GETSI Teaching Materials >Surface Process Hazards > Unit 4: Anatomy of a tragic slide: Oso Landslide case study
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This module is part of a growing collection of classroom-tested materials developed by GETSI. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
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Unit 4: Anatomy of a tragic slide: Oso Landslide case study

Sarah Hall (College of the Atlantic)
Becca Walker (Mt. San Antonio College)
Author Profile

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


Students read and analyze a case study of the Oso, Washington, landslide of 2014. Students describe the geographic and climatological characteristics of the region to explain the causes and consequences of the landslide.

Science and Engineering Practices

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information: Compare, integrate and evaluate sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a scientific question or solve a problem. HS-P8.2:

Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions: Apply scientific ideas, principles, and/or evidence to provide an explanation of phenomena and solve design problems, taking into account possible unanticipated effects. HS-P6.3:

Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution. HS-P4.1:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Stability and Change: Change and rates of change can be quantified and modeled over very short or very long periods of time. Some system changes are irreversible. HS-C7.2:

Patterns: Empirical evidence is needed to identify patterns. HS-C1.5:

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system. HS-C2.2:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

The Roles of Water in Earth's Surface Processes: The abundance of liquid water on Earth’s surface and its unique combination of physical and chemical properties are central to the planet’s dynamics. These properties include water’s exceptional capacity to absorb, store, and release large amounts of energy, transmit sunlight, expand upon freezing, dissolve and transport materials, and lower the viscosities and melting points of rocks. HS-ESS2.C1:

Plate Tectonics and Large-Scale System Interactions: Plate tectonics is the unifying theory that explains the past and current movements of the rocks at Earth’s surface and provides a framework for understanding its geologic history. Plate movements are responsible for most continental and ocean-floor features and for the distribution of most rocks and minerals within Earth’s crust. HS-ESS2.B2:

Performance Expectations

Earth and Human Activity: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. HS-ESS3-1:

This material was developed and reviewed through the GETSI curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

  • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
  • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
  • real in-class or field camp/course testing of materials in multiple courses with external review of student assessment data.
  • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the GETSI materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
  • created or reviewed by content experts for accuracy of the science content.

This page first made public: Oct 2, 2017


Landslides can have profound societal consequences, such as did the slide that occurred near Oso, Washington in 2014. Forty-three people were killed and entire rural neighborhood was destroyed. In this unit, students consider the larger-scale tectonic and climatic setting for the landslide and subsequently use lidar and SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission) hillshade images, topographic maps, and InSAR (interferometric synthetic aperture radar) to determine relationships between landscape characteristics and different types of mass-wasting events. They conclude by considering the societal costs of such a disaster and ways that communities in similar situations may mitigate their risk.

Learning Goals

Unit 4 Learning Outcomes

  • Students will identify several environmental characteristics of a natural landscape that increase an area's mass-wasting susceptibility.
  • Students will create a map with appropriate symbology illustrating the morphological characteristics of a mass-wasting event.
  • Students will use geodetic data to compare the appearance, existence, and morphology of surface features before and after a mass-wasting event.
  • Students will be able to describe the societal toll that landslides can cause and propose mitigation solutions.
    Supports Module Goals 1 & 2; Earth Science Big Ideas ESBI-1-Earth scientists use repeatable observations and testable ideas to understand and explain our planet, ESBI-3-Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air, and life, ESBI-4-Earth is continuously changing, ESBI-8-Natural hazards pose risks to humans, and ESBI-9-Humans significantly alter the Earth. (links open in new windows)

Unit 4 Teaching Objectives

  • Cognitive: Provide opportunities for students to use climate and geodetic data to characterize the evolution of landscape features after a mass-wasting event has occurred.
  • Behavioral: Facilitate student ability to qualitatively assess and map the changes in geomorphic features before and after a mass-wasting event.
  • Affective: Facilitate student ability to analyze the societal impact of mass-wasting events.

Context for Use

The content in Unit 4 is appropriate for introductory geology, hazards, and other geoscience courses; sophomore-level courses in which geodesy and/or geomorphology/surface processes are being introduced; or non-geoscience courses where infrastructure planning, Earth hazards, and/or the nature and methods of science are being investigated. Unit 4 activities can be adapted to serve small or large-enrollment classes and can be executed in lecture and lab settings as an in-class activity in which students work in small groups, a lab exercise, or as part of a ~2 week investigation of the use of geodesy to understand surface-process hazards and decision making using the entire Surface Process Hazards module.

This unit precedes Unit 5: Mitigating future disasters—developing a mass-wasting hazard map in which students create a hazard map and report on an area susceptible to mass wasting. If the entire two-week module will not be used, we recommend pairing Unit 4 with Unit 5 to give students the opportunity to use geodetic data to identify landscape features associated with a slow-slip mass-wasting event and classify low, medium, and high-risk areas based on landscape characteristics. However, Unit 4 does build on skills from Unit 2: Reading the landscape and Unit 3: Understanding landslide factors so you may need to have to give some background practice or information on these topics.

Description and Teaching Materials

Part 1: Preparatory activity

  • In each of the five study sites that students have looked at in Units 2 and 3, there is a significant mass wastage somewhere in the map area. In order to prepare for Unit 4, have students prepare five-minute presentations on one those mass-wastage events (except the Northern Washington one, as the rest of Unit 4 is about the Oso Landslide in that region). If you have a large class, you may want to have the students work in groups or randomly select one person/team from each of the four sites to present. This process helps students understand more about the societal cost of mass wasting and the different types of ones that can occur.
  • Study sites
    • Tully, NY
    • Thistle, UT
    • Kelso, WA
    • Prince William Sound, AK
  • Unit 4 preparation student exercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 304kB Jun20 17)

Part 2: Setting the stage

In order to place the Oso Landslide in a larger geologic context, students will review the environmental and built characteristics of the northwest Washington locality using the maps from Units 2 and 3.

A) Plate tectonic setting
Seismic and volcanic hazards exist along all of eastern Washington state related to the subduction of the Juan de Fuca Plate beneath the North American Plate. This is a good opportunity to relate the plate tectonic setting to the landscape features (faults, linear ridges/streams, mountains) and present hazards. Use the same map-set for Northern Washington as you did in Unit 3.
Northern Washington Maps Unit 3-4 (Acrobat (PDF) 41.3MB Sep29 17)

We suggest one of the following already-existing plate tectonics activities:

  • GPS Data and Earthquake Hazards in Cascadia - Students learn to read GPS timeseries to calculate velocities and then analyze what the changing velocity across Cascadia means for earthquake hazard.
  • Analyzing Plate Motion Using EarthScope GPS Data - Student use a spreadsheet of GPS data from the Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) to measure the motion of GPS stations in the Pacific Northwest. They generate and map annual velocity vectors of GPS stations.

B) Climatic setting
Washington state has an excellent example of high-precipitation region and a rain shadow. High seasonal precipitation focused on the western slopes of the Cascades and arid conditions prevailing over eastern Washington. In this activity students looks at climate data from near Oso, Washington, as well as a precipitation map of Washington to learn more about the general climate of the area as well as in the time leading up to the slide itself.

Part 3. Mass-wasting anatomy—Oso, WA, Case Study

Along with the assignment below and the map set they have already used, students should be given a lidar hillshade image onto which they will identify, map, and label morphological features of the mass-wasting event. They will answer qualitative questions and will color code their maps to show regions of high/moderate/low risk for damage due to slip. Students will then be shown spatial data of the region at various timesteps (including SRTM [Shuttle Radar Topography Mission], lidar, and InSAR maps of the locality) and answer questions related to the geology and societal impacts of the event.

Teaching Notes and Tips

  • If you have not already and would like to give your students a little more context about geodesy data in general and the lidar and InSAR methods in particular, you could use this short presentation.
    Introduction to Geodesy and Surface Process Hazards Presentation (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 14.7MB Jul11 17)
    Introduction to Geodesy and Surface Process Hazards Presentation
    Click to view

  • This unit seems to go forward in a pretty straightforward way. Although it takes a little extra time, we really do recommend the brief student presentations in Part 1. If students have never done PowerPoint presentations (or other presentation software), you may need to spend a little time explaining what to do or give guidance on what each slide should contain.


Formative Assessment

Most likely, formative assessment will be gathered through discussion with students and observation of students as they work through the exercise. By monitoring classroom activity, the instructor can gauge how students are progressing toward the learning outcomes.

Summative Assessment

The primary summative assessment for the module is the Oso Landslide Exercise. In addition, in order to assess whether students have achieved a sufficient understanding of the societal side of the unit, one of the following questions could be used on a test.

Level 2: Besides the mass of material that buried the town, the Oso mass-wasting event left a mark on the geographic and societal landscape both locally and regionally. Students will be asked to answer the following questions:

  1. Name and describe two examples of a local indirect effect of the Oso mass-wasting event—near to the town of Oso.
  2. Name and describe two examples of a regional indirect effect of the Oso mass-wasting event—downstream of the event?

Level 3: Students will research what has been done to plan for the future in the aftermath of the Oso event. They will prepare a one-page narrative describing how the community and/or state is working to prevent or preparing for the future in this landslide-prone region.

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This module is part of a growing collection of classroom-tested materials developed by GETSI. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »