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USGS Mendenhall: Advanced scientific computing to improve assessment of post-fire debris-flow hazards
U.S. Geological Survey, Colorado, United States
Apply before: 6 January 2022

The USGS conducts debris-flow hazard assessments for recent burn areas across the western U.S. The hazard assessments consist of maps identifying the likelihood and potential volume of debris flows throughout the burn area and estimates of the rainfall thresholds required to trigger the flows. The maps are used by federal, state, and local agencies to evaluate risk and develop emergency response and evacuation plans. The rainfall thresholds are used by the National Weather Service to issue watches and warnings for the burn area. Demand for this product has steadily increased since 2014 when the program became operational. Requests for USGS assistance are expected to continue to grow as wildfires increase in size and severity, development continues in vulnerable areas, and precipitation intensifies from warming temperatures.

The code anchoring the operational program was developed by research scientists with expertise in geologic hazards but limited training in scientific computing. Despite its success, the code needs to be modernized to (1) meet the growing demand for the product, (2) improve efficiency in handling computationally intensive mega fires (> 100,000 acres), (3) adhere to fundamental science practices for documentation and availability, and (4) add new products to address stakeholder needs. Potential new products include maps of debris-flow inundation, scenario-based pre-fire hazard assessments for advance planning, and annual updates to assessments that reflect the change in hazard during 2-10 years of post-fire recovery.

We seek a Mendenhall fellow to use advances in scientific computing to help the USGS and its partners better identify debris-flow risks after wildfires. The project involves a redesign of the current operational system for rapid delivery and display of debris-flow hazard assessments using best practices in scientific computing as well as research to advance the science underlying debris-flow hazard assessment (probability, size, inundation, pre-fire hazard, or evolving hazard during post-fire recovery). The proposed study will expand current capabilities and enhance models for assessment of potential debris-flow impacts after wildfire. It involves research to integrate computer science, geology, geomorphology, and social science to produce products serving a range of stakeholders. Stakeholders include large agencies who want high-resolution geo-spatial data for risk assessment and planning, and the public who need an easy-to-understand depiction of the hazard. Emerging platforms for cloud computing and display of geo-spatial information may be considered.

The postdoctoral fellow will be mentored by both research and development teams at the USGS Geologic Hazards Science Center. The fellow will be embedded with the HazDev team who have created some of the most visible products in the Survey. They will provide direction on available computing resources and web infrastructure, as well as exposure to other cutting-edge projects under development. Landslide researchers at GHSC will provide the fellow with education and guidance on the physical science behind landslide hazard assessment. Additionally, the project will involve high levels of engagement with stakeholders and end users, including the National Weather Service, U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, and state geological surveys.

Interested applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the Research Advisors early in the application process to discuss project ideas.



Jason Kean Research Hydrologist Northwest Region Email: Phone: 303-273-8608

Rex Baum Supervisory Research Geologist Geologic Hazards Science Center Email: Phone: 303-273-8610

Lynda Lastowka Supervisory Geophysicist Geologic Hazards Science Center Email:

Phone: 303-273-8422

Of interest for:
  • Terrestrial Working Group
  • Cyberinformatics and Numerics Working Group
  • Hydrology Focus Research Group
  • Critical Zone Focus Research Group