Stories tagged Forces of Nature

Mar
21
2010

Harriet Island March 15: A photo of Harriet Island from March 15, 2010
Harriet Island March 15: A photo of Harriet Island from March 15, 2010Courtesy Sharon Stiteler

I took this photo of Harriet Island in St. Paul on Monday, March 15, 2010 in anticipation of the rising waters of the Mississippi River. The flood forecast seems to change daily, if not hourly. As of Sunday morning, March 21, 2010 NOAA had the river at 16.3 feet, well above the 14 foot flood stage. You will notice in the above photo that the stairs to the river are still visible.

Harriet Stairs: The Mississippi River rising along the stairs at Harriet Island.
Harriet Stairs: The Mississippi River rising along the stairs at Harriet Island.Courtesy Sharon Stiteler

This morning, they were covered. This park visitor perched at the top to capture a photo of the rising water. The current is very fast and there's still quite a bit of debris flowing along.

Padleford Boats: Padleford boats being protected from debris during the 2010 Spring flood.
Padleford Boats: Padleford boats being protected from debris during the 2010 Spring flood.Courtesy Sharon Stiteler

Barges have been placed in front of the Padleford boats to protect them from debris. Here's a video of the current and some of the debris that has been blocked from banging the boats.

It will be interesting to watch the water this week. If you are in St Paul to watch the flood, stop in to the Mississippi River Visitor Center in the lobby of the Science Museum and chat with a Ranger about it.

Mar
18
2010

If you're visiting the Science Museum of Minnesota, look out the windows from the Mississippi River Gallery on level 5. If you're in downtown St. Paul, stop by the museum and look at the river from the overlook on Kellogg Plaza. (City officials are asking folks not to flock to areas where barriers are going up - especially Harriet Island - but the view from in or around the museum is spectacular and safe.)

Kate's photos, 3/18 (3): Looks peaceful, doesn't it? Still, the city is warning people to stay off of the river, out of the low-lying parks, and away from Harriet Island and Water Street.
Kate's photos, 3/18 (3): Looks peaceful, doesn't it? Still, the city is warning people to stay off of the river, out of the low-lying parks, and away from Harriet Island and Water Street.Courtesy Kate Hintz

The Mississippi is going up FAST today, and forecasters expect that the river will officially reach "flood stage" by early this afternoon. (It's 10:45am, and the river's at 11.67'. It's risen a foot and a half in the last 24 hours, should reach 12' ("action stage") pretty soon, and 14' ("flood stage") by late today.

Kate's photos, 3/18 (2): Look across the river to the floodwall: that's the high-water mark for the 1965 flood, the highest in recorded history. That year, the river crested here in downtown St. Paul at 26.01' and marked the end for the communities then down on the river flats.
Kate's photos, 3/18 (2): Look across the river to the floodwall: that's the high-water mark for the 1965 flood, the highest in recorded history. That year, the river crested here in downtown St. Paul at 26.01' and marked the end for the communities then down on the river flats.Courtesy Kate Hintz

Kate's photos, 3/18 (1): Shepard/Warner roads will close from Chestnut Street to US 61 starting Saturday morning, and could remain closed for weeks. Take your river sightseeing drive/bike ride/walk before then!
Kate's photos, 3/18 (1): Shepard/Warner roads will close from Chestnut Street to US 61 starting Saturday morning, and could remain closed for weeks. Take your river sightseeing drive/bike ride/walk before then!Courtesy Kate Hintz

So what's going on around the river?

  • The city has closed all city boat launches and temporarily banned all recreational boating within the city limits.
  • Water Street will be entirely closed, starting this afternoon.
  • Hidden Falls and Lilydale regional parks are closed.
  • Flood barriers are going up at the St. Paul downtown airport and at Harriet Island.
  • Harriet Island will close once the river reaches 17'.
  • Warner/Shepard Roads will be closed from Chestnut Street to US 61 starting Saturday morning in preparation for the construction of a temporary levee that could withstand river levels to 26'. These roads could be closed for weeks, depending on the extent of the flooding.

Here's the latest hydrology graph:
3/18 hydrology graph, 10:15am
3/18 hydrology graph, 10:15amCourtesy USGS

Check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.

Mar
17
2010

Look out the window or walk down the street to nearly any river or stream in Minnesota right now and you are likely to observe two things about the river:

  1. it is getting deeper (or “rising” in relation to the banks); and
  2. it appears to be moving faster.

You can, of course, confirm these observations by investigating reports from gauging stations along these rivers, maintained by the U.S. Geological Survey. (See data for the gauging station serving downtown St. Paul.) But what is really happening?

It may be high and fast...: ...but (as of today) the Mississippi at St. Paul is still in a bankfull state.
It may be high and fast...: ...but (as of today) the Mississippi at St. Paul is still in a bankfull state.Courtesy Liza Pryor

Until a river flows over its banks, it is considered to be in a “bankfull” state. In this state, the water flowing through the river is confined to a relatively fixed channel area. Simply put, floods occur because more water is being introduced into this channel from upstream, due to snowmelt, heavy rains, or a dam breach. As this added volume of water moves through a fixed area, it both increases in velocity and in depth until it overflows the banks, at which point some, but not necessarily a lot, of the volume and velocity moving through the channel are reduced.

Scientists call the rate of flow through a channel “discharge." Discharge is defined as the volume of water passing through a given cross-section of the river channel within a specified period of time.A simple equation for determining discharge is

Q = D x W x V

where Q = discharge, D = channel depth, W = channel width and V = velocity.

Looking at this equation, it is easy to see that if discharge becomes greater and channel width is fixed, then an increase in both volume and depth (or height relative to the banks) is likely to be the cause. Discharge can be measured in cubic feet per second or cubic meters per second, for example.

But is the river flowing at the same rate at the surface as it does along its banks and beds? Understanding this requires investigating some more detailed equations, as the banks and bed introduce friction, which affects the rate of flow.

To learn more about rivers and how they flow, you may want to check out the works of Luna Leopold, and M. Gordon Wolman. In particular:

  • Leopold, Luna B. (2006, reprint). A View of the River. Harvard University Press; and
  • Leopold, Luna B.; Wolman, M. Gordon; and Miller, John P. (1995). Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology. Dover Publications, both classics for understanding how rivers work.

Also, check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.

Mar
17
2010

As of 11:19am, the US Geological Survey is forecasting that the Mississippi River will crest here in downtown St. Paul at 18 feet.

New flood crest prediction, 3/17
New flood crest prediction, 3/17Courtesy USGS

That would put Water Street and the lower section of Lilydale Regional Park underwater (at 14'), require secondary flood walls at the St. Paul Downtown Airport (17'), submerge much of Harriet Island (17.5'), and make Warner Road impassable due to high water.

An 18-foot crest would also make this year's flood #9, historically speaking, bumping the flood of 1986 (16.10') off the top-10 list.

Also, check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.

Mar
16
2010

All day, up in the Mississippi River Gallery, people have been stopping to look out the window and watch the river.

Here's how the US Geological Survey sees it:
Mississippi River, actual vs. forecast, 3/16/10, 1pm
Mississippi River, actual vs. forecast, 3/16/10, 1pmCourtesy USGS

The river's rising, but not as fast as yesterday. And yesterday's rise outpaced predictions by almost a foot, but today the rise matches the predicted curve almost exactly.

So what are folks seeing out the window? Take a look.

Also check out our full feature on the 2010 Mississippi River flooding.

Watch the steps: They're a good benchmark.
Watch the steps: They're a good benchmark.Courtesy Liza Pryor

Raspberry Island: Still high and dry
Raspberry Island: Still high and dryCourtesy Liza Pryor

Looking upstream: You're still looking at Harriet Island. But low-lying areas of Lilydale (upstream, south side of the river) get inundated when the river reaches 14 feet or so. Right now, that's predicted to happen sometime after 7pm on Sunday, 3/21.
Looking upstream: You're still looking at Harriet Island. But low-lying areas of Lilydale (upstream, south side of the river) get inundated when the river reaches 14 feet or so. Right now, that's predicted to happen sometime after 7pm on Sunday, 3/21.Courtesy Liza Pryor

Jan
07
2010

A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from USGS
A satellite image of the East Siberian Sea from USGSCourtesy United States Geological Survey
When I read this story the other day, I thought to myself: why didn't I think of that? Or maybe I did think of it, but as usual no one was listening when I pitched the idea for an action-packed spy movie about climate change. Or were they?

The Central Intelligence Agency does have a bunch of high-powered satellites and other "classified" instruments, so it's possible they've been using them to eavesdrop on my conversations with friends about possible sci-fi movie plots.

What's more likely: they figured out on their own that intelligence-gathering instruments could be really helpful to scientists, who can read detailed pictures of melting sea ice, growing desserts and other phenomena to better understand how climate is changing the planet.

The C.I.A. recently confirmed that it had revived this controversial data-sharing program known as Madea, which stands for Measurements of Earth Data for Environmental Analysis. If you decode that C.I.A. code name, it means that government spies are working with climate scientists to gather images and data about environmental change, as well as its impact on human populations.

Not everyone is convinced that climate change is a real threat to national security, and so some complainers are complaining that this collaboration between scientists and the C.I.A. is a misuse of resources, but what do they know?

Really? What do they know? So much of what happens over at C.I.A. headquarters is top-secret.

Maybe the whole thing doesn't sound that action packed, but I'm telling you, if you had the right actors playing the scientists, it could be a blockbuster. And if you have the right scientists analyzing the data, it might provide really valuable insights into global environmental change.

Dec
26
2009

GOCE Satellite: The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer
GOCE Satellite: The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation ExplorerCourtesy ESA
Can it be true? Yes, for a mere $5,544 dollars round-trip airfare to Greenland! In March 2009, the European Space Agency launched the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) into orbit around our planet, which is now transmitting detailed data about the Earth’s gravity. The GOCE satellite uses a gradiometer to map tiny variations in the Earth’s gravity caused by the planet’s rotation, mountains, ocean trenches, and interior density. New maps illustrating gravity gradients on the Earth are being produced from the information beamed back from GOCE. Preliminary data suggests that there is a negative shift in gravity in the northeastern region of Greenland where the Earth’s tug is a little less, which means you might weigh a fraction of a pound lighter there (a very small fraction, so it may not be worth the plane fare)!

In America, NASA and Stanford University are also working on the gravity issue. Gravity Probe B (GP-B) is a satellite orbiting 642 km (400 miles) above the Earth and uses four gyroscopes and a telescope to measure two physical effects of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity on the Earth: the Geodetic Effect, which is the amount the earth warps its spacetime, and the Frame-Dragging Effect, the amount of spacetime the earth drags with it as it rotates. (Spacetime is the combination of the three dimensions of space with the one dimension of time into a mathematical model.)

Quick overview time. The Theory of General Relativity is simply defined as: matter telling spacetime how to curve, and curved spacetime telling matter how to move. Imagine that the Earth (matter) is a bowling ball and spacetime is a trampoline. If you place the bowling ball in the center of the trampoline it stretches the trampoline down. Matter (the bowling ball) curves or distorts the spacetime (trampoline). Now toss a smaller ball, like a marble, onto the trampoline. Naturally, it will roll towards the bowling ball, but the bowling ball isn’t ‘attracting’ the marble, the path or movement of the marble towards the center is affected by the deformed shape of the trampoline. The spacetime (trampoline) is telling the matter (marble) how to move. This is different than Newton’s theory of gravity, which implies that the earth is attracting or pulling objects towards it in a straight line. Of course, this is just a simplified explanation; the real physics can be more complicated because of other factors like acceleration.

Albert Einstein
Albert EinsteinCourtesy none
So what is the point of all this high-tech gravity testing? First of all, our current understanding of the structure of the universe and the motion of matter is based on Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity; elaborate concepts and mathematical equations conceived by a genius long before we had the technology to directly test them for accuracy. The Theory of General Relativity is the cornerstone of modern physics, used to describe the universe and everything in it, and yet it is the least tested of Einstein’s amazing theories. Testing the Frame-Dragging Effect is particularly exciting for physicists because they can use the data about the Earth’s influence on spacetime to measure the properties of black holes and quasars.

Second, the data from the GOCE satellite will help accurately measure the real acceleration due to gravity on the earth, which can vary from 9.78 to 9.83 meters per second squared around the planet. This will help scientists analyze ocean circulation and sea level changes, which are influenced by our climate and climate change. The information that the GOCE beams back will also assist researchers studying geological processes such as earthquakes and volcanoes.

So, as I gobble down another mouthful of leftover turkey and mashed potatoes, I can feel confident that my holiday weight gain and the structure of the universe are of grave importance to the physicists of the world!

Nov
25
2009

A concerned citizen preforms a simplified self test: Results are positive.
A concerned citizen preforms a simplified self test: Results are positive.Courtesy kevjblack
The Large Hadron Collider, the LHC, the World Destroyer, the Hula Hoop of God, the RC Matchbox Racetrack of Zeus, the Contraceptive Ring of Gaia herself… has been turned on.

You remember how concerned you were about this, right? You were worried that, based on what that friend said and what you read on that webpage, the activation of the LHC could be the end of the world, if not the universe.

Well, I know you’re nervous about what you might find, but I think there’s no avoiding it—it’s time for our regular self-check. I’ll walk you through it.

Stand up, and place your arms at your sides, palms in. Move your hands back and towards each other, keeping the palms facing in. When your hands have nearly met behind you, pull them forward and make a grabbing motion with your hands.

Did your hands go through thin air, or did they encounter something soft yet substantial? If the latter is true, we can all breath a sigh of relief—the LHC didn’t destroy life as we know it, and your butt is safe. For now.

The collider was actually turned on on Friday, although the first collisions from its accelerating beams of particles weren’t expected until early December. Much to the scientists’ surprise, collisions were detected as early as Monday. Check again if you need to, Buzzketeers.

If you’re looking for something to worry about, however, you might consider the following: the machine isn’t anywhere near full power yet. The protons involved in Monday’s collisions had been accelerated to the point where they had 450 billion electron volts. In the next few weeks, the LHC team will accelerate the particles up to 1.2 trillion electron volts, and, eventually, the facility should be accelerating protons to 7 trillion electron volts. When you’ve got protons heading each way, that means collisions will involve 14 trillion electron volts.

Yowza, right? I mean, the next most powerful particle accelerator, the Tevatron in Illinois, can only inject 900 billion electron volts into its accelerating particles—the LHC can do more than 15 times that!

But what does that mean? That sounds like a frightening amount of energy, so why doesn’t the Earth rumble and moan like a house in a storm whenever a large particle accelerator is turned on? It is a lot of energy, especially when you’re concentrating it into individual protons, which are, of course, very very small. But an electron volt is a very small unit of energy; it is defined as being “equal to the amount of kinetic energy gained by a single unbound electron when it accelerates through an electrostatic potential difference of one volt.” One trillion (that’s a million millions) electron volts—one fourteenth of the total energy of the LHC’s biggest possible collisions—is approximately equal to “the amount of energy of the motion of a flying mosquito.” That might be a deceptively small analogy—I’m sure it takes much much much more than a few bugs on treadmills to get the LHC powered up, and, again, that’s a lot of energy to be concentrated in a single subatomic particle racing at nearly the speed of light—but it’s an interesting comparison.

Strangelets and micro black wholes: 0; continued existence: 1.

Nov
09
2009

A killer agent from the future: Like the Terminator, but with bread!
A killer agent from the future: Like the Terminator, but with bread!Courtesy Hillarie
So, I’m sure y’all have heard the news by now. The Large Hadron Collider, the largest and most elaborate scientific device ever built, has broken again. And it never even got the chance to end the world.

See, many people believe that the LHC’s attempts to catch a glimpse at the forbidden knowledge of the universe could, like a nerd’s efforts to peek into a locker room of large and aggressively athletic members of the opposite sex, go terribly wrong. Earth-endingly wrong. Sure, pretty much everyone who knows anything about it says that the LHC really isn’t dangerous in that way, and the odds that it would cause a chain reaction that would destroy the world are about the same as its chances of creating an army of teenage mutant ninja turtles. (There simply aren’t enough karate-practicing teenage turtles out there to mutate!) But that doesn’t seem to matter, because every time they try to turn that sucker on, something goes wrong, and we keep getting robbed of our first row seats at the end of the world (or, alternately, our seeding in the ninja reptile tournaments).

Do you know what killed the project most recently? I think you do, if you read this post’s headline. A bird. A little bird dropped its delicious toast on a piece of outdoor equipment (most of the LHC is deep underground). Presumably it was a bird, anyway. Whatever the case, a mystery slice of baguette found its way to some important equipment that was not baguette-proof, causing the machine to rise a few important degrees in temperature.

The damage caused to the machine wasn’t catastrophic. It shut down as the temperature in the circuit increased, which is a good thing, because if the LHC had been fully operational at the time, such an increase in temperature could have caused the superconducting magnets in the particle accelerator to become less-superconducting, and then all that energy from the near-light speed particles would… crash. Boom. But that didn’t happen, and the LHC should be up and running this winter.

Or…

A month ago, the internets were alive with discussion over the theory that the Large Hadron Collider was being sabotaged… by the future!

Naturally I ignored this news, because Science Buzz doesn’t credit nonsense like this with attention, and, what’s more, I’m familiar with the concept of someone at one point in time sabotaging his self at another point in time, and I know that it only goes the other way. Trying drinking something named after a cartoon at the end of an evening, and you’ll see what I mean.

I don’t totally get the idea behind this time travel sabotage theory, but the basic premise is that the universe, or “God,” or the fundamental forces of physics, or whathaveyou, aren’t into the possibility that the LHC could create a Higgs Boson. The Higgs is an important theoretical particle that sort of… ties the room together, if we’re calling the whole universe a room. Experiments at the LHC are trying to create conditions in which a Higgs might be observed. However, say a couple of respected scientist dudes, it could be that the Higgs is so “abhorrent to nature” that its creation would send ripples back in time to prevent it from being created.

Leaving aside the exact mechanics of time ripples, let’s consider what’s happening here. As we all know, while killing your own grandfather is often temptingly within reach, going back in time to kill your own grandfather is impossible. It could just be that no one is owning up to doing it, but the situation also describes a paradox: if you were to travel back in time to kill your grandfather, he couldn’t have created your mom or dad, who, in turn, couldn’t have created you, so you couldn’t go back in time to kill him, so… you get the idea. One might think that the universe attempting to undo the creation of a Higgs boson presents a similar paradox—if the creation of the boson is what causes it to destroy the equipment before it can be created, it would never be created, and therefore couldn’t destroy the equipment that creates it. Bleh. On the other hand, the scientists say, while you can’t kill your grandpa in the past (darn!) you can, say, push him out of the way of a speeding bus. Yay! (Unless the event of your grandpa’s bus-related death was the sole inspiration for your time traveling adventures.) The setbacks in the LHC’s operations, say the theorists, could be the universe trying to push us out of the way of a speeding bus, as it were. But what about the Higgs is so abominable? They aren’t sure about that.

It seems to me that there are still some brain-twisting complications in that theory. Cause and Effect, I think, are going to have difficult time sorting out whose clothes are whose in the morning. But… come on! A bird dropped some bread on the LHC! Since when do birds drop things on things? It has to be time-traveling mischief.