Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Landslide could be warning shot we should not ignore

Interesting article in today's Press and Journal by Nicola Barry:

LANDSLIDES are only good if they happen for your party in an election. But when you come face to face with the real thing, see the raw power of nature in action, it can be truly terrifying.

You cannot have failed to notice the TV and press coverage of the massive slippage on the A83 at Rest and Be Thankful, in Argyll. A massive 1,000 tons of mud and rubble crashed down the mountainside and blocked the road for the second time in two years at almost exactly the same place.

I was driving home after speaking at a conference at Tarbert, a lengthy enough journey at the best of times. Then I came face to face with a blocked route and a mammoth 60-mile diversion to circumvent the mess. I was not alone. For the next four days, hundreds of drivers had to make the same extended detour.

We have had serious landslides here in Scotland. Remember the one which trapped 50 people and isolated the entire village of Lochearnhead in 2004? They are caused by prolonged heavy rain – and we have seen plenty of that this year.

Climate change scientists believe these conditions will become more common in the UK, making landslides more frequent. According to experts, the rock which forms the foundation of the hill at Rest and Be Thankful is so smooth that any extensive rainfall will dislodge the top soil. This soil has nothing beneath it to hold it in place, so it forms a mass of moving earth and stone; a veritable avalanche which hurtles down the mountain at a terrifying speed.

I have had my doubts about climate change. But when you witness, first-hand, the result of something as awesome as a hillside collapsing, you do wonder whether we should give the believers more credence.

The first question which entered my head was how far had I been from a really nasty accident? And, how many drivers were close when the rumbling landscape decided to relocate itself hundreds of feet down the mountain.

We do, at least, know that landslides are caused by prolonged heavy rainfall. It could have got me. It was only just as I was leaving Tarbert that the landslide was reported. I was just in time.

So, what would you do in such circumstances? Try and reverse your car, with all the dangers that would entail? Try and outrun it? Or, would you freeze like a rabbit caught in headlights, unsure of what to do? If you did freeze beneath 1,000 tons of rubble and mud, the next person you’d meet would be your Maker.

This prompts two questions: will such a landslide happen again, especially at the now notorious blackspot, the ironically named Rest and Be Thankful? And, what can be done to prevent it? No doubt, the greatest engineering minds in Scotland will be applying themselves to this very point.

Of course, your response to this column will depend on where you stand on the whole issue of global warming, whether you believe the world is about to come to a very heated end or that the whole argument has been hyped by people who should know better, ie: scientists.

If they are right, climate change and pollution combine to make a dreadful legacy for future generations, for our children’s children.

Many of the consequences of the way we have ignored the delicate balance of our natural world, are already coming home to roost.

Years ago, meteorologists forecast intense thunderstorms; so bad they would bring flash flooding across the country. We have already witnessed these.

Equally, you may have noticed that, during the last few years, instead of complaining about damp, cloudy Scottish summers, we have been reduced to moaning about the excruciating heat and humidity, always followed by relentless, torrential rain.

The 2003 heatwave, remember, killed 27,000 people across Europe.

In recent years, The Scottish Government approved powers to crack down on wasteful homeowners and businesses; a move, incidentally, hailed as the world's most ambitious emissions targets – in some quarters. Measures voted through included the power to fine householders and companies if they do not take action to improve the energy efficiency of their houses and buildings.

We conveniently forget that so many of our daily activities affect the environment. One of the most important is how much carbon dioxide we emit because that is the gas which contributes to climate change. It is the same with water. We forget how lucky we are to have pure, fresh, water to quench our thirst when so many countries do not. We forget how central water is to our lives. We drink it, wash and swim in it, cook and clean with it and perform basic sanitary tasks such as flushing the loo with it.

We use litres of the stuff, thoughtlessly, day in, day out. When will we ever stop and think about the damage we do?

We have seen with catastrophes such as the Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, that when Mother Nature gets her dander up, there is not a lot trivial mankind can do to dissuade her. Hurricane Katrina tore its way through the beautiful city of New Orleans, destroying homes, people and cars. It uprooted houses, trees and power lines, leaving death alongside devastation.

The incompetence and indifference demonstrated by the US Federal Government was little short of a disgrace. People were frogmarched from what remained of their homes and bussed two or three states away, not knowing when or if they would ever return. Most of us watching the tragedy unfold couldn’t believe what we were seeing. These scenes must be coming from the Sudan or Somalia, but America? But would we, as a nation, cope any better?

We need to make dramatic lifestyle changes.

Take in this statistic: one long-haul return flight can produce the same carbon footprint as driving a car for a whole year. So, if the landslide I almost encountered last week WAS a sign of climate change, it is a warning shot across our bows which we must not ignore.