MONTHLY DINNER MEETING
SPEAKER: Dr. Chester F. (Skip) Watts
TITLE: Rockslides: Case Histories and Common Misconceptions
Potential hazards from rock falls and rockslides are on the rise as land development reaches
into previously untouched areas, as aging highways and railroads require upgrades and new
construction, and as people throng to public lands for recreation. At the same time, new
generations of decision makers in the forms of politicians, administrators, land use planners,
architects, engineers, and even geologists, continue to emerge who don't understand or recognize
some of the most fundamental principles of mass wasting. And in recent years, numerous
misconceptions regarding some fundamental principles have proved resistant to eradication.
Dramatic examples are to be found across the country. Case histories will be presented for
consideration, including spectacular rockslides in Yosemite National Park, Virginia's Smart Road
technology test bed, Thomas Jefferson's Natural Bridge of Virginia, highway stability in North
Carolina, and weapons testing facilities in the west. Each case is compelling and contentious.
Some are expensive and some are tragic.
Recurring misconceptions include the relative merits of constructing vertical slopes versus angled
slopes, the roles of discontinuities in controlling rockslides, the direction of groundwater flow
in fractured rock, the volumes of water necessary to trigger slides, and the variable nature of
earth materials. These concepts are simple but not to be ignored.
Dr. Watts is the 2003 Richard H. Jahns Distinguished Lecturer, named jointly by the Association of
Engineering Geologists and the Engineering Geology Division of the Geological Society of America. A
certified professional geologist in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Skip is the Dalton Distinguished
Professor of Geology at Radford University, where he has worked since 1984. There he established the
Institute for Engineering Geosciences and has taught undergraduate and
Skip is also the author of ROCKPACK III computer software, used internationally for analyzing the
safety and stability of mines, quarries, highway cuts, mountain slopes, buildings, and bridge
foundations. He serves as a rock slope stability consultant to numerous highway departments, federal
agencies, and engineering firms.
Skip is the recipient of several regional and national teaching awards, including the 1998
Outstanding Professor Award from the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia. He appeared in
a television documentary called SLIDE! on The Learning Channel as well as on National Public Radio,
by cell phone, while rock climbing during a rockslide study in Yosemite National Park.
Skip served 14 months on Senator Joseph Lieberman's personal staff as the 2001-2002 GSA/USGS
Congressional Science Fellow. During that time came the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York
and Washington, D.C., the anthrax attacks and closure of the Hart Senate Office Building, and the war
in Afghanistan with inevitable geologic factors at play. Also during that time came congressional
debates over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the disposal of nuclear waste at Yucca
Mountain, and preparations for the great reauthorization of national transportation funding in 2003.
In his alternate Jahns lecture Watts describes his personal experiences as a senate "staffer" and the
important political geologic issues of the day.