standard Studying landslides in China: a postgraduate researcher’s perspective

Beichuan, China after Wenchuan earthquake (Siobhan Whadcoat)

An area of the Sichuan Province (southwest China) stretching over 300km was devastated by more than 100,000 landslides and hundreds of consequent sediment flows following the 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake; it is now littered with building sites and sediment deposits in the valleys below the mountains that “fell down”. The earthquake damaged region of Sichuan province is far from a classic, textbook example of how sediment moves through hillslope catchments, and I was somewhat naïve to think it would be before embarking on fieldwork.  I spent three weeks in Sichuan travelling along the rupture zone with an aim to characterise the differences in slope failure between various locations (relative to seismic activity) and between different geologic units. This would begin to highlight patterns in the distribution of failures and the extent to which the type of failure is controlled by proximity to seismic activity and/or rock type. More specifically I aimed to assess the differences in sediment output from these failures in order to establish a greater understanding of the controls upon sediment movement. This was an interesting, valuable and, at times, frustrating experience that brought with it a variety of challenges. Broadly speaking these can be categorised into the unnatural state of my study area and those associated with cultural differences between Western and Chinese academics and students.

Siobhan Whadcoat (right) with her research team (Siobhan Whadcoat)

Beginning with the latter, I had expected to face such challenges in my fieldwork, especially since I was based at Chengdu University of Science and Technology whilst in China and that one of their geology graduate students acted as my field assistant during my stay. Education, learning and consequently research in China is very directive, often leaving little room for flexibility. This was particularly noticeable when trying to discuss ideas in the field and being met with one straight answer and no option for debate, or worse still was the frequent response of “I think…I think I don’t know…” as it became evident that my field assistant had never studied slope failures. The societal status of young women in China also impacted my work on occasion, as the idea of a 22-year-old female setting the itinerary for the day was not always well received.  Despite this I found the Chinese people to be very polite overall and extremely generous, both with time and resources. Although my field assistant knew very little about my research interests he was always willing to help and gave a lot of his time to do so.

The physical challenge presented to me, aside from occasional bad weather, was the unnatural state of many of the sites I visited.

'Old town' Beichuan after earthquake (Siobhan Whadcoat)

Since the earthquake, the Chinese have undertaken a mammoth re-build of the region and consequently many areas of landsliding and sediment deposits are now building sites. This made it very difficult to assess differences in sediment output: for example on one very large landslide deposit, two large excavators were taking material from the top of the deposit and throwing it down to a building site below for use in reconstructing the road. Whilst initially I viewed this removal of material as a significant error in my data, I have come to realise that for China this is the natural state of recovery. It required a shift of thinking from more traditional sediment budget models, to include human input (or output) as an equally important variable.

Yingxiu-Beichuan fault line (lower right) (Siobhan Whadcoat)

Despite the aforementioned challenges, my experience in China was very rewarding and valuable to my research. Collaboration with Chinese academics did provoke new ideas and encouraged me to consider alternative approaches to certain aspects of my project. Even more helpful was simply the opportunity to visit my study area, to understand the physical and cultural setting of the 2008 earthquake, and to gain an overall perspective that is unattainable from satellite images alone…however hard you stare at them!

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