Stefan Le Roy
I cannot comment on the specifics of the recent land-slip in Kent, but it would be fair to say that we have become reactive rather than pro-active when it comes to dealing with natural catastrophes. As an industry we do not make enough use of real-time monitoring, either to understand the hydrodynamics/mechanics that lead to slope instabilities or the catchment wide processes that generally result in flooding.
I’m drawn to the scene in the film ‘The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3’ where Denzel Washington is looking at the control board for the trains running up and down the New York subway and trying to work out in real time what the bad guys are up to. It makes me think that we need to apply the same technology to our natural systems so that we can see how they are behaving in real-time and that means a greater density of telemetrically linked data logging between the vadose zone, groundwater, streams, rivers, reservoirs, canals and rain gauges. The same technology should be applied to assess ‘unstable’ slopes in real time and be correlated to inclinometer monitoring for example. Imagine if we were able to see in real-time, slope hydrodynamics and mechanics or catchment-wide natural behaviour on one ‘board’ and were able to use the inherent lag time in systems to predict and forestall the worst. The unfortunate thing is that we are not talking about the use of high-end science; IT and telecoms have been using real-time whole systems monitoring for many years simply because of the need to manage risks in real-time and the same approach must be applied to the natural and built world. As an analogy, there are in the order of 420,000 CCTVs in London (at a cost of ~£1500/unit) and yet the BGS monitors in the region of only 30 boreholes over a considerable area. It's time we ask ourselves the difficult question of what do we want to protect, what social impacts are we willing to live with including to business resiliency and what do we value as a society? Stefan Le Roy, Groundwater Specialist, WSP