NERC-funded scientists start work on Scottish slopes after storm Desmond and storm Frank landslides

9 February 2016

Scientists will use cutting-edge technology to pinpoint potential landslide "warning signs" on a high-risk route in Scotland following devastating storms in December.

Since 2007, there have been 13 major landslides on the A83 at the Rest & Be Thankful beauty spot in Argyll & Bute, on occasions forcing the road to close at a high cost to the local economy.

3d computer model of Rest and Be Thankful site in Scotland

Storm Desmond and storm Frank caused major flooding and disruption in Scotland and Cumbria in December and saw three large landslides at the Rest and Be Thankful site, one of which caused damage to cars. NERC has provided an urgency grant of more than £57,000 for the research to be carried out by the Newcastle University team with co-workers at Northumbria University and the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL). The team will work closely with Transport Scotland and BEAR Scotland, who maintain the A83.

Using a drone weighing just a few pounds, researchers will create detailed 3D images of the slopes. By comparison with previous drone imagery and data, scientists hope to pin-point the small shifts in earth, water levels and sediment which may come before a landslide large enough to reach the road. These small events could provide warning signs ahead of major landslides in the future.

Project leader Dr Stuart Dunning, of Newcastle University, said his team has a unique opportunity thanks to the pre-event data gathered by monitoring devices installed on behalf of Transport Scotland over the past five years to measure rainfall, small movements and changing water levels in the slope every fifteen minutes.

Dr Dunning said:

We are in a unique position - many slopes in the world may be this active, but almost no others have the pre-event data that we have available to us, including measurements recorded throughout the storms which triggered the landslides. Transport Scotland's monitoring has provided us with an opportunity. We will be able to build 3D visualisations which compare pre-event data with the in-depth imaging to be collected on site by our drone in the coming weeks and link this to the rainfall and slope monitoring data.

We hope to be able to use this to identify the smaller, less visible changes over, and within, the slope which prepare the slope for final failure, and be able to give some estimate of what leads up to that final failure. We are essentially asking - are there subtle warning signs on the slope that we should be looking for?

The first 3D computer models of the site could be completed by the end of the month. As part of the 12-month project, researchers will also install equipment to monitor the passing of sediment through culverts under the road, signalling changes on the slopes which may not be visible. In addition, the project aims to shed light on the aftermath of landslide events with the potential to make recommendations for future mitigation measures.

Dr Dunning said:

The landslides caused by storm Desmond and Frank were quite large, and they occurred in areas that were already deemed a risk. Mitigation had already been carried out in these areas and the nets installed were effective and caught most of the debris and minimised damage, but a small portion of debris was still able to reach the road and damaged two cars. Without the nets, it would have been much worse. The questions we need to ask are, how big are these landslides going to be in the future as rainfall patterns begin to change, and what additional monitoring do we need to have in place?

He added:

Things have moved on so rapidly in terms of drone technology in recent years, and in the past these techniques would have been very expensive to use. Our drone has been modified to meet our needs - it weighs only a couple of kilos and is operated by just two people. It has four propellers and flies low to the ground and so is able to see things that are not visible from the roadside.

NERC's chief executive, Duncan Wingham, said

NERC's urgency grants mean scientists can respond rapidly to unexpected and sudden events affecting the environment. Storms and flooding across the UK have had a huge impact on the environment in recent months. This grant means researchers will soon be on the ground. Insights gleaned from research at the Rest and Be Thankful site could provide information vital to the future management of areas at risk of landslides, helping to minimise dangers and economic impact. In this case, speed is of the essence as the land continues to be shaped by on-going bad weather. NERC is delighted to be in a position to facilitate this research.

Incident policy manager at Transport Scotland, Morag Mackay, said:

Transport Scotland is firmly committed to mitigating the effects on landslides at the Rest and Be Thankful site, with £13·5 million invested in the last few years. This funding will enhance the extensive research and development work that has taken place on landslides since 2004, including the Scottish Roads Network Landslides Study, which is transforming the way in which the trunk road network in Scotland is operated and managed in terms of these types of hazards.

Further information

Mary Goodchild
NERC media office
01793 411939
07710 147485


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS).

2. Newcastle University is a Russell Group university, and ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world (QS World University Rankings 2014) and 16th in the UK for global research power (ref 2014). Newcastle University has a world-class reputation for research excellence and are spearheading three major societal challenges that have a significant impact on global society: ageing, sustainability, and social renewal. 93·7% of their students are in a job or further training within six months of graduating.

3. Northumbria University, Newcastle is a research-rich, business-focused, professional university with a global reputation for academic excellence. Northumbria is one of the largest universities in the UK with almost 34,000 students from 131 countries. The university has over 186,000 alumni worldwide. Northumbria has invested more than £200 million in our estate since 2005 to improve the student experience. Northumbria is ranked top 50 in the UK for research power and had the 4th largest increase in quality research funding (ref 2014).