Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 3, 2014

“Simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system” and the implications if true

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Resilience,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 3, 2014

OSO_Photo by Marcus Yam_The Seattle TimesPhoto by Marcus Yam, The Seattle Times

John Schwartz and the New York Times gave us an unusually thoughtful piece of journalism last Saturday: No Easy Way To Restrict Construction In Risky Areas.  Several cases are examined: Oso Landslide, Sandy, Katrina and more.

This is largely an issue of the transfer, avoidance, reduction, or acceptance of risk.  Very closely related are attitudes toward contingency.

The Oso landslide is a specific case where “complexity originates from the tendency of large dynamical systems to organize themselves into a critical state, with avalanches or punctuations of all sizes.” Other dynamical systems include seismic networks, volcanoes, ocean currents and I would include the electrical grid and significant concentrations (populations) of almost anything.

In a seminal 1995 paper Per Bak and Maya Paczuski outline two very different explanations of the same “punctuation” event:

A Historian Describes a Sandslide.

On December 16, 1994, a grain of sand landed at the site with coordinates [14, 17] on the pile. Adding to the grains of sand already accumulated at this site, this addition caused a toppling of that site, spilling over to the neighboring sites. Unfortunately, one of these sites [14, 18] happened to be near an instability so that the toppling caused this site to topple also. This toppling destabilized sites [14, 19] and [15, 18] and eventually led to the collapse of a large part of the pile. “Clearly, the event was contingent on several factors. First, had the initial grain of sand fallen elsewhere, nothing dramatic would have happened. Also, if the configuration at position [14, 19] had been slightly different, the sandslide would have stopped sooner, without devastating consequences. While we can give an accurate and complete account of what actually happened, we are at a loss to explain how these many accidental features could possibly have conspired to produce an event of such magnitude. The event was contingent upon many separate, freak occurrences and could clearly have been prevented. Furthermore, we are baffled by the fact that even though sand had been added to the system for a longtime, only minor events had occurred before the devastating collapse, and we had every right to expect the system to be stable. Clearly, the event was a freak one caused by very unusual and unfortunate circumstances in an otherwise stable system that appeared to be in balance. Precautions should and could be taken to prevent such events in the future.

A Physicist Describes a Sandslide

During a long transient period, the pile evolved to a critical state with avalanches of all sizes. We were able to make a rough identification of the toppling rule and to construct a computer model of the phenomenon. Actually, the particular rule that we use is not very important. In any case, we do not have sufficient information about the details of the system to be able to make long-term predictions. “Nevertheless, our model exhibits some general features of the sandpile. We monitored how many avalanches of each size occurred, after the addition of a single grain to the pile. We made a histogram (Fig. 2), and found that the distribution of events where a total of s sites topple obeys a power law, P(s)- s-T. Thus, if one waits long enough, one is bound to see events that are as large as one has the patience to wait for. We ran our simulations (the tape of evolution) several times. Eliminating the particular grain of sand that caused a particular avalanche only made the system produce large avalanches somewhere else at different times. Changing the rules slightly — for instance, by planting snow screens here and there — does not have any effect on the general pattern.

Avalanches are an unavoidable and intrinsic part of the sandpile dynamics. “Actually, I’m not interested in the specific details of the event which Prof. Historian is so excited about and gives such a vivid account of. What the professor sees as a string of freak events appearing accidentally and mysteriously by an apparent act of God and leading to a catastrophe is simply a manifestation of the criticality of the system. History has prepared the sandpile in a state that is far from equilibrium, and the matrix through which the avalanche propagates is predisposed to accommodate events of large sizes. The complex dynamics which is observed in the ‘historical science,’ where the outcome appears contingent on many different, specific events, represents the dynamics of self-organized critical systems.

Historical narrative is inclined toward an understanding of reality where human intention, rationality and will can assert control.  Bak and Paczuski point toward the possibility of domains beyond our power, though certainly deserving our attention and respect.

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Comment by Claire B. Rubin

April 3, 2014 @ 6:37 am

See also this article by Steve Flynn on the human behavior at Oso:

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 3, 2014 @ 7:45 am

Phil! A great post! As a butterfly in the tropics takes wing?

THIS EVENT WAS NOT SEISMIC RELATED TO THE EXTENT CURRENT KNOWLEDGE EXISTS! So a non-seismic earth movement whatever the label!

Mt. Saint Helens in May 1980 volcanic and seismic.

The soils scientists, soils engineers, and geologists refuse to report on conditions for a single family residence along the line of the Cascades and elsewhere in most of the West. Professor Denis Militi, PhD retired, a sociologist by training and long time researcher on disasters has a home right on top of the San Andreas fault. What gives?


Whatever your point of view the taxpayer is acting as de facto insurer for all of this freedom.

I find interesting that when I got to HUD from Treasury on July 1st, 1974, few in HUD OGC had any idea that Housing policy was set in Treasury not HUD!

I was able to help IRS write a disaster handbook from HUD. Of course the effort had been started by me during the fallout from Tropical Storm Agnes 1972!

Well even today the entirety of the legal academic community has yet to produce a single Law Review Note or Article on the tax consequences of disasters.

Because many individuals and organizations profit, yes profit, and I mean financially fro non-disclosure of risk and then disaster outlays by the taxpayer.

The Personal Injury Bar understands auto accidents and even some industrial accidents and that group accounts for over 50% of the legal professions billings

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 3, 2014 @ 7:51 am

CONTINUED: But the Personal Injury Bar seldom sues on behalf of victims post-disaster. Why? Many of those potential defendants have skillfully lobbied to insulate themselves from liability.

If lead based paint in a residence, and radon, must be disclosed on sale why not location in a hazardous area?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 3, 2014 @ 9:36 am


Many thanks for providing the link to Steve Flynn’s piece. It is the perfect complement — or riposte — to my long quote from Bak’s paper. I hope all my readers will read him.

I do not disagree with Steve on any detail. But we are clearly approaching the problem from two very different angles.

He writes, “Too often we behave as if disasters are rare and unknowable “Acts of God.” As such, we end up convincing ourselves that we are somehow powerless in the face of such events—which is nonsense.”

I conclude, “Bak and Paczuski point toward the possibility of domains beyond our power…”

So… you may reasonably ask, how am I not disagreeing with Steve?

Give me any reasonably well-defined space-in-time and appropriate resources, recognize that “reasonably” and “appropriate” and even “well-defined” are often weasel words, and I absolutely perceive we have the power to predict and either prevent or substantially mitigate most disasters.

I understand that after a previous landslide at Oso “millions of dollars” was spent on mitigation. A problem was predicted and addressed. But as at Tohoku and many other places the problem-that-emerged was much worse than reasonably anticipated.

I have decided that confidence in our ability to predict and act appropriately is hubris. And I understand hubris to be the human flaw that most often is the source of tragedy.

This does not mean we should not do everything that Steve is recommending or that we can reasonably do. But we ought not have any confidence in it. We must do what we can. We ought be whole-hearted and wise in our doing. But we must not in this work imply that we have thereby eliminated risk.

Perhaps this will seem a leap, but..

In the recent action to roll back flood insurance reform I perceive a deeply flawed cultural perspective on risk (confirmed by the vast majority of our elected representatives). The undoing of the reform encourages unsustainable risk-taking. It is a legislative attempt to Disney-fy our life.

Residing in a flood plain is risky. Living in Los Angeles is innately dangerous. Miami is going to be flooded over and/or wind-shredded. Complex systems periodically collapse. We ought be honest enough to discuss these likelihoods in order to do what we can and be prepared for the worse.

It seems to me that Steve and I see the same evidence and we will often do the same things. His doing will be justified by protecting and preventing. I’m not making any promises.

His arguments are more likely to be persuasive, and I think that is evidence of a more fundamental problem.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

April 3, 2014 @ 11:20 am

Someone needs to invite both of you to a debate or discussion. Perhaps the HSI, which features occasional speakers. Or I hope some conference organizer is reading this.

These are important topics to be discussing and it is not happening.

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