[ by Charles Cameron -- comparing two recent landslides for scale, and a conundrum ]
Abi Barak, Afghanistan: 2,100 believed buried
Oso, Washington: 41 dead, 2 missing
I wanted these two images to be as large as the Zenpundit format would permit, and fear they would be too small if reduced to fit my usual DoubleQuotes format — and since that still leaves them equal in image-size though very different in scope of devastation, I’ve added the figures of those who are thought to have died in the two slides, so that you can get a sense of differences of scale which may not be so easily apparent from the images alone.
So, the conundrum:
Are distant tragedies less tragic than nearby ones?
Is a tragedy with more dead more tragic than one with less?
[ by Charles Cameron -- deeply uncertain as to how often he should be grateful for narrow escapes from troubles he was utterly unaware of ]
See, the first thing I want to know it: is an oblivious butterfly’s wing-flap roughly equivalent to an oblivious snowboader’s short slide across snow? And the second: is a tornado roughly comparable to an avalanche? I mean, a second’s worth of a living creature’s movement in the one case, and a “natural disaster” of somewhat larger proportions in the other?
Of course, the avalanche was closer to the snowboarder, who wound up “riding” it to safety, than Brazil is to Texas. Is that a difference that makes a difference?
Although if it had been given just 3 days later (a very mild change in initial conditions) it would have been given not merely on a different day and to a different audience, but in a different month and a different year… and maybe even mentioned first in different editions of Encyclopedia Britannica and the OED!
Well, see, I am also interested because in the paper with that intriguing title, Lorenz also said:
You can fill the lower panel with your own conclusion as to the question of the snowboarder: is there one of them helping us avoid an avalanche for very one that sets one going? Does it all cancel out in the long run?
From Zuckerman’s article again, broadening our scope from one incident in Montana to see the wider picture:
Almost all U.S. avalanches that affect people strike in the backcountry of the mountainous West and are caused by snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders who inadvertently trigger them. Avalanches have killed 26 people so far this season, records show.
How many avalanches have we already missed this year thanks to other snowmobilers, skiers and snowboarders? And have we expressed our gratitude?
On a somewhat similar tack, I wrote back in 2009:
A deer crossed perhaps twelve feet ahead of my car on the road from Sedona, Arizona to Cottonwood a year or two back. 60 mph is 88 feet per second. A tenth of a second later and the deer and or I would likely have been dead — one full second later, he or she would have crossed sixty feet behind me and I would have seen nothing, known nothing.
There are deer constantly crossing our paths sixty feet behind us — and it’s a normal day at the office, it’s one more day like any other: sunny, then partly cloudy, with a ten percent chance of rain.
Another time, and this was in Southern California, my car skidded out of control on a slick road as I was driving home with son Emlyn (then age 10). We hit the 3′ concrete center divider, jumped it, and flipped over, landing upside down. Emlyn and I climbed out with minor scratches — making sure we could climb out through the squished windows was the main issue. We were unscathed, but the car itself was totalled.
Had I taken that turn three seconds earlier or later, hitting a slicker or drier patch of road, and angling more or less steeply at the center divider — would we have been, in words made famous by wanted posters long before Schrodinger’s cat pondered them: Dead or Alive…
I suspect we have no idea how many close shaves and narrow escapes we have over the course of a lifetime — but the Recording Angel might know, and be in a state of perpetual hysterics over our ability to ignore a dozen near-disasters while getting totally discombobulated over a very minor incident that we happen to notice…
Unless the Recording Angel, too, is subject to Heisenberg‘s uncertainty and Schrodinger’s collapse…
[ by Charles Cameron -- the warnings, the lack of response, the tragedy, and a diagnosis of the underlying, near-universal human condition ]
Devastation wrought by the Lesser Sludge, Snohomish County, WA, March 2014
Hear ye! Hear ye!
The most stunning account I’ve yet seen of the Oso mudslide isn’t really about the slide itself, it’s about how much we already knew and how little we listened. Here’s an interview with geomorphologist Daniel Miller, who wrote up the danger of a slide in a 1997 report for the Washington Department of Ecology and the Tulalip Tribes, and followed it up with a report for the US Army Corps of Engineers in 1999, in which he warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure”:
Nevertheless the county believed that it was safe to build homes down by the Stillaguamish River. “It was considered very safe,” John Pennington, head of Snohomish County’s Department of Emergency Management, said at a news conference Monday. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”
Mudslides or mudflows (or debris flows) are rivers of rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water. They develop in the soil overlying bedrock on sloping surfaces when water rapidly accumulates in the ground, such as during river of rock, earth, organic matter and other heavy rainfall or rapid snowmelt. Water pressure in the pore spaces of the material increases to the point that the internal strength of the soil is drastically weakened. The soil’s reduced resistance can then easily be overcome by gravity, changing the earth into a flowing river of mud or “slurry.” A debris flow or mudflow can move rapidly down slopes or through channels, and can strike with little or no warning at avalanche speeds. The slurry can travel miles from its source, growing as it descends, picking up trees, boulders, cars and anything else in its path. Although these slides behave as fluids, they pack many times the hydraulic force of water due to the mass of material included in them. Locally, they can be some of the most destructive events in nature.
— and their Hazard Profile comments:
Landslides are caused by one or a combination of the following factors: change in slope of the terrain, increased load on the land, shocks and vibrations, change in water content, groundwater movement, frost action, weathering of rocks, and removing or changing the type of vegetation covering slopes.
Note that no human intervention is required — this is what an insurance writer might call an “act of God” while a scientist might prefer to call it the result of “natural causes”.
As for myself, I would like to refer to the actual mudflow consisting of “rock, earth, organic matter and other soil materials saturated with water” that recently buried much of the small, humanly-populated town of Osa in Snohomish County, WA, as the Lesser Sludge.
Listen! Warnings have been issued for millennia — and still the kings, the potentates, the real estate moguls refuse to listen:
Hear ye the word of the LORD, O kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, the which whosoever heareth, his ears shall tingle.
— Jeremiah 19:3
I was in Managua, Nicaragua, shortly after the 1972 earthquake there. I had spent the day before with a 35mm Pentax, photographing square block after square block of demolished housing, with the occasional yellow flag indicating that a body — hence a possible source of infection — had been located there, too deep to be retrieved at that point. And I recall all too vividly what the physician sitting next to me on the plane home said to me:
They will rebuild on this same spot.
Managua had been the site of previous quakes, including one in 1885, and another in 1931 — it was at risk for serious quakes roughly twice a century. But real estate is real estate, Managua as Nicaragua’s capital city was valuable real estate, and the owners of valuable real estate would want to rebuild on their own real estate, no? It only makes logical sense…
And they did.
What, then, is the Greater Sludge?
What I am calling the Greater Sludge is the mental sludge that somehow lodges itself, not just in this instance but in ten thousand others, between appropriate warnings on the one hand, and acting on the need for change on the other.
The Greater Sludge, in other words, is between our ears and behind our eyes: we cannot see it, and we cannot hear it.
I spent the better part of a decade working and talking with the fine group of social entrepreneurs that Jeff Skoll‘s foundation gathered for discussions at the late, lamented SocialEdge site, and I noticed something that struck me forcibly at the time, and has only become more deeply rooted in my thinking since then: we have Foundations, think tanks, journals, RFPs, and funding reources for all manner of top-down approaches to single-issue problems — depleted or polluted water supplies, lack of housing, education, medicine, you name it. We even have a few people like Anthony Judge and his Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential, trying to see the complex interweavings of multiple problems — and a few more like Victor d’Allant and his team at Urb.Im working on bottom-up solutions.
But there isn’t really even a category for approaches to the problem of the Greater Sludge: our need to make across-the-board improvements in mental clarity isn’t even on the map.
And yet mental sludge is the greatest obstacle facing all those who see problems and have the clarity to know how to go about fixing them: from distraction and disinterest to outright denial, the many shades of sludge constitute our one totally interdisciplinary, wholly integral and universal problem.
Conversely, clarity in that invisible space behind the eyes, the ability to hear the quiet voice of sanity above the babel-babble between the ears — that would be the universal solvent.
Zenpundit is a blog dedicated to exploring the intersections of foreign policy, history, military theory, national security,strategic thinking, futurism, cognition and a number of other esoteric pursuits.