Sunday, July 27, 2008

Cascadia fault (near Seattle) could generate major earthquake and tsunami

Today, while thunderstorms moved through northern Virginia, the Weather Channel aired a particularly scary half-hour segment of The Weather Channel's “It Could Happen Tomorrow” from Atlas Media, about the effect that an offshore earthquake could have on the Seattle area. The topic would work well for the History Channel's "mega disasters" series.

In March 1964 southern Alaska suffered a 9.2 magnitude earthquake when an offshore subduction fault slipped. There is a similar zone off the coast in the Pacific Northwest, running from Oregon to British Columbia. The mechanics of the Indonesian earthquaked on Dec. 26, 2004 and resulting tsunami are similar.

A 9.2 magnitude quake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone could devastate Seattle, knocking down many older buildings. A tsunami of forty feet might engulf the nearby coast (although Seattle itself is protected by outer islands like Bainbridge and Vashon, and the Olympic Peninsula), completely destroying the town of Westport (20000 residents), which has few escape routes.

There is a 10% chance of a large underwater quake along the Cascadia fault within the next 50 years, according to the program.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Mega-Disasters: Toxic Cloud (History Channel)

Tonight (July 22) the History Channel presented the latest “Mega-Disasters” installment, “Toxic Cloud,” about the release of dangerous chemicals in huge industrial accidents, particularly at oil refineries. The HC link is here.

The show starts with the history of the ammonium nitrate explosion at Texas City, TX in 1947 (caused by the explosion of the freighters Grandcamp, High Flyer, and Wilson B. Keene). which immediately wiped out its entire fire department, and produced a fireball comparable of that with a nuclear weapon. Texas City would have another incident, a British Petroleum explosion in 2005 with 15 fatalities.

Seveso, Italy would experience a dioxin release in 1976. But the worst industrial accident ever occurred at Bhopal, India in December 1984 with a release methyl isocyanate gas during the night of December 3, 1984 from a Union Carbide plant.

The show paid particularly attention to the dangers of ammonia, chlorine, and hydrogen fluoride, the later of which is used in refining gasoline. There is talk that sulfuric acid could be used instead and would be safer, but more expensive.

The show discussed a chlorine release from a train accident in South Carolina in 2005.

In general, the danger to the public could increase if refineries are under greater pressure because of growing demand. The risk is probably greater in a country like China.

The show concluded by sketching the hypothetical risk from the waste treatment plant in SW Washington DC. Many changes have been contemplated for the plant, which is four miles from the Capitol and Pentagon, since 9/11.

Serious chemical hazards exist without explosions. The whole town of Times Beach, MO, sound of St. Louis, had to be moved because of dioxin exposure in the 90s. It isn't possible for the casual motorist to see the original town. Much of the lake Erie area in New York State has been contaminated by the Love Canal problem.

There are natural risks, too. Twice, lakes in Africa have released carbon dioxide, suffocating nearby residents.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"Atlantis Apocalypse" History Channel Mega-Disasters

This Tuesday night, the History Channel Mega Disaster was “Atlantis Apocalypse.” The show examined the historical facts surrounding the eruption of the Colombo volcano around 1660 BC in the Santorini archipelago of Greece in the Aegean Sea. The eruption is said to have been 10 times the size of Krakatoa and 100 times St. Helens.

The Minoan civilization on Crete (with the site at Knossos and Phaistos) was apparently wiped out, and this could have had a great influence on ancient history. Minoa was apparently a very progressive society, with women’s rites and some advanced household technology, such as toilets. Many of the inhabitants disbanded and escaped before the catastrophe, which is said to have been described by Plato.

The documentary shows scenes from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and makes comparisons to what would have happened with Santorini.

The movie says that this area probably has a violent eruption about every 20000 years, so the case for immediate danger is underwhelming, whatever the name of the episode.

The History Channel has previously explored what could happen with Mt. Etna, near Naples, and the Discovery Channel presented a major reenactment of Pompeii in January 2004.

When I was living in Minnesota, I knew a college student who visited Crete during Christmas break in 1997, and some of the material in the film I had heard before.

In 1961, MGM released “Atlantis, The Lost Continent”, directed by George Pal. A fisherman (Sal Ponti) tries to deliver the Atlantean princess (Joyce Taylor) to the continent, when it will be destroyed by the eruption. But before that, we see man-beast slaves, and the “crystal”, with the mantra “destroy the crystal” leading to the destruction. Walt Disney studios also released an animated feature by this name in 2001.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sci-Fi: "Meltdown" : Earth's orbit decays after asteroid near miss

Here’s a scenario for “global warming.” What if the orbit of Earth were slowly deteriorating, edging closer to the sun by 1% a year, and “they just weren’t telling us”? That’s practically the premise of the Sci-Fi channel’s “Meltdown: Days of Destruction” with some minor league remedial work for actor Casper Von Dien. The director is John Murlowski, and it is written by Rick Drew. There are stories that John Carpenter had written this story ahead of time, and that there were some legal wrangles before this cable movie got made. If true, this movie may provide an object lesson in why Hollywood studios enforce a “third party rule” on loglines and unsolicited spec screenplay submissions.

Actually, what happens is that a huge asteroid, a couple hundred miles across (Ceres has a diameter of over 400 miles) approaches earth. The fibbies knock it off course with a nuke (an break off some of it as if it were a worn tooth crown), but the gravitation changes the orbit of Earth. It starts warming up, by about 30 degrees Fahrenheit everywhere. “They do tell us” after a few days, and the president declares martial law.

The rest of the movie is an attempted escape from LA “to the North,” which might not work since global warming affects polar latitudes a lot more than temperate, melting ice caps and rising sea levels. Will the gravity of the other planets pull Earth back into position?

I don’t know whether the “science” here is plausible. This is a good question for a college physics class.

Curiously, the script makes reference to the film “Deep Impact” (1998, Touchstone) which was about a comet strike.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mega-Disasters: Jet Collisions (History Channel)

On July 8, the History Channel aired the latest in the Mega-Disaster series, “Deadly Jet Collision”, which examines runway or airspace head-on airliner crashes.

The film opened with a mention of the need to clear the skies of about 4000 flights on September 11, 2001.

Much of the program told the story of the collision at Los Rodeos Airport on Tenerife Island, Spain in the Canary Islands on March 27, 1977, of two Boeing 747’s, resulting in 583 fatalities, the largest airline catastrophe to date in world history. One problem (according the recovered hardened flight recorder) was airliner cockpit culture, where the pilot did not fully believe his copilot.

The show also examined some other accidents, such as one in Milan in 1981. It did not examine weather-caused single crashes, like Delta Airlines crash in Dallas in August 1985 in a sudden thunderstorm, when I was living in Dallas. I was entering a health spa when I heard about it. It would actually indirectly affect the course of my own life.

The show discussed air traffic controller hours and fatigue, and the way we depend on their work. without realizing it.

The conclusion of the film demonstrated a hypothetical runway crash of a new 800-passenger airbus with a 200 passenger plane in fog.

Ironically, today there was discussion of a near miss at Kennedy Airport because of perpendicular runways, which also exist at Dulles and Reagan in the Washington area.

The strain on the system to perform without delays was stressing the airlines before the current runup on jet fuel prices (for all airlines except Southwest, which had negotiated a futures contract earlier). Recreational air travel had become common for the middle class all over the world, but it is definitely threatened now by fuel prices as well as the demands of safety.

Surprisingly, I did not see safety expert John Nance in the film.

I actually took a free flying lesson (with an American Airlines coupon) at Dallas Redbird Airport in 1982.

Picture: Airline traffic, from Udvar-Hazy NASA "control tower" museum at Dulles Airport, VA

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

History Channel Mega-Disasters episode: "Airborne Attack"

Tonight, July 1, 2008, The History Channel Mega-Disasters series presented one of the most disturbing of all of the episodes, named “Airborne Attack.” The one-hour documentary examined the possibility of the use of anthrax as a weapon against a civilian population, whether by a non-state actor or by a (rogue or enemy) government. The link for the documentary is this.

The program examined the history of the agent, which French scientists worked on in the 1920s, after World War I. The Japanese may have used it against the Chinese in the 1930s before the full outbreak of World War II. Hitler, Stalin, and the United States and Britain all did research on it during World War II.

The program traces the history of the 1979 incident in Sverdlovsk, which was an accidental release from a biological weapons plant in the Ural Mountains that resulted in civilian fatalities in a few days.

The program also summarizes the events in the fall of 2001. The details are available on Wikipedia at this link. The Weekly Standard ran a probing article by David Tell on April 29, 2002, about the "lone actor theory" and international theories, link here.

The program then lays out a hypothetical scenario of an incident in Phoenix.

The “Ames Strain” is mentioned and refers to a Department of Agriculture facility near I-35 north of Des Moines. I have seen it from the distance while driving. The other major facility is near Frederick MD. The recent “person of interest” litigation against the Justice Department was not mentioned.

The program does discuss clinical course, antibiotic treatment with Cipro, and the deficiencies of the current vaccine, which is given to the military.

ABC Nightline had outlined a fictitious subway incident in 1999, before 9/11.