Published in Innovation: Courting Disaster: The Increasing Challenges of Risk Assessment

February 7, 2019 Richard Guthrie

As humans advance and interact with more geotechnical hazards, the role of the geotechnical specialist becomes increasingly complex and embodies more responsibility


As geotechnical scientists and engineers, we are called upon to make judgments about the conditions and characteristics of the Earth and Earth processes. Those judgments are intended to guide development; to contribute to the understanding of environmental, economic, or societal safety; to advise civil design; and to prevent catastrophic outcomes of the human footprint. All too often we are expected to perform Herculean leaps of knowledge based on very limited data for a litigious society that relies on our expertise.

And let’s be clear. The public does rely on our expertise, and as a self-regulating profession that claims expert knowledge about the workings of the Earth, we encourage and promote that model. We owe ourselves, and the public, a duty of care to limit our own liability by being aware of, and communicating, what we know, and conversely what we don’t know. We also owe it to ourselves and the public to clearly communicate the notion of residual risk and uncertainty, and how that residual risk can change as a result of changing conditions (including development).

An argument can be made that the analysis of geotechnical risk is increasing worldwide. Consequences increase as the human footprint extends further into marginal lands, intersecting more hazards. Hazards increase, in part, due to new interactions between geomorphological and anthropomorphic systems that modify the surface of the planet and change the processes that form it. Our knowledge and understanding about geotechnical, geological, or geomorphological systems continues to increase, but requires increased specialization and training to use, and considerable effort to remain current

About the Author

Richard Guthrie

Richard Guthrie is a Senior Principal in Calgary’s Environmental Services team. With over 20 years of experience in geotechnical analysis and expert advice, Rick leads a team of specialists who bring that expertise to roads, pipelines, power projects, mines, critical facilities, parks, and urban settings, making the communities we serve stronger.

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