What Oroville Dam Tells Us About the Rate of Change

imgresThe pictures of water exploding through the eroding spillway of Oroville Dam is an opportunity for us to think about the nature of time, and the inevitable forces that control our collective destinies. It is a chance to back away for a moment of learning from the human-centric view of our world that governs most of our lives. At a time when the rate of changes created by human institutions is rising exponentially, we need to understand how REAL disruptive change actually takes place.

As a former geologist, we know that the landforms around us did not take shape through even, linear, gradual change.  The vast majority of changes take place in what, in human terms, are large, episodic, catastrophic events: really big earthquakes that displace enormous pieces of the earth’s crust be many meters; enormous floods; landslides that bring down entire mountainsides; volcanic explosions like Mt. St. Helens that changed an entire region in a second.  Yosemite Valley was carved in a single ice age, a blink in the eye of geologic time. The soils that nurture most of the food we eat, that took tens of thousands of years to evolve, can be blown away in a few years of Dust Bowl winds.

imagesIn the middle of the last century, environmentalists railed against the building of the Glen Canyon dam, and eco-terrorists dreamt of blowing it away.  In 1983, heavy snowfall and rapid melting in the Rockies filled Lake Powell behind the Glen Canyon Dam, forcing release of water through emergency spillways, much like what is happening this week at Oroville Dam.  The spillway pipes started to erode.  There was nothing anyone could do to stop the erosion, so they let the water flow at record levels…the only way to hope to save the dam itself.  Luckily the rate of melting slowed, and the dam did not fail.  It could just as easily have turned out otherwise: the explosive release of trillions of gallons of water in an epic flood that would have wiped out cities, towns, and huge chunks of three states and Mexico.

Events like this will happen; it might be later this week at Oroville, or that dam might hold for centuries.  But ten thousand years?  Not a chance.  Things happen that are beyond our control, or at least beyond our ability to see and react in time.  We built an enormous dam we thought would last forever, but it is a relatively small spillway that can start a cascade of failure. For years, the weakness in the emergency spillway at Oroville has been noted…and ignored. We can blame that mistake on our government, but our government pays attention to the things that we tell them to. After the disaster we will point fingers and say that “they” should have known better. Well, we did know better, but we were not collectively paying enough attention to the touch-points of true disruptive change.

We THINK we are sweating the big stuff in our increasingly divisive socio-political landscape, but we are not. While we are fighting about building a wall (and I don’t for a second diminish the real human, social, and economic impacts such a wall would create), it is the Hurricane Katrinas and Sandys, the lost nuclear material, the Ebola outbreaks and Fukoshima-region tsunamis, the Oroville Dams, the melting Greenland ice caps that will mark the major disruptions in the human continuum.  We have the ability to significantly control many of them; we just choose to ignore them and hope they won’t happen.  But that is not the nature of change. It does happen. Reenforced concrete lasts a long time…until it doesn’t. That failure happens in an instant, but the lead-up to the failure is often something we see happening and choose to ignore.

That is the lesson I hope we learn from the pictures of the spillway at Oroville dam. Real disruption happens very quickly. We can often predict what will happen more accurately then when it will happen. But just hoping that real change will be slow and manageable, is really quite naïve.

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