Stories tagged natural disaster

It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
"Lightning is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the atmospheric sciences, researchers say. Scientists at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing in Florida are inducing lightning to strike so they can understand it better. Though summer doesn't begin officially for a few weeks, one of the signature marks of summer may already be in the air near you -- the evening thunderstorm. Thousands of lightning strikes occur on the planet every minute, but the summer heat and humidity help to ramp up the number of lightning-producing thunderstorms. We'll talk about the science of lightning."
Learn more.

A sinkhole in Guatemala: The image looks fake, but it's the real thing.
A sinkhole in Guatemala: The image looks fake, but it's the real thing.Courtesy Gobierno de Guatemala
Hopefully someone else can get explain this in more detail, but I thought I'd toss this up here:

Severe rain from tropical storm Agatha has overwhelmed and broken sewage pipes in Guatemala City, washed out sediment beneath certain parts of the city, and caused horrifying spontaneous sinkholes.

The one in the picture is over 60-feet-deep and 45-feet-wide, and it swallowed an entire 3 story building when it opened up. Because of the underlying geography and poor urban engineering, this isn't the first time this has happened (here's an article about an even bigger sinkhole from 2007), and supposedly other sinkholes are still forming in the city.

Everything has been made worse because a nearby volcano erupting just two days before Agatha hit, and the ash it released is forming a muddy, almost concrete-like material with the rainwater. It sounds like a pretty bad situation.

Eyjafjallajökull isn't the only volcano to rock our modern world. Thirty years ago today Mount St. Helens erupted in Washington State, making it one of the most spectacular and devastating volcanoes in the history of the United States. For those of us who were not alive or old enough to remember the event, here is a haunting description of the explosion from Boston.com:

"On May 18th, 1980, thirty years ago today, at 8:32 a.m., the ground shook beneath Mount St. Helens in Washington state as a magnitude 5.1 earthquake struck, setting off one of the largest landslides in recorded history - the entire north slope of the volcano slid away. As the land moved, it exposed the superheated core of the volcano setting off gigantic explosions and eruptions of steam, ash and rock debris. The blast was heard hundreds of miles away, the pressure wave flattened entire forests, the heat melted glaciers and set off destructive mudflows, and 57 people lost their lives. The erupting ash column shot up 80,000 feet into the atmosphere for over 10 hours, depositing ash across Eastern Washington and 10 other states."

And for everyone, here are some fabulous Boston.com photos to commemorate the event.

Cumulonimbus Cloud Over Africa: High above the African continent, tall, dense cumulonimbus clouds, meaning "column rain"; in Latin, are the result of atmospheric instability.
Cumulonimbus Cloud Over Africa: High above the African continent, tall, dense cumulonimbus clouds, meaning "column rain"; in Latin, are the result of atmospheric instability.Courtesy NASA
Got this image from NASA's "image of the day" feature yesterday. Its beautiful, awe-inspiring. And also, a bit scary that these are the kinds of clouds associated with lightning, high wind speeds and tornadoes - things that can be fun (I love a good harmless thunderstorm) and also devastating. Learn more about cumulonimbus clouds here.

Apr
20
2010

Physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said,

"If you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you. And that understanding empowers you."

(You can hear Mr. Tyson "sing" this line in the Symphony of Science/Poetry of Reality video below.)

Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.
Earthquake: Are you going to listen to the guy who tells you this happened because of a ghost? A pact with the Devil? Because God is angry with unveiled and unchaste women? No, thanks. My money's on the well-understood science of plate tectonics, and I'll be looking to the science peeps for the solutions, too.Courtesy United Nations Development Programme

I've been thinking about that idea a lot today after hearing two stories:

  1. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Protestants, Catholics, and practitioners of Voodoo are trying to increase followers by placing blame for the quake on supernatural causes. Some blame it on Voodoo, claiming that the earthquake is the price for a centuries old covenant made on the eve of the Haitian revolution. Others say Voodoo isn't at fault, but the consequence of not properly burying Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a hero of the Haitian revolution. (And you don't have to be living in Haiti to believe some of this stuff -- just listen to Pat Robertson).
  2. And in Iran, one of the most earthquake-prone places on Earth, Senior Cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was recently quoted saying, "Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes. ... What can we do to avoid being buried under the rubble? ... There is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam's moral codes."

Huh?

The cause of the Haitian earthquake is clear--100% explainable without having to invoke pacts with the Devil or martyr's ghosts. Same in Iran -- geologic activity in the area will continue whether or not women are veiled and chaste.

The solution is not "to take refuge in religion." The wrangling over unverifiable, supernatural causes for things diverts very needed resources and attention from real world solutions to very urgent problems.

The solution is to take refuge in science. Michael Shermer (yup, he "sings") says,

"Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding how the world works."

The Earth hasn't changed. People have. We're seeing quake activity with big consequences because there are more of us than ever before, many, many of us live in developing countries where large populations live in dense communities with lax building codes, and communications technology means that we know what has happened, not because we're paying a geological price for not living our lives correctly.

So what do we do? We innovate. We devise new and better monitoring and warning systems. We develop building techniques that are both locally appropriate and safer in the event of a quake. We teach people how to protect themselves in an emergency and how to react afterwards.

Richard Dawkins (my current nerd crush; you can watch him "sing" in the video, too.) said,

"Science replaces private prejudice with publicly verifiable evidence."

How can you not get behind an idea like that?

Unless you are an airline executive or a stranded traveler, here are a couple neat videos of Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajokull. This first video is from a helicopter near the volcanic plume. Midway through the footage, you'll see lava bombs firing out from the left side of the ash cloud. The journalist on board keeps talking about seeing lightning, but I'm not seeing it in this video capture.

This second video is an animated map showing the path of the volcanic ash's path over Europe. The color coding of the video breaks down this way: yellow indicates ash that has fallen by itself; red is ash that has fallen as a result of precipitation, black is where the ash cloud is at that moment in time.

Pre-eruption Iceland: This satellite photo was taken before the volcano erupted in Iceland.
Pre-eruption Iceland: This satellite photo was taken before the volcano erupted in Iceland.Courtesy Paul Morin, Antarctic Geospatial Information Center Department of Geology and Geophysics University of Minnesota

Eruption photo: Here is the volcano at full eruption mode in an image taken Saturday, April 17, 2010.
Eruption photo: Here is the volcano at full eruption mode in an image taken Saturday, April 17, 2010.Courtesy Paul Morin, Antarctic Geospatial Information Center Department of Geology and Geophysics University of Minnesota
Finally, here are a couple of satellite images of the coast of Iceland where the volcano is located. The first photo was taken before the eruption. The second photo on Saturday, April 17. Click on each image to get a much larger view of what's happening, or not happening, in each photograph.

And here is an informative article that lays out the best case, worst case and in-between case scenarios that could play out from Iceland's volcanic activities. It also talks about how air traffic has been diverted around past volcanic blasts and what makes this situation so different.

Apr
16
2010

Tracking worldwide earthquakes: Here is a map showing the epicenters of worldwide earthquakes over a 35-year span. No wonder it seems like earthquakes are happening all over the globe.
Tracking worldwide earthquakes: Here is a map showing the epicenters of worldwide earthquakes over a 35-year span. No wonder it seems like earthquakes are happening all over the globe.Courtesy Wikipedia
Geology may not be the "sexiest" of sciences, but when it gets cranked up, it can really make its presence known. And we've had a very interesting run of geological news in the past few months. The recent focus on earthquake matters is really summed up well in this commentary piece by Craig Childs of the Los Angeles Times.

Just in case you don't click the link, here are a few important notes from the piece to keep in mind while you're trying to figure out if the world is indeed coming to an end:

• With population increasing across the globe, more people are living in more hazardous regions.

• With our explosion of communications, we're hearing about earthquakes more often and in more depth.

• Since records have been kept on seismic activity, we know that about 50 earthquakes are recorded every day. Annually, the Earth averages 17 major earthquakes (7.0 to 7.9 on the Richter scale) and one doozy (8.0 or higher). The activity we've been seeing this year fits into those numbers so far.

Here are a few more items to points to take home regarding the recent geological frenzy:

Latest Chinese earthquake

As of Friday midday, the death toll in the China earthquake had climbed to over 1,100. While the devastation is much like the quakes in Haiti and Chile, the quake's cause, we're learning, was different.

Not all earthquakes start the same way. While most at the result of interactions between Earth's tectonic plates, this week's earthquake in China was different. It was an "intraplate" quake contained within an individual tectonic plate. Here's a full explanation. Basically, a quake occurs along a smaller fault that forms inside the plate, which is caused by other plates pushing on that plate's edges.

The New Madrid Seismic Zone in the central U.S., stretching from Arkansas to southern Illinois, is another example where "intraplate" earthquakes occur. On average, there's about an earthquake every-other-day in that zone, but they're very mild. But a large quake in the zone can spread damage over a much larger area.

Volcanic ash aloft: This aerial photo shows a volcano in Alaska spewing ash into the air in 2006.
Volcanic ash aloft: This aerial photo shows a volcano in Alaska spewing ash into the air in 2006.Courtesy Wikipedia

Iceland volcano update

Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano continues to erupt and its ash continues to interrupt airline travel. Geologists have no idea how long the eruption might last. Back in 1821, the volcano erupted for several months. And the larger neighboring volcano, Katla, has not erupted yet. Typically it follows after Eyjafjallajokull's initial eruptions, and geologists say if that happens again, Katla could send out even greater amounts of volcanic ash.

Just remember you read it here first. When volcanoes started erupted in Iceland last month, Science Buzz reported that similar situations in the past led to to closures of European airports. Today's news includes reports of shutdowns at airports including London, Paris and Dublin due to concentrations of ash in their from the eruptions. Why no air travel due to the ash? Jet engines can shutdown or stall if they take in too much volcanic ash. And here's a link to majorly cool video of one of those erupting Iceland volcanoes.

Here's a completely awesome video of a life-sized shake table at the University of California-San Diego used to test building construction designs to withstand earthquakes. Hang on tight, click this link and enjoy. No actual buildings were harmed in the making of this video.