one of those to focus on [a] landslide area, and we have a problem.”
Reply to @isaiahfields23 safety 1st, I just got lucky & ph was on a tripod rolling #alaska #outdoors #explore #adventure #juneau #landslide #runforestrun @thedirtyexplorer @thedirtyexplorer
While water is a common trigger, landslides can be caused by a variety of factors, and these sudden flows of soil and rock are notoriously hard to predict. While rain can lubricate movement, the type and strength of the soil also play a big role. Shallow slides tend to occur when top layers of soil lose their hold, while slow-moving ones are often prompted by deeper cleavages — although slower speeds don’t mean less damage. Land shifting a few meters a year can still cause substantial harm to infrastructure and foundations. In Berkeley, California, this kind of creep has caused homes to migrate across their property lines
Engineers usually design things like roads and bridges for a given lifetime under particular conditions. But across the country, these risk thresholds are changing faster than predicted, even in known slide zones. 

Transportation officials are now struggling to keep California’s Highway 1 open, for example, as chunks of the road continually fall away.
Big Sur Coast: Crews continue to respond at numerous locations on #Hwy1 which are showing significant instability as a result of ongoing rain event. New slide covering roadway appeared last night just south of Mill Creek. Crews are being mobilized in advance of clearing weather. pic.twitter.com/5UeuFDchov
The most recent slides near Big Sur stranded 1,600 people in March — disrupting still ongoing construction from large debris falls the year before. They will cost more than $100 million to repair, contributing to the state’s abysmal per mile spending on highways, which is three times that of Texas. Meanwhile, in this year’s February storms, Los Angeles saw 592 slides in one week. 
In other states, officials at least attempt to warn people who might be in danger. When wildfires burn through stabilizing vegetation in California, the United States Geological Survey takes soil samples to identify how much rain might lead to slippage. If the National Weather Service predicts a storm of dangerous size, they’re able to coordinate with emergency response teams to notify people before it arrives.
But the kind of information that makes these warnings possible — soil maps, or even precipitation rates — is harder to find in Alaska. Because of its remote nature, and comparatively recent development, Jacobs says, “We don’t have sufficient radar coverage, we have a lot of gaps in our weather system, we don’t have much soil information — there’s a lot of missing pieces.”
Along the state’s spruce-covered shores, communities are often carved out of fjords or perched beneath precarious slopes, because that’s the only buildable land. This concentrates the population in landslide-prone areas. 
“In Seattle, the percent of the population at risk of being impacted by landslides is substantially lower,” says Jacobs. “In southeast Alaska, you’re looking at much higher per capita risk.”
To make matters worse, as intense storms hit these vulnerable areas, more precipitation is falling as rain. Rain will melt a fresh snowpack quickly, saturating the ground and increasing storm runoff. This lays the groundwork for a cascade of other problems — like triggering landslides and flooding. If debris flow blocks a lake, that can cause what’s known as an “outburst flood.”

Drone video captured the moment a home in Juneau, Alaska, collapsed into the Mendenhall River. #flood #flooding #alaska #fyp #foryoupage
Seasonal glacial changes like ice dams retreating can also spur these kinds of inundations, and are fairly common at the glacier near Juneau. But last summer saw the city’s worst-ever outbursts, producing a torrent with enough force to knock houses into the normally tranquil river that flows past the airport. It was so unprecedented that the affected properties weren’t even in a designated flood zone.
As Snider, the tsunami warning coordinator, wryly admits, “We all accept the risk at some level, right? Alaska in general wants to kill you.”
NOT EVERYONE SHARES this sanguine sentiment toward Juneau’s chances of disaster. Historically, the Áak’w Kwáan tribe who lived in the area avoided what is now downtown during the winter, due to its steep slopes. 
When a group of Swiss scientists visited in 2011 to assess the city’s avalanche potential, they were aghast. “We hardly know — worldwide — of a hazard situation with such a damage potential and where no active protection measures were established,” the Swiss researchers wrote in a 2011 report. “We consider the risk situation to be unacceptable.”
Five years later, Juneau received a small grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to update its own risk assessments. The city hired TetraTech Canada Inc., an engineering consulting firm, which explained that it was important to separate questions around avalanches, which involve unstable snow breaking away from slopes, from landslides. The two phenomena may occur in similar locations, but have very different triggers and odds. 
“They should be considered and managed differently,” said Rita Kors-Olthof, the project’s technical lead. 
The firm set about using satellite data, high-resolution photographs, and climate analysis to modernize Juneau’s maps. “The level of accuracy is considerably higher for this study than for the previous studies,” said Vladislav Roujanski, the technical lead and senior landslide specialist for the project.
There are no national guidelines or standards for assessing the likelihood of avalanches; what counts as “high risk” is determined by individual towns. But like scientists before them, TetraTech found the city was prone to avalanches, with 52 unique paths. When a large avalanche careens down Mount Juneau along one of its known chutes, Mattice, Juneau’s emergency programs manager, predicts it will plummet across a major road going 55 miles per hour — sweeping houses, a hotel, and anything else in its path into the water.

When the engineers started on the landslide analysis, they found that past maps, used to develop building restrictions, had significantly understated the danger. Overall, they found that about 550 buildings — about half of downtown — were at moderate or severe risk of one of these disasters, expanding these areas by almost 40 percent. 
When the city first received the report in 2021, officials sent it to a number of local experts, who provided feedback. “The scientific analysis really did hold up to scrutiny,” said Teri Camery, a senior planner for the city and borough of Juneau, at a public question-and-answer session. Multiple assembly members denied repeated Lever requests for comment.   
But when officials began presenting the updated maps, they met fierce resistance from the public. Some questioned the science, others its consequences. 
At one of the first meetings about the results, Alan Jones, the senior avalanche specialist on the project, fielded questions from a skeptical resident who had been living in his house for fifty years without any problems. Jones responded that many of the man’s neighbors had suffered damage from avalanches — and the resident’s own house was involved in an incident in 1962. 
Humans are notoriously bad at these kinds of risk assessments, in part because our life spans are short compared to the time scales geologists use to gauge hazards. TetraTech’s report weighed the chances of an avalanche occurring within 300 years; other countries, like Norway, use even more conservative 1,000-year return periods. But even within TetraTech’s shorter horizon, Mattice said, in high-risk zones, “somewhere between 30 and 300 years, we’re going to see an event that is unimaginable.”
Yet some residents were most concerned about the sudden financial loss the maps could cause. Larry Fanning, who lives in one of the areas that would be recategorized as a “severe” landslide zone, testified at a public meeting that several banks told him they would not finance his property without insurance. The problem, he noted, is that landslide insurance isn’t readily available in Juneau. 

“There is no underwriter currently in southeast Alaska for landslide insurance,” he said. So instead of funding his retirement, his property might suddenly be impossible to sell.


Others argued that since many areas of Juneau haven’t been mapped yet, the results unjustly impacted certain neighborhoods. If the maps were adopted, those residents might find their “property values will become worthless,” Fanning warned. 
Since Alaska is sparsely populated, many of its disasters affect too few people to qualify as a federal disaster. The state’s Senate just voted to increase the maximum amount of state aid provided to residents after a natural catastrophe; the bill, which is working its way through the state’s House of Representatives, would raise the cap to $50,000. That’s still far less than the amount of uninsured damage homeowners may incur in a landslide.
We want to hear it. Send us a tip using our anonymous form.
Rolling Stone is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2024 Rolling Stone, LLC. All rights reserved.