My first geology professor said that the public only knows a geologist as a “person running around the country with a hammer.” That accurate assessment illustrates two points: that geologists are passionate about their field (as are most scientists), and that the public views geology as a science with little practical value. Most people know that geologists work for oil and mining companies, and study volcanoes and earthquakes. Beyond that, the public perceives geologists as researchers using public money to study things that may be interesting, but contribute little to social or economic progress.
My own interactions with friends, family, and the general public reinforce that perception. Just a few weeks ago, a stranger at a bar labeled me a “liberal leech”, knowing nothing else about me except that I am a geologist. When someone heard I was studying geology, he or she would usually respond, “what do you do with that degree?” Even close friends or family members struggle to understand what I do. “He likes rocks,” they will say. The implication is that a Geologists waste time studying things that cannot possibly land them a job (considering I have been unemlployed almost a year, maybe they have a point 🙂 ). If it doesn’t make money, people consider it a worthless career. I expect this perception from the more devout religious types, or from those that are strong capitalists. But I also hear this from engineers and other scientists. Engineers believe invention and design can conquer all, and other scientists consider geology an antiquated science with little future.
Professional geologists fall into three categories:
1) Those that search for profitable Earth materials. This not only includes hydrocarbons (oil and coal), metals, and gems, but also things like sand and gravel, lime, and gypsum. These are the only “practical” geologists as viewed by the general public. They earn a living by finding and extracting materials of value, and few dispute the practicality of these geologists.
2) Those that research interesting things that seemingly have no practical implications. These are the geologists the public views as “running around the country with a hammer”. They earn a living from government expenditures and grant money. The grant money comes from public sources, non-profit organizations, and private for-profit companies. The practicality of this research is rarely immediate, but the findings may ultimately benefit society. For example, a geologist may receive grant money to map a remote area for the purpose of understanding where the ocean was 100-million years ago. The map may eventually prove extremely useful when a road is built through that area, and engineers need to know over which rock unit to locate that road in order to have a stable road bed.
3) Those that work to save money and lives. Most know of earthquake and volcano hazards. But, most don’t know that more monetary damage is done every year by simple things such as soil creep and swelling clay. Beyond the major catastrophes, this category of geologist gets little attention. These geologists ultimately earn a living from public money, or from government regulation, and thus carry the stigma of being unimportant. Society gives little attention to how much money or how many lives are saved because of careful study and common-sense regulation. Devore, California provides a perfect example, a place that I visited and photographed in 2005. .
Devore is a small neighborhood nestled in the foothills northeast of San Bernadino. On Christmas day 2003, a debris flow (the media calls them mudslides) inundated the neighborhood, destroying many homes and ending the lives of many people. The homes not destroyed by the debris flow have little value, and residents must live amongst destroyed homes and piles of debris. Those homeowners have little chance of selling their homes and recovering their investment. Unfortunately,
THIS DISASTER WAS 100 PERCENT AVOIDABLE.
Any competent geologist understands the terrain around Devore and concludes it is NOT SAFE for occupation. First, the San Bernadillo mountains are oversteepend by tectonic forces, and landslides are inevitable. Second, the region’s natural climate cycle is months of little rainfall, followed by wind and fire, and then torrential rain. This is true for much of southern California, and is the reason fires and mudslides are common. Since vegetation helps hold hillsides together, burning the vegetation greatly increases the landslide risk. Third, Devore is built on top of former debris flows, and a simple examination of the landscape reveals those old debris flow deposits are actually quite young. Logic says that if an area was inundated by a debris flow recently, the chances of it happening again are almost guaranteed.
So why were developers allowed to build in such an obviously unsafe area? The builder only cares about selling houses, and unless some regulation prevents development, the builder could care less what happens after they make their profit. Should it be the responsibility of the homeowner to research and understand the hazards before buying a property? A little geologic knowledge would have saved lives and money, but whose responsibility is it to pay for that knowledge?
Devore is an obvious (and common) example of a preventable geologic hazard. But, an ignorance of basic geologic principles and lax regulations resulted in the failure of Teton dam and the near failure of Glen Canyon dam. My intro to Geology textbook had a sidebar explaining that New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen – and that book was published in the mid 1990s! Here in Arizona, a new highway was severely damaged by a landslide, despite the fact that geologists had noted previous landslides in the area before the highway was built. Let’s not overlook countless flood disasters because of houses built on floodplains, beach erosion, groundwater contamination because of poorly-constructed wells, countless bridge failures because engineers did not understand river dynamics, and foundations and roads destroyed because builders failed to pay attention to the soil properties.
If funding for such studies disappears, or regulations ease, the future cost of mitigating these hazards greatly outweighs today’s cost of prevention.