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How Alaska's Barry Arm Can Help Us Prepare for Climate Change Hazards
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  • Bretwood Higman,
  • Chad Briggs,
  • Jeffrey Coe,
  • Chunli Dai,
  • Anja Dufresne,
  • Jeffrey Freymueller,
  • Marten Geertsema,
  • Peter Haeussler,
  • Mylene Fabienne Jacquemart,
  • Michele Koppes,
  • Anna Liljedahl,
  • Patrick Lynett,
  • Dmitry Nicolsky,
  • Lauren Schaefer,
  • Melissa Ward Jones,
  • Robert Weiss,
  • Michael West,
  • Gabriel Wolken
Bretwood Higman
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Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Chad Briggs
University of Alaska Anchorage
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Jeffrey Coe
US Geological Survey
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Chunli Dai
Ohio State University Main Campus
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Anja Dufresne
RWTH-Aachen University
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Jeffrey Freymueller
Michigan State University
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Marten Geertsema
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Peter Haeussler
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Mylene Fabienne Jacquemart
WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF
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Michele Koppes
University of British Columbia
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Anna Liljedahl
Woods Hole Research Center
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Patrick Lynett
University of Southern California
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Dmitry Nicolsky
University of Alaska Fairbanks
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Lauren Schaefer
USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center
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Melissa Ward Jones
Woods Hole Research Center
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Robert Weiss
Virginia Tech
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Michael West
Univ Alaska Fairbanks
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Gabriel Wolken
University of Alaska Fairbanks
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A slope at Barry Arm, in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, is deforming at a varying rate up to tens of meters per year above a retreating glacier and deep fjord that is a popular recreational destination. If the estimated 500 million cubic meters of unstable material on this slope were to fail catastrophically, the impact of the landslide with the ocean would produce a tsunami that would not only endanger those in its immediate vicinity, but likely also those in more distant areas such as the port of Whittier, 50 km away. The discovery of this threat was happenstance, and the response so far has been cobbled together from over a dozen existing grants and programs. Remotely sensed imagery could have revealed this hazard a decade ago, but nobody was looking, highlighting our lack of coordination and preparedness for this growing hazard driven by climate change. As glaciers retreat, they can simultaneously destabilize mountain slopes and expose deep waters below, creating the potential for destructive tsunamis. The settings where this risk might occur are easily identified, but more difficult to assess and monitor. Unlike for volcanoes, active faults, landslides, and tectonic tsunamis, the US has conducted no systematic assessment of tsunamis generated by subaerial landslides, nor has the US established methods for monitoring or issuing warnings for such tsunamis. The U.S. National Tsunami Warning Center relies on seismic signals and sea-level measurements to issue warnings; however, landslides are more difficult to detect than earthquakes, and the resultant tsunamis often would reach vulnerable populations and infrastructure before water level gages could help estimate the magnitude of the tsunami. Also, integrating precursory motion and other clues of an impending slope failure into a tsunami warning system has only been done outside the US (e.g Norway: Blikra et al., 2012). Barry Arm is a dramatic case study highlighting these challenges and may provide a model for mitigating the threat of tsunamis generated by subaerial landslides enabled by glacial retreat elsewhere.