Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities: Q&A with UW’s David Montgomery

David R. Montgomery
David R. Montgomery

UW’s David R. Montgomery, professor of Earth & Space Sciences, knows there’s more to our planet’s surface than what’s at surface level.

The geomorphologist studies the ground beneath our feet; both its propensity to shift and evolve and how those processes might affect ecological systems and human societies past and present.

During the past year, Montgomery and other UW scientists have been developing and analyzing critical data in the aftermath of the 2014 Oso landslide. In the wake of that disaster—the deadliest landslide in American history—Montgomery has been adamant in his calls for strengthened ties between science and the practical applications of its findings. In particular, Montgomery and UW associate professor of civil engineering Joseph Wartman call for a national effort to provide useful landslide data through high-resolution landslide hazard maps.

As part of the Surviving Disaster: Natural Hazards & Resilient Communities speakers series from the College of the Environment, UW Alumni Association, and the UW Graduate School, Montgomery gave a free public lecture on Tuesday, October 13 at 7:30 p.m. The lecture was a smashing success! Many, many pre-ordered an autographed copy of Montgomery’s latest book, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, which will hit store shelves in November.

The Surviving Disaster series will include lectures from Earth and Space Sciences' David R. Montgomery and other experts!
The Surviving Disaster series will include lectures from Earth and Space Sciences’ David R. Montgomery and other experts!

In advance of that lecture, we caught up with David for a quick Q&A:

What do you hope attendees of your Surviving Disaster lecture walk away with?

“I hope that attendees gain insight into how some disasters can happen quickly enough that simply we must plan for them in advance, even if they only occur infrequently. And how others happen so slowly that it is hard to motivate people to prevent them from happening.”

Why is this issue area especially important to focus on in 2015 and beyond?

“The recent tragedy in Oso reminds us all of the potential for danger in our own backyards and across the region. Where the Oso landslide occurred in minutes, was vast in scale, and highly visible, there are slower scale disasters occurring all around us every day. Disasters at the slow end of the spectrum still impact individuals and societies enormously. Because they are less visible, though, people tend to be unaware of or ignore them altogether.”

What aspect of this issue rarely gets the attention it deserves?

“The value of understanding the local geological and geomorphological (topographic) context in setting landslide risk, and that so-called ancient or dormant landslides can actually prove quite dangerous.”

What aspect of this issue is largely misunderstood by the general public?

“The concept of risk is not very well integrated into disaster management for landslides or soil conservation.”

What’s one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?

“I’m the guitarist for the band Big Dirt. Check out our new live album on iTunes!”

What are the three most important personality traits for someone in your line of work?

“Curiosity, creativity, and persistance.”

What is the most exciting aspect of your current research?

“Finding that adoption of the same set of farming principles can reverse the problem of soil degradation in an economically viable way on small scale subsistence farms in Africa and large North American farms.”

Written by: Kelly Knickerbocker, kknick@uw.edu