ALEXANDRIA, VA -- Disaster: at the very least, the word suggests
destruction -- a sure headline grabber. But precisely because
they do capture the public's attention, geologic disasters
provide valuable learning opportunities for both scientists and
citizens. In the January 1996 issue of GEOTIMES, scientists and
public officials share what they've learned from coping with
geologic hazards, and offer suggestions for improved management
and risk-reduction policies.
"Does government have the responsibility to protect people
from investing in risky property any more than from investing in
risky stocks?" asks Jeffrey R. Keaton, with AGRA Earth &
Environmental, Inc., of Salt Lake City. Most communities are
complacent about geologic hazards until they have weathered a
few, he reports in the article, "Geologic Hazards and Risks: Who
is Responsible and Why?" Communities respond to disaster by
enacting zoning laws and revising building codes, while lending
institutions insist on insurance policies. Yet some regulations
are unduly cumbersome and restrictive. Keaton suggests a better
policy would be to improve public education programs so that
people don't make the mistake of investing in property which is
geologically at risk.
A geographer and an earth scientist with the U.S. Geological
Survey in Denver agree. Much of the recent development in many
large metropolitan areas of the United States intrudes upon
unstable terrain, write Lynn M. Highland and William M. Brown III
in "Landslides: The Natural Hazard Sleepers." And despite the
popular assumption that landslides are a western problem, cities
such as Chicago and Cincinnati are also landslide prone.
Furthermore, widespread development of smaller communities,
especially in the intermountain West, creates abundant new
exposure to landslide conditions.
Perhaps no state has more serious natural hazard conditions
than Wyoming, writes James C. Case, a geologist with the Wyoming
State Geological Survey in Laramie. Earthquakes, landslides,
shrinking-swelling clays, active sand dunes, naturally occurring
toxic elements (such as radon, selenium and arsenic) and mine
subsidence are common in many areas of the state. Working
closely with the USGS Landslide Hazard Reduction Program, Wyoming
has begun a landslide mapping project. Information about areas at
risk is provided to television and radio stations, newspapers,
and magazines throughout the state -- sometimes by telephone. In
fact, suggests Case, the best way to increase public awareness of
hazards is to pick up the phone and start talking to members of
the press. It works.
Coming up ... GEOTIMES publishes its annual Highlights Issue
in February. Scientists representing more than 40 earth-science
disciplines report on trends, controversies, and breakthroughs in
their professions during 1995.
GEOTIMES is published by the American Geological Institute,
a nonprofit federation of 29 member societies representing earth
and environmental scientists. AGI also produces GeoRef, an
online bibliographic database of more than 1.9 million geological
references that serves a worldwide geoscience community.