Between March 20 and March 31 2010, I was a guest on a 12-day European Grand GeoOdyssey: Engineering Geology in Engineering Works in Greece-Italy-France-Switzerland with Emphasis on Case Histories of Great Failures. The trip leader was the late Prof. Paul Marinos, guiding 230 Third Year Civil Engineering students from the National Technical University of Athens, (NTUA) Greece’s eminent engineering school. This post is a summary of some of my observations as a Guest. The post was updated daily during the Field Trip. For Prof. Marinos’ rationale and description of his Field Trips see the GeoEngineer article.
On the 20-hour ferry between Greece and Italy, many students spent part of the night crossing at the disco. One number was popular: the classic loud sing-and-dance-along song “Y.M.C.A.”, during which the students were joined by an eager trucker waving his arms, grinning a huge smile, and flashing a sort of horned peace sign with his thumbs and little fingers as he danced. The refrain “Y.M.C.A! Y.M.C.A!” could easily have been “N.T.U.A!, N.T.U.A!”, given how many NTUA students there were packed onto the dance floor. But as much as they like the song, many do not know that YMCA stands for “Young Men’s Christian Association”, a group who provide economical and safe lodgings for young men in big cities. The song itself is a sort of anthem for gay folk.
With the Y.M.C.A tune humming in my head, I started to write this post for the Third Year Civil Engineering students at N.T.U.A. so they may see some of the pictures I have snapped of them and various sights I have posted to my Facebook pages. I updated the post almost daily through the trip. (Pictures can be viewed in my Facebook Albums and are linked at the bold blue texts)
March 20 and 21- Day 1 and 2 Athens to Ancona (Ferry) to Venice.
The first two days of the 2-day Field Trip was traveling from Athens to Venice. There are 230 3rd Year students on 5 buses, with 4 faculty, a medical doctor, tour guides and lots of Course Notes (mostly in Greek). We traveled from Athens to Ancona via a construction site to review tunneling construction in a faulted area. It was a chuckle to see the students delving into boxes of hard hats to pick out the prettiest colored ones.
March 22 – Day 3 Vaiont and Venice
Today was the second day of the NTUA (National Technical Univ. of Athens) Field Trip I am accompanying. We traveled about 100 km NW of Venice to visit the site of the Vaiont (Vajon) Dam catastrophe. On 9 October, 1963 at approximately 10:35pm, more than 250 million cubic metres of mountain side slid at more than 60 mph into the reservoir behind the dam. The resulting displacement of water caused 50 million cubic metres of water to over-top the dam as a 250-metre high wave,. The wave barely damaged the dam but slammed into the Piave river valley below, killing as many as 2500 people. The failure is one of the very worst in the history of engineering and geology, being a result of the failure of professionals in my field to heed many warnings, even if they could not anticipate the scope of the catastrophe.
We also visited Venice for a few hours during our two days in the region. Being part of a gang of 240 people is not quite how I enjoy Venice best – being with Julie and Maggie would be. But I am not reeeaaaallllyyy complaining. Oh, it rained. Feel better now? And, for fun I went hunting for the Fool I loved so much when I was last here in May 2009, but it had been sold.
The technical part of the Venice visit was a dramatic dusk lecture by Prof. Marinos , telling of the subsidence and collapse of the Campanile in St Mark’s Square; its rebuild, and the subsequent subsidence of that structure; and then of the current remediation.
March 23 – Day 4 Venice to Verona to Florence.
We visited Verona after leaving Venice, and en route to Florence. No technical reason for the stop – it was an enjoyable tourist detour. In the past Julie and I have skirted Verona because of the touristy aspect. Now I shall be happy to share more explorations with her – in particular trying to find Juliet’s house!
After visiting Verona, we flashed through Florence in a few hours of mad rushing around. The technical focus was the catastrophic flooding in the 1960’s which did so much damage to Florence’s artistic heritage. The flooding was in part the result of some poor engineering and public policy decisions. And a heck of a lot of rain..
But Florence was nice enough, although so much more crowded than I remember from my visits over 25 years ago.
From Florence we drove in the dark through Tuscany on roller coaster, tortuous road, for 2.5 hours to Casino di Terra, near Cecina. We ate dinner at 10:45 pm. Pasta more pasta…
March 24 – Day 5 Florence to Pisa to Nice via Genoa
We started the day at Casino di Terra between Florence and Pisa. It was a tired bunch who reluctantly left a rather pleasant, slow Tuscan hotel for the road again today. (How slow: how about only a telephone modem connection in the lobby?…) After leaving the hotel, we had another zoom-through a tourist town, this time Pisa , en route to Nice, which made today a long day…
The focus at Pisa was (of course) the geotechnical reasons for the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the recent successful stabilization. The Leaning Tower in the background made for a fascinating out-door lecture. It was a lovely day for it too. Oh and yes: we had pizza: hard to get away from pizza, in touristy Pisa.
March 25 – Day 6 La Clapière Landslide and Valle du Tinée Road.
Our mission today was to look at one of the largest active landslides in Europe – La Clapière Landslide, which hangs over the village of St. Etienne de Tinée. The road to St. Etienne de Tinée in the Valle du Tinée is a war zone, a struggle between nature and highway engineers. The geology in which the road winds is narrow. The views of the surrounding Alps are spectacular. The engineers will always lose the war- which means more tunnels, rockfall restraints and route adjustments.
On this 6th day of the NTUA Field Trip, we also took a break in Monaco and Monte Carlo after our trip to see La Clapière landslide, wandering around the little Principality next to Nice. Nice was quite nice, too.
March 26 – Day 7 Nice to Malpasset Dam to Gap.
Today was the 7th day of the NTUA Field Trip. We visited the ill-famed Malpasset Dam, which failed in 1959. “Failed” seems too weak a word: the 200 foot high, 700 foot long double curved dam was an engineering achievement when it was built and commissioned in 1955. It failed catastrophically on December 2, 1959 – 421 people were killed in the resulting flood. The failure was the worst natural disaster in France during the 20th Century. The cause was hydraulic uplifting of a massive block of rock under the dam; a block bounded by continuous and previously unsuspected shears in the massive bedrock.
For the 230 students, today was a full and tiring day. It started in rain and a need to ford/cross the river. Many students have never hiked off-pavement before so the scrambling that was daunting. But the sun came out and we had a splendid day of geology and engineering. Visiting the site was a sobering lesson for me and the students. The panorama view of the students scattered over the torn rock of the left abutment was a memorable sight.
March 26 – Day 8 Gap to Le Sautet Dam to Grenoble to Geneva
Today was Day 8 of the NTUA Field Trip. It got off to a slow start – some of the students partied until dawn, which was about the time the wake-up calls started ringing. So the Student Organizers had their work cut-out for them rounding up the sleepy heads (and those with party-challenged heads).
It rained much of the day and was cold, especially for the students grouped on top of the 400-foot high Le Sautet Dam; a spectacular concrete arch dam which plugs a deep gorge on the Drac River, near Corps, in the French Haut-Alpes. The dam was well built and the surrounding rock mass grouted to form a relatively impermeable barrier to leaks. Unfortunately the reservoir had direct access to an old and deep buried river valley, an ancestral Drac River. and the reservoir thus leaked much more than expected. So in that respect it was another damn failure…
We stopped for a rainy wander and lunch in Grenoble before heading for Geneva. Our hotel, the Movenpick at the Airport, is welcome relative luxury. We had a day off on Sunday March 28. I spent the day in Aarau, near Zurich, seeing friends and catching up on progress at the world-class SMDK project at Kölliken, where a hazardous waste landfill is being completely removed within an enclosed structure.
We started in Geneva, Switzerland and ended up in Milan – a long trip. In the middle of the day we spent about 4 hours at Chamonix-Mt. Blanc. Most off the 240-odd party took a cable car trip to the top of Aiguelle du Midi, a tall horned mountain next to Mt. Blanc. The top is about 3840 m, over 10,000 feet above the town. It was windy and cold, but the beauty was breathtaking – ( or, else the alitude was the breath-thief). We continued through the Mont Blanc tunnel and down the Aosta valley (with some spectacular rock falls) ending up in a hotel on the outskirts of Milan.
Milan to Athens was a long 500 km drive to Ancona then the approx. 850 km, 23 hour ferry ride to Patras; and then another 220 km or so from Patras to Athens. In all we traveled about 5500 km on the Field trip. I added a 500 km round trip Geneva-Aarau (Switzerland) to see friends on our Sunday day off. And, now I have the Athens-London-Frankfurt-San Francisco trip to end my journey. So: this has been a long-distance adventure for me
I took a lot of snapshots on my trip; some of them are available via the Facebook album links above. I copied 1500 images for one student representative (Kostas Konstaninou) and the faculty. They are a reasonable record of the technical and social aspects of the Field Trip and I shall work with them some more to prepare a presentation and a “news article” one day…
My overall impression of the Field Trip: I am impressed. I am impressed by the skill and commitment of faculty and staff in herding 230 energetic, vocal, and bright young people in 5 buses over 12 days of traveling. This Field Trip is likely unique in its scope and organization; and there have been almost 20 of them now.
I am impressed by the students’ good manners and behavior. On our Trip We had no mishaps, no embarrassing scenes, lost nobody. I saw no tears of tantrums; but did see some of sadness at seeing the sites of engineering failures. A lot of students saw sights that most geotechnical/geological engineers only read about: Vaoint Landslide, Malpasset Dam failure; La Clapière Landslide, Venice subsidence and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As extras, we enjoyed Venice, Verona, Florence, Pisa, Monaco/Monte Carlo, Geneva and Chamonix-Mt Blanc.
And I am most impressed by the bright and engaging, often curious, NTUA students that I met. I enjoyed conversation with young people wondering what areas of Civil Engineering they should now specialize in; and what they should plan for the next steps of their lives. For those of you NTUA students who did not hear my message: Follow your heart; take the hard choice; make Life an Adventure!! (And don’t necessarily follow the advice of older people like me!!)