Juneau’s Landslide Crisis Is Looming

As climate change raises deadly landslide risks, cities like Juneau, Alaska, must grapple with informing the public about safety while weighing property value and insurance concerns. These climate-driven challenges are a foretaste of future difficulties.

The remains of a home that collapsed due to erosion from a glacial outburst flood into the Mendenhall River in Juneau, Alaska, on August 8, 2023. (Christopher S. Miller / the Washington Post via Getty Images)

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.

The remains of the house that crashed into Sarah Wallace’s duplex. (Courtesy of Sarah Wallace)

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 biggest oil producers — the climate change intensified by the fossil fuel industry has made the conditions for catastrophe more likely. The year 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.

The government measures communities’ relative risks of landslides — except in Alaska, where data is not available. (Courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency)

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 two thousand 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 forty-three people, Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (D-WA) 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 Research Service 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 are not a lot of really safe places to live in Juneau.”

“Alaska in General Wants to Kill You”

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 frequentdue to changing air circulation patterns and warming temperatures. During the downpour, a landslide tore through Jacobs’s 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.”

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.

A landslide covering part of California’s Highway 1 in January 2023. (Courtesy of the California Department of Transportation)

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.”

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.”

“We Need to Get People Out of There”

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.”

A 1936 Juneau landslide buried four buildings, killing fifteen people. (Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection)

Five years later, Juneau received a small grant from FEMA to update its own risk assessments. The city hired Tetra Tech 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, Tetra Tech found the city was prone to avalanches, with fifty-two 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.

Tetra Tech’s depiction of how the city’s 1987 risk maps compared to their updated assessment. (Courtesy of Tetra Tech)

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 Q&A session. Multiple assemblymembers 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 timescales geologists use to gauge hazards. Tetra Tech’s report weighed the chances of an avalanche occurring within three hundred years; other countries, like Norway, use even more conservative thousand-year return periods. But even within Tetra Tech’s shorter horizon, Mattice said, in high-risk zones, “somewhere between thirty and three hundred 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.

One of the few who spoke in support of the change was Albert Shaw, who at ninety-four was one of the few remaining people who remembered a slide in 1936 that killed more than fifteen people. In the days that followed, local newspapers had run harrowing accounts of rescuers attempting to save victims trapped in the debris.

“Why don’t you come get me?” cried three-year-old Lorraine Vanali, who died after rescuers dug her out of the mud on Gastineau Avenue — the same road where Wallace would experience a landslide nearly ninety years later.

Following Juneau’s 1936 landslide, rescuers searched for Lorraine Vanali and other victims. (Courtesy of Trevor Davis / Alaska State Library Historical Collection)

With his experience of the potential dangers, Shaw suggested the city buy out the houses at high risk.

“We need to get people out of there,” he said. “Just because nothing has happened in sixty years doesn’t mean something won’t happen soon.”

The original goal of revisiting these maps was simply to accurately understand the city’s risks. But Shaw’s suggestion struck to the heart of why these hazards are so difficult to address. Shortly after Mattice took on his job in 2008, he had also suggested home buyouts for properties in avalanche zones. Later, Mattice proposed that the city at least take mitigation measures, like building a catchment basin to defend from smaller events. Given the expense, neither option was ever approved.

“The question,” Mattice says, “is how you effectively spend one taxpayer’s dollar to save another’s home.”

“Simply Built in the Wrong Place”

Back in 1967, avalanche specialist Keith Hart presciently predicted Juneau’s current crisis: any possible means of addressing its hazards, he warned, “will raise financial, legal, political, and moral questions (and not necessarily in that order).”

As with so many climate challenges, the city’s risk is created not only by its natural hazards but by their potential for harm — “which frequently hinges on politics and money,” says Zachary Provant, a research fellow at the Hazard and Climate Resilience Institute at Boise State University, and the author of a recent peer-reviewed paper about Juneau’s landslides. He cites research suggesting structural mitigation for even a single slide path would cost between $4 and $30 million.

The unfeasible cost of addressing disaster liability is itself a new threat around the country. As a result, many governments are choosing to downplay their exposure.

“We’re in a moment that’s really revealing a lot of state capacity constraints in distressing ways,” says Jordan Haedtler, a former congressional aide and Minnesota-based climate financial policy consultant. In Southeast Texas, for example, Harris County recently spent more than a billion dollars buying out homes to reduce flooding risk after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, since they said the buildings “were simply built in the wrong place.”

Yet Houston officials have simultaneously approved new development in places likely to go underwater: Even after attempts to restrict unsafe construction, one in eight of the city’s residential permits remained in flood plains. The consequences were clear this May when hundreds of people were again evacuated from the county after heavy rain caused flash floods.

Or take California, where the legislature recently attempted to pass a bill to consider wildfire evacuation plans when approving new housing development. Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, saying it “places significant cost burdens on the state.” Instead, forestry experts warn that the state is continuing to rebuild in places likely to blaze again, finding “minimal adaptation to fire risk.” As a result, 1.2 million California homes are now likely to burn.

But as officials found in Sitka — a coastal community a short flight south from Juneau — trying to take steps to reduce risk can also backfire. In 2015, the small rainforest town was hammered by a storm that dropped over three inches of rain in six hours, setting off landslides that killed three people.

In the horrifying aftermath, says Annette Patton, the lead geoscientist at the Sitka Sound Science Center, “There was really a shift in how people thought about their safety.”

Like Juneau, Sitka responded by remapping its potential hazards. It also adopted a new city code that required landslide mitigation for major construction in high-risk areas, and for owners to release the city from liability for losses.

But it turned out that insurers and lenders used that information to restrict what they would underwrite. In at least one case, an Alaskan bank declined a home loan because coverage was not available. As a result, in 2021, Sitka removed these requirements from its building code.

A report on Sitka’s insurance problems by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, suggests that removing regulations will not magically resolve Sitka’s lack of coverage. Private insurers tend to require a certain number of potential purchasers to offer policies for catastrophic-loss events like landslides.

“A limited market makes it difficult to justify the substantial investment,” it found. The authors concluded, “It seems unlikely that private insurers will be interested in writing residential landslide coverage for the foreseeable future.”

In short, Alaskan communities are now trapped in a seemingly intractable circle. While science clearly points to the growing perils, the only potential solutions are either extremely expensive or come with unacceptable consequences.

As Provant, the Boise State University researcher who studied Juneau’s landslides, put it, “They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

“We Wouldn’t See That Tsunami Coming”

Meanwhile, new dangers are emerging along the coast.

A few hundred miles north of Juneau, artist Valisa Higman was kayaking along the rocky Prince William Sound in 2019 when she happened to see a cliff with some interesting features.

She emailed her brother Bretwood Higman, a geologist who studies landslides. As the nearby Barry Glacier has retreated, the slopes once covered by ice have started to expand. The following year, Bretwood, along with a dozen other scientists, signed on to an open letter about the danger to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys.

The researchers fear this newly exposed surface will crumble, warning that a sudden, huge collapse could generate a large tsunami.

An aerial photo shows potential landslide zones that could generate tsunamis near the Barry Glacier. (Courtesy of United States Geological Survey)

After reviewing the findings, the state agency issued a statement saying “an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationists.” The agency declined repeated interview requests.

In fact, the world’s tallest tsunami was caused by a similar landslide-initiated tsunami in Alaska’s Lituya Bay, northwest of Juneau. When an earthquake caused a rockfall in 1958, a wave taller than the Empire State Building surged up the mountainside. Eyewitnesses heard the deafening roar fifty miles away. The surge killed three fishermen, who would have been able to look down at the trees below their suddenly towering boat before they died.

Yet that tsunami was much smaller than what could be unleashed by the Barry Glacier’s potential slide. If the land collapsed all at once, it would release five hundred million cubic meters into the water, about sixteen times the size of the Lituya Bay slide. The surge of water would still be seven feet high when it reached the nearby town of Whittier twenty minutes later. The surrounding fjords are a popular tourist destination, and the town’s harbor is a port of call for thousands of cruise ship passengers every summer.

“What makes it particularly dangerous is the lack of lead time,” says Dennis Staley, a research physical scientist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory, who was selected to lead a multiagency collaboration after the United States Geological Survey received funding from Congress to research the problem.

The current tsunami warning system is intended for waves caused by earthquakes and would not be triggered. “Since we don’t routinely seismically monitor landslides, we wouldn’t see that tsunami coming in a timely manner,” says Ezgi Karasozen, a research seismologist at the Alaska Earthquake Center.

While Karasozen and others are working toward developing an experimental warning system along the glacier, it’s still in the early stages. The Barry Glacier lies in a part of the world where even basic communication infrastructure doesn’t exist. Snider, at the National Tsunami Warning Center, describes working there as “bouncing stuff around just trying to get a signal.” There have been times when he thought the imminent chance of a slide was likely enough that he refused to send his team out to the monitoring site.

When there’s too much motion on the slope, he says, “I wouldn’t do it myself.”

Juneau could potentially face a similar scenario if a bedrock failure caused an underwater landslide, Mattice says: “If we had a tsunami as big as Lituya Bay, the only place in Juneau that would be safe would be the very top of the Mount Roberts’s tram,” which ascends eighteen hundred feet up the mountain.

Though Alaska excels at providing extreme examples, even in far more accessible places it’s still surprisingly hard to tell when a slope is about to collapse.

As the risk grows, federal efforts are accelerating to develop more effective warning systems. In April, a bill to reauthorize the National Landslide Preparedness Act passed the US House of Representatives. Its extension would support research like Karasozen’s and help develop a national strategy for improving public safety. Most landslide scientists, for example, do not have training in crisis response.

“Each year, landslides kill between twenty and fifty people and cause over $3 billion in damage,” Representative DelBene said on the House floor. “With a changing climate and more unpredictable weather, landslide risks are only going to grow more frequent, more dangerous, and more costly.”

Back in Sitka, local efforts are attempting to fill in the gap. For the last several years, Patton has been part of a collaborative task force at the Sitka Sound Science Center, developing a website where locals can check the current odds.

In the twenty years of available records, there were only five storms in Sitka where a slide occurred — “not a lot for statistical models,” Patton explains. But by creatively utilizing the days where significant storms didn’t lead to disaster, she and her colleagues were able to build a surprisingly robust tool, offering real-time assessments of when slides are more likely.

In August of 2023, the dashboard ticked up to “medium risk.” No large slides materialized, but Patton heard from residents grateful to have something to refer to during the storm.

Unlike Juneau’s hazard maps, Sitka’s project has been well-received. The difference, Patton believes, is that it was developed in close conversation with residents, a strategy the group is now using to expand its efforts to six other coastal communities. The tool, Patton says, is “only effective because people asked for it.”

Responding to risk is often treated like a scientific problem when in reality, it’s always a societal challenge, too. As Patton adds, “No matter how much data you have, or how good your model is, a warning system relies on trust.”

“Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle”

In Juneau, Sarah Wallace never returned to her battered duplex.

“We were immediately displaced,” she says. She and her partner scrambled to find a friend willing to watch their cats while they stayed with another acquaintance, searching for new housing.

“It was very disorienting and stressful,” she says. “So many moving parts to figure out how to patch up your life.”

Wallace says she understands the city’s conundrum, but that knowing properties’ real risks is important. (Courtesy of Sarah Wallace)

The weeks blurred together as she monitored Facebook postings and stressed about finding another rental in the city’s cutthroat market, a process she described as “a full-time job.” This time, she wanted a building that wasn’t in an avalanche or landslide zone.

The whole experience left her yearning for stability. Most of the research on the trauma landslides cause has been conducted in countries like Indonesia and Uganda, but over and over, studies find post-traumatic stress disorder is a common response.

Before Juneau officials could decide what to do about the new dangers they had identified, there was another deadly landslide, this time down the coast in Wrangell. During a rainstorm just before Thanksgiving 2023, a hillside above the small fishing community suddenly gave way, killing six people.

A few weeks later, on December 11, Juneau’s assemblymembers met in city hall to vote on whether to adopt the new risk maps. They sat in a row, looking small beneath a glossy photo of the Mendenhall Glacier — a poignant reminder of the scale of the natural forces still shaping the city.

“This is not a perfect document in any way, shape, or form,” Mayor Beth Weldon said before opening the vote, “but this is the best that we could probably come up with.”

The results were unanimous: the assemblymembers chose to use the new avalanche maps — but not the updated data on landslides. In fact, it lifted decades-old restrictions on building in landslide zones. Researchers examining global approaches to landslides have found that risk tolerance is usually dictated by pragmatic concerns, “like financial power and the need for development.”

Though the assembly chose not to adopt the expanded landslide maps, they were quietly posted on the city website. Even that move sparked complaint.

“The issue here tonight is putting the genie back in the bottle, or un-ringing the bell when it comes to the maps that were developed,” said Shawn Eisele, a downtown resident, concerned that the information could still prevent him from selling his home in the future. The city attorney responded that even though Juneau has decided not to regulate landslide risk, lending institutions, assessors, and insurance companies will make their own decisions.

Jacobs, the Juneau hydrologist, says he feels for the people who “want to keep their head in the sand.” But as he works toward developing better monitoring and communication with the National Weather Service’s partners, he sees his job not as protecting people’s property value but trying to save their lives. Alaska is lucky, he says, not to have witnessed more deaths already.

When Mattice, Juneau’s emergency programs manager, reflects on the dilemma from his truck, parked with his ever-present go bag down the street from last summer’s floods, he’s blunter.

“When you start killing people in multiple communities over multiple years,” he says, “it gets a little harder to just watch [landslides] happen with nobody paying attention.”