Berry College: The Biggest and Almost the Most Beautiful Campus

Berry College:  The Biggest and Almost the Most Beautiful Campus

So TRAVEL AND LEISURE has ranked the place where I teach eighth in the nation in terms of beauty.  That's news, of course, to those who have the leisure to travel a lot, and we expect to be overwhelmed by such visitors soon.


I think we might be ranked too low.  No. 5 Florida Southern, for example, is talked up for its buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  I would say that they're more really interesting than truly beautiful.  Certainly the natural surroundings of the foothills of Georgia are more pleasing than those of the interior of Florida, even with those random sinkhole lakes. 

It's true we've had sinkholes too, but we generally fill them in.  It's also true that the water in the big lake on campus disappeared more than once due to sinkholes.  It's no longer a lake but a kind of science experiment displaying what grows in the bed of an ex-lake.  So I may be writing out of bitterness here.

Berry is also, you can learn, the largest "contiguous" campus in America, with the 26,000 acres actually touching one another.  I'm not sure what the larger non-contiguous campus is. 

I do know that Berry has the best acre-to-student ratio in the country.  We only have a little over 1900 students.  So well over 10 acres is available for each student.  It's easy to be alone at Berry, although it's hard to be lonely.

Another great thing about Berry is that the college is "private," and so not subject to the bureaucratic idiocies—such as misguided political correctness—characteristic of state schools.  (It's true that we're more than a bit touched by such stuff by the necessity of being accredited.  But no college can avoid that.) We're also not tied in any big way to the sinkholes that are the collapsing state budgets throughout the country.

We're "Christian in spirit" and have a chaplain, but we're not connected to any particular denomination.  So we're not enmeshed in the factional squabbles and "doctrinal correctness" issues found at many colleges that are Christian in some more particular way. 

Our curriculum is not particularly Christian at all.  It's what you'd might find at similar four-year colleges, and faculty aren't chosen for their religious beliefs (or, for that matter, for their lack thereof).  Well, our range of majors is actually larger than most small colleges;  we're great at animal science, for example.

Our student body—partly because we're in a very Christian part of the country and party because our campus is dry, is free of fraternities and sororities, and actually has dorm visitation policies, and so forth—is probably mostly pretty seriously Christian, although there are more than a few student skeptics. There are lots of active student religious organizations. No one Christian denomination dominates, though.

These peculiar characteristics actually turn out to be good for intellectual freedom.  At Berry, for example, it's actually possible to discuss in class whether Roe v Wade was righly decided.  They'll be students on both sides, and none of them feels afraid to speak up.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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