Landslides kill thousands of people every year, so it should come as no surprise that various systems have been developed in an effort to predict when they're about to occur. One of the most recent innovations, developed by scientists at Italy's Second University of Naples, utilizes fiber optics to create a sort of watchable "nervous system" of the slope that's being monitored.

Ordinarily, electronic inclinometers are used to provide warnings of impending landslides. The devices are placed on the slope in question, and notify officials when the angle of that slope changes significantly. According to the Naples researchers, however, their system is tougher, less expensive and more sensitive.

It consists of a linked network of sensor modules, which are buried in trenches throughout the slope – the area can be up to several square kilometers in size. Each module is made up of a plastic tube, containing several types of fiber optic sensors.

As the soil shifts, the tube and its sensors are twisted. Officials can remotely monitor just how much the sensors in all of the modules are twisting, to get an overall picture of the amount of tensile strain that the slope is experiencing. According to lead scientist Prof. Luigi Zeni, the modules are more robust than inclinometers in that they have no moving parts, and can withstand larger deformations.

Scientists from Britain's Loughborough University have been developing another alternative to inclinometers, in the form of acoustic sensors that actually listen for the sounds of excessive soil movement.

A presentation on the Naples technology took place yesterday at The Optical Society's Frontiers in Optics conference in Tucson, Arizona.