2 1.2 Why Study Earth?

Why?  Because Earth is our home — our only home for the foreseeable future — and in order to ensure that it continues to be a great place to live, we need to understand how it works.

  • We can learn to minimize our risks from natural hazards such as earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.
  • We rely on Earth for resources such as soil, water, metals, industrial minerals, and energy, and we need to know how to find these resources and exploit them sustainably.
  • We can recognize how human activities can negatively impact the environment, and learn how to prevent and sometimes repair the damage.
  • The infrastructure we builds rests upon the Earth, and understanding how it  will respond to construction is essential to building safely.
  • We can learn how and why Earth’s climate changed in the past, and use that knowledge to understand both natural and human-caused climate change.
  • We can study rocks and the fossils they contain to understand the evolution of our environment and the life within it.
  • We can use knowledge of Earth to understand other planets in our solar system, and those around distant stars.

As engineers, the first few bullets points are of obvious practical interest, but geology’s ability to shed light on the deep history of our our planet—and our ourselves—is what really drives many geologists in their research. As you’ll see shortly, the idea of deep time is one if the most profound insights that science has ever produced. Once you start thinking in deep time, everything looks different!

The Importance of Geological Studies for Minimizing Risks to the Public

Figure 1.3 shows a slope failure that took place in January 2005 in the Riverside Drive area of North Vancouver. The steep bank beneath the house shown gave way, and a slurry of mud and sand flowed down. It destroyed another house below, and killed one person. The slope failure happened after a heavy rainfall, which is a common occurrence in southwestern B.C. in the winter.

Aftermath of a deadly debris flow in the Riverside Drive area of North Vancouver in January, 2005. Source: The Province (2005), used with permission.
Figure 1.3 Aftermath of a deadly debris flow in the Riverside Drive area of North Vancouver in January, 2005. Source: The Province (2005), used with permission.

A geological report written in 1980 warned the District of North Vancouver that the area was prone to slope failure, and that steps should be taken to minimize the risk to residents. Unfortunately, not enough was done in the intervening 25 years to prevent a tragedy.