On geomorphological processes in northern Italy - a conversation with Prof. Ireneusz Malik

At the end of November, we have a very interesting interview with Prof. Ireneusz Malik of the University of Silesia in Katowice. We talked about the internationalization of science, Mr. Professor's cooperation with Italian scientists, and above all about mudflows and landslides in the era of climate change, using this year's disaster from Emilia Romagna as an example.

We invite you to read more!

Please tell us how your cooperation with scientists from Italy began.

My scientific cooperation with the Italians began by accident. Three years ago, one of the scientists from the University of Pavia, Professor Michael Maerkel came to the University of Silesia, where he gave lectures on his geomorphological research. It turned out that he was working on similar issues to those I was working on. After the lecture, I proposed to him that we collaborate on joint research on landslide activity. I later met a number of scientists from the University of Pavia and began field work in northern Italy.  

This year you won a NAWA Intervention Grant dedicated to the risks of mudflows and landslides under climate change. Please tell us what your ideas are for implementing this grant?

The grant will be carried out jointly with my colleagues in Italy. We will analyze the stability of slopes occurring in mountainous areas, in northern Italy. We will study the slopes for the possibility of mudflows or landslides occurring within them. The aforementioned geomorphological processes lead to a lot of destruction and, together with floods, are particularly dangerous for people. During the implementation of the project, dangerous areas will be identified so that their effects in these areas can be reduced in the future. We have been noting an increase in the occurrence of extreme phenomena such as floods and landslides in recent times. It is not difficult to imagine a situation where, in an era of climate change, torrential precipitation co-occurs with strong seismic shocks, as is possible in Italy. We wanted to reduce the negative impact of such events on people and the environment in which they live. This is the most general goal of the grant we are implementing. 

What is the basis of its interventionality, that is, the urgency of doing the research?

The intervention, the urgency of carrying out the studies planned in the project is due to the need to quickly study the effects of landslide disasters and associated floods, or runoff and mudflows. The geomorphological forms that are created during such events are quickly obliterated in the field and colonized by vegetation. This makes research difficult; we are unable to identify the relief forms created during catastrophic events. After a longer period of time, we are unable to reach the rocks that conditioned the formation of landslides or mudflows. In addition, the intervening nature of our research is related to the increase in the occurrence of extreme climatic events in recent times, which are likely to occur even more frequently. Therefore, we should quickly learn to prevent their effects effectively. Research on the stability of slopes and the designation of areas at risk should be carried out as soon as possible. 

Tell us about the innovation of the methods used.

The innovation of our research is that it is strongly interdisciplinary. We use biological methods to solve geological problems, often conditioned by meteorological phenomena. We use the dendrochronological method to delineate landslide-active slopes, or those where debris flows or mudflows may occur. We started such studies a dozen years ago. They have resulted in the development of methods by which we are able to pinpoint sites particularly prone to landslides or mudflows in the future. We read from the trees information about the initial movements of the substrate on which the trees grow. In this way, we are able to indicate places that are particularly dangerous for the occurrence of mass movements. We use the dendrochronological method, so we read from the rings whether the tree in recent years or earlier has moved with the ground, lost stability and leaned. Such a tree develops reactionary wood and deconcentric growth. The increase in recent years of such features in the anatomy of tree wood indicates the rapid possibility of landslides or mudflows. It allows one to conclude that the slope is becoming more active, then the slope material can be rapidly displaced. The slopes of the mountains in Emilia Romagna are forested, allowing our method to be widely used. 

What lessons can we learn from the Emilia Romagna disaster in 2023?

We should strive to develop and use new methods to protect people living in vulnerable areas from floods, landslides and mudflows. Disasters like the one in Emilia Romagna in 2023 may unfortunately occur more and more often. Most often, we are quick to forget the effects of disasters such as the one that entered Emilia Romagna. However, nature is quick to remind us that events of this type are common and we will have to face them more often. 

Can your experience from Poland (or other countries) be translated to this Italian study?

Our research in different areas of the world allows us to take a more comprehensive look at the problem of delineating areas at risk of landslides or mudflows. Geomorphological processes occur with different strengths, in different parts of the world. We are often aware that our research contributes to reducing damage to infrastructure and often protects human lives. We point out where it is safe to invest, and which areas should be overlooked when investing. We conduct research often in developing, rapidly wealthy countries, where investments are made on a large scale in both river valley areas and mountainous areas.  

In Poland, Italy is often seen primarily as the "Bel Paese" - a beautiful, diverse land with a number of monuments unparalleled anywhere else. We rarely look at Italy from the side of natural hazards, the hardships associated with them, the problems of everyday life. And yet this is the country where earthquakes, landslides like the one in Emilia Romagna, floods and, on the other hand, droughts, avalanches often occur. How does a specialist look at this situation: a geographer, a geomorphologist?

Italy is an environmentally diverse country. It experiences both earthquakes and precipitation, which contribute to floods, landslides, as well as mudflows. From my perspective, it is a very interesting country where I can conduct my research and realize myself academically. The results of my research are of a practical nature, hence I will be particularly pleased if they are used by decision-makers in order to make people's lives in this beautiful country as pleasant and, above all, safe as possible. 

And what do you like about Italy?

I don't think I'll be original here: beautiful landscapes, cuisine, of course, and cheerful people who are so easy to get in touch with.  

I know that you are implementing several international projects. What is internationalization to you, cooperation with scientists from other countries?

Cooperation in the implementation of international projects is the most important link in scientific activity today. Exchange of ideas, joint implementation of scientific projects, mutual transfer of technology between countries are particularly important for today's scientist. On the occasion of international projects, we not only broaden our scientific horizons, but also get to know the people and culture of the countries where we work.