Matthias Jakob, Kris Holm, and Scott McDougall
Debris flows are one of the most destructive landslide processes worldwide, given their ubiquity in mountainous areas occupied by human settlement or industrial facilities around the world. Given the episodic nature of debris flows, these hazards are often un- or under-recognized.
Three fundamental components of debris-flow risk assessments include frequency-magnitude analysis, numerical scenario modeling, and consequence analysis to estimate the severity of damage and loss. Recent advances in frequency-magnitude analysis take advantage of developments in methods to estimate the age of deposits and size of past and potential future events. Notwithstanding, creating reliable frequency-magnitude relationships is often challenged by practical limitations to investigate and statistically analyze past debris-flow events that are often discontinuous, as well as temporally and spatially censored. To estimate flow runout and destructive potential, several models are used worldwide. Simple empirical models have been developed based on statistical geometric correlations, and two-dimensional and three-dimensional numerical models are commercially available. Quantitative risk assessment (QRA) methods for assessing public safety were developed for the nuclear industry in the 1970s and have been applied to landslide risk in Hong Kong starting in 1998. Debris-flow risk analyses estimate the likelihood of a variety of consequences. Quantitative approaches involve prediction of the annual probability of loss of life to individuals or groups and estimates of annualized economic losses. Recent progress in quantitative debris-flow risk analyses include improved methods to characterize elements at risk within a GIS environment and estimates of their vulnerability to impact. Improvements have also been made in how these risks are communicated to decision makers and stakeholders, including graphic display on conventional and interactive online maps. Substantial limitations remain, including the practical impossibility of estimating every direct and indirect risk associated with debris flows and a shortage of data to estimate vulnerabilities to debris-flow impact. Despite these limitations, quantitative debris-flow risk assessment is becoming a preferred framework for decision makers in some jurisdictions, to compare risks to defined risk tolerance thresholds, support decisions to reduce risk, and quantify the residual risk remaining following implementation of risk reduction measures.