Answering the Call for Help in Yellowstone

Jonathan Hubler, PhD, works with an NSF-backed organization to collect valuable post-disaster data

By Kiera Daly Soltis

three people in safety vests survey the damage after historic flooding in Yellowstone National Park
Jonathan Hubler, PhD, works with GEER team members to survey the damage and measure soil erosion following historic flooding at Yellowstone National Park. PHOTOS: MICHAEL GARDNER, JONATHAN HUBLER

In June 2022, Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming saw historic flooding that resulted in catastrophic damage. Homes, bridges and roads were destroyed. The cause? An unprecedented once-in-500-years weather event that coupled warm tropic-like air and heavy rainfall with rapid mountain snowmelt from a cool and snowy spring. The Yellowstone, Stillwater and Clarks Fork rivers hit record-setting water levels, and many rock- and mudslides washed out roads and bridges.

A few days after the storm, Jonathan Hubler, PhD, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, was in Utah at a conference when he received a call from the Geotechnical Extreme Events Reconnaissance (GEER) Association asking him to head to Montana to survey the destruction.

GEER is a volunteer National Science Foundation-backed organization of academics, scientists and engineers from around the world who rapidly deploy after an event to collect valuable post-disaster data to better understand extreme events, including floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires and hurricanes. GEER compiles their findings into public reports in an effort to advance hazard-resistant design.

“Our goal was to collect perishable data and document what happened during the storm before repairs were made,” says Dr. Hubler, whose research primarily focuses on the effects that natural hazards have on soil and geotechnical infrastructure. “The flood damage was extensive and covered a large territory, so we tried to canvass as large an area as we could.”

Dr. Hubler and the team identified scour, or the erosion of soil, surrounding the foundation of bridges impacted by the flooding. “We wanted to quantify the magnitude of scour and the erosion of the embankments,” says Dr. Hubler. “When you collect data from different events, themes emerge. You see common threads and it becomes clear which systems worked well during the event and which didn’t.”

In October, when flood waters had completely receded, Dr. Hubler and the team returned to Yellowstone to continue their work. Equipped with engineering research tools, they took more specific measurements, including capturing detailed imagery and measuring the quantity of soil that was moved by the river when it was at flood level.

In 2021, following Hurricane Ida, Dr. Hubler was also deployed by GEER in the Philadelphia region to evaluate the impact flooding had on infrastructure, including bridges, slopes and retaining walls. “Hopefully through our work we can better understand infrastructure performance during these events so that we can prevent performance issues in the future,” Dr. Hubler says.


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