3 October 2012

Landslide expert Earl Brabb has died

Posted by Dave Petley


The renowned landslide scientist Earl Brabb died in hospital on 14th September after a brief illness.  He was 83.  There is a really nice obituary for him on the SFGate website.  It includes this very lovely illustration of the pioneering spirit that he embodied:

Early in his career and immediately after joining the Geological Survey in 1960, Mr. Brabb spent several years fording rivers and flying by helicopter into the wilderness of eastern Alaska to develop maps of isolated rock formations of the tertiary era millions of years ago.  On one flight, his helicopter crashed. When his food ran out, Mr. Brabb caught and cooked a marmot, a species of ground squirrel. He learned the biology of the animal’s scent glands “the hard way,” a longtime colleague recalled.

In 2000 theEGU awarded Earl with the Sergey Soloviev medal.  This was the citation:

Earl Edward Brabb spent his entire 40-year career with the U.S.Geological Survey carrying out a variety of scientific investigations dealing with natural hazards across a number of disciplines including: landslide studies in the San Francisco Bay region, California, New Mexico and Central Italy; regional geological mapping and interpretation of geophysical data in complex geologic terrains in Alaska, California and New Mexico; evaluation of oil shale and petroleum potential in eastern Alaska; evaluation of ground water potential in San Francisco Bay region using geophysical methods; Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic paleontology and stratigraphy; development of earthquake and landslide hazard maps using Geographic Information Systems; and mapping of San Andreas and Hayward fault systems in central California. He is the author or co-author of more than 170 papers, reports and maps.

Earl Brabb has degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University. He is or has been a member of several American and International Organizations. For the past 6 years he has been a Geologist Emeritus and has worked as a volunteer for the U. S. Geological Survey in charge of preparing a digital geologic map of the San Francisco Bay region and a debris flow map of the United States. He lives in Palo Alto, California with his wife, Gisela.

Dr. Brabb is a scientific pioneer in several fields of geology and natural hazard assessment, including production of landslide inventory and susceptibility maps at various scales, and the use of Geographic Information Systems for the preparation of geological hazard maps. His analysis of economic costs associated with landslides in the United States, his encouragement of geologists who have produced similar information for other countries, and his reports on innovative techniques for making landslide maps have given him widespread and unique recognition in the international community.

Dr. Brabb is the founder of the International Landslide Research Group and the co-founder of the International Conference and Field Workshop on Landslides. He has received the Distinguished Service Citation from Italian National Research Council Research Institute for Hydrological Protection of Central Italy (1995), the highest awards of the U. S. Department of Interior (1983, 1994), and the Distinguished Practice Award from Engineering Geology Section, Geological Society of America (1988).

From a personal perspective, I started my opening keynote paper for the 2012 International Symposium on Landslides with the following words:

In 1989, in the forward to a volume that sought to document the global extent and economic significance of landslides, Earl Brabb of the United States Geological Survey observed that: “Landslides are ubiquitous – although this may seem self-evident, the principal obstacle to major progress in coping with them is that they are perceived to be a local problem.  The fact is that they cross political, social and economic boundaries, killing people and destroying property; what’s more…landslides are largely predictable and preventable using existing technology.  Recognizing landslides as a worldwide issue is a primary concern; but beyond that national and international leadership is needed to muster the resources, knowledge and skills for reducing landslide hazards”(Brabb 1989, VII).

It is a undeniably disappointing state of affairs that, 23 years after that statement was written, the message remains as fresh and as relevant as it was at the time.

It is probably true to say that in everything that he did Earl was ahead of his time.  He is a sad loss.