I want to think out loud for a little while today about the Oso landslide in Washington. When I heard the news on Monday morning, my first thought was that they are now naming the landslides the way they name tropical storms. The second thought was, “Wow! They have gotten as far as the O- in Oso!” Not so. The call it the Oso landslide because it occurred in Oso, Washington, in Snohomish County.
The TV account I saw, on my way to find out what happened in the NCAA games the night before, was all about two things: the rainfall and the survivors. The news anchors handled the survivor questions by going to field reporters who were interviewing people. The rainfall news came from the meteorologist. There had already been a lot of rain, he said, and the soil can only hold so much before gravity starts to push the tops of the hills toward the bottom.
Well, I thought to myself, we need to find a way to get it to rain less or to find a way to help the soil absorb more. Either one would work.
That reflection put me in mind of the class’s reaction to a word game I used to use in my political psychology classes. I would show them a picture of a bridge under water and ask if the difficulties the motorists were experiencing came from the bridge being too low or from the water being too high. It didn’t take very long in most classes for everyone to agree that it was not a good question. It was bad because it is the relationship of the bridge to the water that is the difficulty. It is not one or the other.
On the other hand, when you take the next step and turn it into a problem it matters a great deal whether you say the bridge is too low or the water is too high. It matters because as soon as you call it one problem or the other, a set of things you should do about it comes into view and, it turns out, some things are harder to do than others. That always divided the class again. It was one thing to agree that it was the ratio of the bridge to the water that made it impassible. It was quite another to say that the best solution was to lower the water level or to raise the bridge level. The class divided into “bridge people” and “water people” and in some years, they stayed divided throughout the term.
This came to my mind as I was watching the meteorologist talk about how much rain there had been and how the soil could hold only so much water. I noticed that the TV station didn’t have an environmentalist to say how even steep hills ordinarily hold their shape because they are held in place by the roots of the trees and bushes growing on it. Having someone to say that there was too much rain and no one to say that clear-cutting the forest is going to make the soil unstable didn’t sound sensible to me.
Everyone knows that if you raise the bridge, you can allow the water to get higher without submerging the bridge. I you had a TV station with a bridge person, who would explain that the bridge was too low, you might almost expect the station to have a water person to explain why the water is so much higher than it used to be. If the TV station had someone on staff to give one perspective and no one on staff to give the other perspective, it would feel almost like an editorial endorsement for raising the bridge.
Or, if it was a station with a reputation for responsibility, it might have a panel of experts available. One would talk learnedly about the bridge; the other learnedly about the water. Viewers would be left with the impression that even the experts didn’t agree and so with no clear sense of what might be done about it.
I did wonder about the Oso landslide. Here is one of the things I found with a few minutes of poking around.
One factor that is linked to landslide occurrences is areas that have been cleared of vegetation – more specifically areas that have been stripped of trees by clear-cut logging practices. Trees and their root structures strengthen slopes and help keep soil in place. After an area that has been clear cut of trees, roots deteriorate and lose the ability to hold soil in place on mountain or hilly slopes. The trigger for landslides is typically from rainfall that saturates the deforested slope or in some circumstances earthquakes can bring down masses of earth.
Jonathan H. Friend posted that on May 2, 2011. You can see the whole page here. I am quite sure that is what he would have said about the Oso landslide had he been in the studio, as the meteorologist was, and had been asked why this terrible tragedy had occurred. He would have said that “trees and their root structures strengthen the slopes” and that hills with that kind of protection could withstand a great deal more precipitation than could hills from which the “trees and their root structures” had been removed.
You have to admit that sounds sensible.
But the TV reporters faced the same problem my students faced. Once you say that “too much rain” causes landslides, you have said all you have to say. You aren’t going to make it rain less. The other thing that might be said is that leaving adequate protection on the steep banks by cutting trees selectively, rather than by clear-cutting, is something we actually could do. It could be a “best practice.” It could be state policy. It could be the law. It could be the kind of thing you could get sued for neglecting to do.
Not to sound all conspiratorial or anything, but it seems likely to me that the TV station does not regularly receive money from people who want to protect the steep forested slopes, even in rainy weather. I think it is more likely that they receive money from people who want to talk about “balanced use of forest products” and it is these people who order their lands to be clear-cut.
The logic is clear-cut as well.
I don’t have a criticism to place at the door of Governor Jay Inslee—I just don’t know enough—but I was caught by the logic of what he said about the tragedy. “Mother Nature holds the cards,” he said at a briefing on Sunday in the Osa area. I think he meant by that that “Mother Nature” is going to make it rain as much as she wants and that no one can talk her out of it. I don’t think he meant that the systematic denuding of steep slopes was one of the nasty tricks nature plays on us.
 I used “problem” as a technical term in that class. This kind of problem began with a statement that had a normative standard in it, e.g. the bridge is “too low,” and that followed this standard with the implied resolution, i.e., the bridge should be higher.