Sandi Doughton

The Seattle Times

2015 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News Winner

Sandi Doughton received the 2015 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 16 December 2015 in San Francisco, Calif. The award recognizes “a journalist for a news story or series in any medium except books that makes information about the Earth and space sciences accessible and interesting to the general public.”


Sandi Doughton first wrote about the laser surveying system called lidar years ago.

In 2009, she reported on how scientists used lidar to study mysterious mounds in the lowlands of southwest Washington. It was a classic story by our top–notch science reporter: lots of details for the science geeks written in an engaging fashion for our broader audience. The crisp lidar images showed the mounds formed at the edges of retreating glaciers, supporting a theory about their origin proposed 100 years ago.

Later that same year she reported on the experts who were using lidar to monitor movement in a large landslide that buried a quarter mile of highway in Yakima County in central Washington.

So when last year’s catastrophic landslide buried a rural, riverfront community in Snohomish County, north of Seattle, Sandi immediately wondered what lidar images of the terrain would show. She dug around and found that Snohomish County had conducted lidar surveys of the slide area and extended river valley in 2013.

The images revealed scars left by a series of huge landslides up and down the valley that are now hidden by time and thick vegetation. At least one of these ancient slides was twice as big as the one that struck on 22 March 2014, killing 43 people in Oso.

Seeing these images left no doubt about the danger along the Stillaguamish River.

Sandi’s story, though, did more than report the results of those surveys. She took the time to explain how the technology works. She then switched to watchdog mode and reported how many of these valuable images aren’t easily accessed by homeowners, builders, and buyers wanting to better understand the risks associated with a piece of property.

All this discussion of lidar and its benefits led the Washington State Legislature this past spring to pass legislation that will expand lidar mapping of geologic hazards and make that information more available. The legislation, signed by the governor in April, was the first major public policy initiative in response to the Oso landslide.

—Richard Wagoner, The Seattle Times, Seattle, Wash.


For a science writer, it’s a thrill to be mentioned in the same sentence as David Perlman. To receive an award named for one of the best and hardest–working reporters in the business is an honor.

Like David, I work for a daily newspaper. It’s unusual for scientific organizations to recognize the distinction between feature stories and journalism produced on tight deadlines—sometimes within hours, at most over a few days.

I’m grateful to AGU for acknowledging the value of that kind of coverage, and to David for setting the standard as to how it should be done. And since a journalist is only as good as her sources, I’d also like to thank the many geoscientists who have so freely shared their time and expertise with me over the years.

This story grew out of the horrific landslide that roared off a slope near the Western Washington town of Oso.  Within minutes, an entire neighborhood along the Stillaguamish River was obliterated. Forty–three people, who had been going about their business on a Saturday morning, were killed.

An emergency manager described the disaster as “completely unforeseen.”

Geoscientists knew better.

As my colleagues at the Seattle Times quickly determined, the hillside had collapsed repeatedly in the past. Geologists had warned it would happen again.

That history made me wonder what lidar images of the slide area might show. The technique has fascinated me ever since I learned about its power to reveal hidden features on the landscape, so I turned to Ralph Haugerud. One of the U.S. Geological Survey’s most accomplished “lidar whisperers,” Haugerud was already working up a quick report on the Stillaguamish valley.

That report documented dozens of previous slides, some even bigger than the one that obliterated the community near Oso. But the people who lived there never saw those lidar images, nor was the lidar data incorporated into state databases or land use policies.

In the Pacific Northwest, there are many examples of the Earth sciences nudging society toward positive change. Field geologists and seismologists revolutionized our understanding of earthquake risk—and the region is much better prepared as a result. The same is true of volcanic hazards.

Those examples make me optimistic that contributions from the geosciences, including lidar, will eventually lead to better understanding of landslide hazard and better public policy. I just hope we don’t have to experience another tragedy like Oso before we get there.

—Sandi Doughton, The Seattle Times, Seattle, Wash.