Tuesday, June 24, 2008

History Channel: "Glow Train" (Las Vegas); "American Volcano" (Rainier) mega-disasters


On Tuesday June 24, the History Channel “Mega Disasters” series premiered two new one-hour films.

The first was “Glow Train Catastrophe” which does sound like something from the sci-fi channel. (I thought about the train on Mars in John Carpeter’s “Ghosts of Mars”). The program hypothesizes that a freight train carrying nuclear waste, in hardened canisters, has a collision with another train on a wrong track near the Las Vegas strip. A cloud of black waste powder spreads over the city and contaminates it, requiring full permanent evacuation and a cost of billions. Of course, one wonders why the train tracks for such material should not run far from any city.

I was in Vegas in 1997 and 2000, and traveled to the Scott’s Castle area in California, not too far away from Yucca, in 1997.

The film recapitulates a derailment of a train with propane cars in Weyauweagan WI in March 1996. One car had to be blown up deliberately, and three square miles were destroyed. The film then covers the derailment with a chlorine leak in Graniteville, SC in January 2005. It also covers the in-tunnel derailment in the Baltimore Harbor. The film shows freight trains passing near the Capitol in Washington DC.

American Volcano” presents the danger of a Mt. Rainier eruption 60 miles from Seattle. The most destructive part of the event could be a mud flow (or lahar) which would reach Tacoma, exacerbate by the volume of ice and glacier (which may be decreasing because of global warming). If the wind were blowing from the east, ash and dust could cover Seattle.

The show then gives the details of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in May, 1980. The eruption occurred after three months of warnings, and occurred in several stages and blasts (starting with a landslide popping the cork on the mountain), including a mud flow and destruction of 150 square miles, “ash snow” in Yakima, WA 75 miles away, and some ash fall all the way to Minnesota. It was St. Helens that made scientists aware of the threat of lahars. The show next details a small 1985 Andean eruption in Colombia that killed 23000 people with the mud flow, which has the consistency of poured concrete, filled with debris, and is scalding hot.

The minerals on Mt. Rainier include a lot of weak rock that tends to liquefy. A lot of it remains on the west flank, facing Seattle. Some people in the area live on old mud flows, deposited as recently as a few hundred years ago. The towns nearest the mountain could be difficult to evacuate.

The closing minutes of the film simulate a Mt. Rainier mega-disaster. The explosion would make St. Helens look like a “footnote” according to the film. There would be a huge mushroom cloud, reaching 15 miles into the stratosphere. The animation in the film is quite realistic. Imagine what this animation would look like in Imax. A Rainier eruption would take 20000 lives and become the worst natural disaster in US history.

I visited the area in 1976 (Paradise WA), 1978, 1990 (the St. Helens site), and 1996 (Mt. Hood). I am familiar with how few evacuation roads there are. The roads have Volcano Evacuation Route signs. I remember a personal “epiphany” in 1978 at the Snoqualmie Pass, but that’s another story.

Picture: Freight train in Minneapolis, E of Mississippi River (from video that I took in 2003).

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