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Tsunamis, Floods, Earthquakes And Systems Scientists

A geospatial and engineering study, recently conducted by my firm in support of relief operations in Haiti, shows that much of the island nation is susceptible to landslides.  And by “much,” I mean MUCH.  About 80%.  This should not be surprising considering young volcanic rock, active tectonics and steep slopes.  Easily-weathered, clay-rich soil at an angle will slide when shaken, right?

A structural geology and geophysics nerd, I was initially more enamored with and engrossed in the earthquake’s ground motion numbers, which were fed into predicting building failure, than ground sliding.  Thankfully, the Katrina levee failures have led me to a more holistic view of disasters.  To come up with solutions, we do need subject matter experts, but it is crucial that the general scientific attitude is less “I’ll take the seismic stuff, you take the soil stuff and let’s not be bothered by policy which is for suits in Washington” and more interdisciplinary cooperationin the name of scientific progress and human betterment.  Never will I sift through sediments or poke at fossils, but I’ll be damned if I ever view a problem through the blinders of  specialization again.  At some point, we have to grow up as scientists and citizens and want to incorporate other research as well as demand and follow through on change implementation.

More on the need for synthesis:

1) Disasters aren’t things that happen to other people, parts of which you later study for academic purposes. The paper Katrina’s unique splay deposits in a New Orleans neighborhood by Tulane University’s Stephen Nelson et al. documents some fascinating patterns of deposition of canal sediment in the Gentilly neighborhood, which ultimately show WHY the levee there failed as it did (pilings driven into ground all wrong due to poor sampling of and little care for the subsurface).

2) Disasters are normally compounded by other disasters.  These things rarely happen in isolation.  Landslides and floods triggered by earthquakes (and Atlantic hurricanes) are worsened by deforestation for charcoal in a job-starved and subsequently energy-starved country.  The need for aid and housing now is appreciated, but what of the larger problems of disappearing trees and moving coastlines?

3) “If the disasters themselves are not preventable, sometimes the way we handle the aftermath is,” says Adele Barker in Disaster’s Aftermath.  Ms. Barker speaks of aid agencies not being prepared in the wake of Haiti and how it reminds her of botched aid following the Southeast Asian tsunami (which in turn puts me in mind of our own New Orleanian disaster after the disaster).  Sometimes, the way we handle the scientific aftermath is preventable, too.

There is no room for academic and political ivory towers.  We work together or bust.


I will admit immense joy in science as an end in itself and a certain freedom in ignoring government and the social contract as petty constructs.  Forget you jokers with your grabs, wars and laws; when I’m in my lab, in my world, you cease to exist.  Science is a magical thing that way.  *ironic chuckle*  Moreover, within science itself, too much generalization leads to master-of-none paralysis.  You have to be good at something, do something, prove something, in order to move forward.  But, there’s no roadblock or harm in being good at something, learning more and sourcing from work outside of your expertise.  It makes you better.  More human.  In the end, isn’t that the point of science?

2 comments… add one
  • Holly February 18, 2010, 10:30 PM

    Disaster planning is so difficult — systems plan for the disaster that they just had, not the disaster that they having coming. NOLA is falling into the same pattern, of course, just like everything else. We are good at figuring out what went wrong and seeing how we could have done it better, but usually that doesn’t prevent chaos when the next thing occurs.

    I’m surprised there hasn’t been a mudslide in Haiti post-earthquake and have sort of been holding my breath thinking about it… also concerned about what will happen when it starts raining and raining and raining there in a few months. That disaster is still very much unfolding.

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