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UC San Diego Engineers Send Soil Into Outer Space To Tackle Mudslides On Earth

Crews work on clearing Highway 101 in the aftermath of a mudslide in Montecit...

Credit: Associated Press

Above: Crews work on clearing Highway 101 in the aftermath of a mudslide in Montecito, Calif., Jan. 13, 2018.

Long after wildfires are put out, they can leave environmental issues — such as mudslides — in their wake. Now, some San Diego scientists are considering looking for some extraterrestrial answers to this earthly problem.

After months of major wildfires in 2018, some Californians experienced massive mudslides that killed 23 people and destroyed more than 100 homes.

Listen to this story by Shalina Chatlani.

Wildfires attack the roots of plants and trees, which can produce gases that cause soil to fall apart. The 2018 mudslides and others like it sparked the curiosity of UC San Diego geotechnical engineer Ingrid Tomac. She studies the dynamics of soil flow.

“I was asking myself, how is it possible that this soil mixed with water can go so fast downhill and can bring such a big boulders and destroy your infrastructure and property so much?” she said.

Photo credit: UC San Diego

An undated illustration showing how wildfires can cause mudslides.

Now Tomac and her lab at UC San Diego has received around $400,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation to explore the role of gravity in mudslides. Tomac and her team will send soil samples to the International Space Station in 18 months.

“The space experiments come into play to study fundamental behavior of particle fluid and air mixtures," she said. "There is a possibility that the air gets intermixed into this mixture. So now the composition post-wildfire mudflow is not well understood anymore because we did not anticipate in the past that there is some air mixed into this soil.”

"We are not necessarily talking about gravity that is letting mudflow go down the hill, but how mudflow composition itself is affected by that gravity."

Tomac said her lab will use soil samples from the space station to study how the gas buildup in soil after wildfires can make slides more likely. She hopes her research can be incorporated into better prediction modeling to prevent destructive mudslides in the future.


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