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Richard Iverson Oral History Interview

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Richard Iverson Oral History Interview


Richard (Dick) Iverson, a landslide specialist with the US Geological Survey based at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, spent more than 30 years as the creator, manager, and leader of research at the large debris flow experimental facility in the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest. He documents his research career, including the flume facility in this memoir.

Iverson begins this oral history by describing his upbringing in Iowa and his close connections with the outdoors in that landscape, including observing streams and sediment transport. Family trips to the major National Parks in the West, especially the Tetons, also stimulated his interest in wild landscapes, but he did not reach the west coast until driving from Iowa to the San Francisco area to go to grad school at Stanford. He describes the trip as “2000 miles mostly across arid lands” and then dropping into the Bay Area where he “felt like I was entering a sort of fairytale world.”

Returning to his early education, Iverson describes his interest in science and math from elementary through high school, but earth science in high school was “a bit lame”, because it lacked connection with the other sciences, which makes geology interesting. Entering Iowa State University as an undergraduate, he had interests in science, math, and writing. A professor of journalism recommended starting in science – he could always go back to writing. He describes how several factors, especially getting out in the field, led him to major in geology with minors in physics and math. Then it was on to Stanford for his PhD and Iverson describes the influences and opportunities of excellent faculty and US Geological Survey (USGS) mentors as he pursued earth science studies with a strong focus on mechanics.

He next describes his dissertation research on the large, slow-moving Minor Creek landslide in the Redwood Creek area on the Northern California coast, which was being monitored by Dick Janda and associates of USGS. He combined intensive field studies with theoretical modeling. Upon graduation from Stanford in 1984 he was offered an academic position at University of Wisconsin-Madison, but turned it down because he had been “spoiled by big topography” in the West and wanted to be close to landslides, his main focus of research, which are plentiful in the West – and Mount St. Helens had recently produced the biggest one ever observed.

The USGS support for Iverson’s doctoral studies at Stanford led to his full-time employment with USGS. He was stationed at CVO to work on landslides. The discussion then turns to big landslides and especially their impacts on people, including the Oso landslide in western Washington where he poignantly recalls working among workers searching for bodies. He describes how the challenges of studying debris flows in the field pushed him to his signature accomplishment – the experimental debris flow flume at the Andrews Forest where studies could be conducted under controlled conditions. He wanted to do applied geomorphology, and rapid landslides (debris flows) are great hazards in volcanic landscapes. He speaks about how even small volcanic events can trigger massive debris flows [lahars], giving examples such as Nevado del Ruiz in Columbia, and he warns of the potential for big problems at Rainier and Baker. After several digressions, the conversation digs into the motivations and origins of the debris flow flume, and the challenges of getting USGS to invest in that novel facility quite outside the traditions of the agency.

Much of the middle of the oral history reviews particulars of the design, bureaucratic hoops for implementation, and early experimentation with the flume. A great deal of trial and error over several years was involved in figuring out how to run the experiments and clean up afterwards. Configuration of the flume and instrumentation changed over time. He reports that in 1997, when a series of major publications came out, skeptics in the investment went silent. His work changed perceptions of the physics of debris flows from vicoplastic behavior (single-phase fluids like ketchup) to appreciation of mechanics of a two-phase system involving both a liquid phase and solid particles. On a practical level, Iverson explains the benefits of having the flume at the Andrews Forest as involving the facilities, including line paper, as well as the local staff to help trouble shoot problems. Also, the continuous parade of visitors to the Andrews offers opportunity to share their work and also to learn from the ecologists and others who work there. And he explains how “being able to make good debris flows” resulted in data that could drive good simulation models founded on understanding of the processes operating, and this led to fresh perspectives for interpretation of debris flow deposits and landforms in the field. He goes on to describe how these models are being used in hazard assessment at several Cascade volcanoes, and conjectures that the same modeling framework seems suitable for modeling tsunamis when the make landfall and entrain vast amounts of debris. Of course, operating such a facility for so many years results in accidents, near misses, and strange encounters with visitors – he recounts a few of these.

The interview concludes with reflections on ways in which the flume could be upgraded and better protected from degradation, and the major accomplishments of the science, which Iverson feels is the body of data and the resulting models by his group and others around the world. The basic data on pore pressures and grain segregation are fundamental findings of the experimental work and central to successful modeling, as reported on his classic publication “The Physics of Debris Flows.” In conclusion, Iverson expresses great satisfaction with his career in USGS and featuring work with the debris flow flume, despite some temptations at times to move to academia to pursue teaching.


Richard Iverson


H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest Oral History Collection (OH 28)


Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Oregon State University Libraries


December 1, 2017


Samuel Schmieding


Born Digital Audio




Oral History



Oral History Item Type Metadata


Samuel Schmieding


Richard Iverson


Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Corvallis, Oregon

Original Format

Born Digital Audio



OHMS Object

Interview Format


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  1. Iverson at flume.jpg