Why Listening To Scientists Could’ve Minimized The Tragic Impact Of The Washington Mudslide

CREDIT: AP/Elaine Thompson

A flag, put up by volunteers helping search the area, stands in the ruins of a home left at the end of a deadly mudslide from the now-barren hillside seen about a mile behind, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in Oso, Wash.

The death toll from a massive mudslide on Saturday morning in a small community in northwest Washington State has risen to 25. With around 90 people still reported missing authorities expect that number to increase substantially within the next 24-48 hours. Landslides cause an average of 25 to 50 deaths a year in the U.S., so this one, which occurred especially close to the small community of Oso, has already surpassed the annual minimum average.

As ClimateProgress reported earlier this week, mudslides are not uncommon in Washington. The Pacific Northwest is predicted to get warmer and wetter according to climate change models, and the economic and human costs associated with similar disasters in the region will likely increase in the future. This landslide was caused by extremely heavy rains following an unusually dry period. Logging of the hillside for many decades and a nearby river whose banks cut up against the vulnerable area and eroded the hill also added to the risk. In fact, scientists had been warning loggers about the dangers of a landslide happening in the area for decades. The area had even had a similar slide in 2006, with the base of the previous slide weakening from erosion. This is visible in the New York Times graphic.

Daniel Miller, a geomorphologist hired by the Army Corps of Engineers to do a report on the hillside in 1999 told the Associated Press this week, “I knew it would fail catastrophically in a large-magnitude event. I was not surprised.”

However, according to the AP, officials and authorities from the region were not aware of the study, though they believe that “residents and town officials knew the risks of living in the area.”

Robin Youngblood survived the landslide after Randy Fay, an EMT, rescued her and her friend from a floating piece of roof that once belonged to her house. Youngblood told CNN’s AC360° that no one ever warned her the home she bought years ago was in a geologically unstable area. “Nobody told any of us,” she said. “This is criminal, as far as I’m concerned.”

As rescue crews and search dogs continue to scour day and night for survivors, it’s worth a moment to reflect on the importance of accurately communicating science in a situation like this. In fact, much of the history of weather forecasting is based around natural disasters. Devastating tornadoes in the mid-20th century led the National Weather Service to stop downplaying the risks of these events to avoid panic and to instead focus on spreading accurate warnings in an effort to save lives. In daily life it may seem like weather predictions are most useful for wardrobe selection, but the improvements made forecasting hurricanes, tornadoes, heat waves, and floods have saved countless lives in the last 50 years.

The communication of the science of climate change is similarly important. Long-term forecasting of drought-prone regions, sea level rise, and areas more susceptible to floods and heat waves will help entire communities adapt in their best interests. The latest installation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment report is due out on Monday, which focuses on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. This tragedy in northwest Washington — while not necessarily caused by climate change — is a stark reminder of the importance of paying attention to what scientists are saying about the matter, and taking the precaution to share.