Monday, March 18, 2013

Weather Channel's "Forecasting the End" to air March 21; mostly available now: Gamma ray burst, rogue planet

On Thursday, March 21, 2013 the Weather Channel will broadcast a documentary “Forecasting the End”.  But most of the film seems to be available now in video clips on the Weather Channel website when you go to it.

The two biggest risks discussed here are “Gamma Ray Burst” and “Rogue Planet”.

We would not know that a gamma ray burst was going to happen until it arrived, because it would travel at the speed of light.  It is thought that the Earth has experienced several bursts in its history, some resulting in mass extinctions (the most recent, 450 million years ago). 

A burst from a supernova 6000 light years away (it’s 27000 light years to the center of our Galaxy) would appear as a sudden bight flash in the sky, perhaps cause temporary or even permanent blindness, and severely damage the Earth’s ozone layer and magnetic field.  It might produce an effect on the power grid similar to an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) blast.  And there is no way to know in advance that it is about to happen.
The rogue planet hypothesis, actually explored in a couple of sci-fi films in the 1950s, is based on the idea that there may be about two hundred billion such bodies in our galaxy, ejected from their original solar system.  A direct hit with Earth would obliterate it, as in the 2011 film by Lars Van Trier, “Melancholia” (Movies blog, Nov. 11, 2011).  This is even more cataclysmic than a hit by an asteroid and could not be stopped with human technology.  Much more likely is that the planet would perturb the orbits of the larger planets as it passed through the solar system without hitting anything.  (Suppose it collides with Jupiter?)  The end result could be a gradual elongation of the Earth’s orbit, taking it as close to the Sun as Venus and as far away as Mars.  Gradually, over some number of years and centuries, the climate on Earth would develop far greater extremes than it has today.  Imagine the sociological effects.  Would people simply stop having children because the future is so finite?

There is a web extra, “Measuring gamma radiation”.  

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Vice's "America's Water Crisis" and Dutchsinse's videos look at science of sinkholes; related to fracking and aquifer draining?

I looked on YouTube this morning for some short films that would explain the science of sinkholes.  Remember, a sinkhole formed underneath a home near Tampa, FL, and a man fell to his death into the hole.  Nearby homes have been condemned.
There is a 30-minute short film  (apparently filmed in mid 2012) called “American’s Water Crisis” by Vice Media (NYC), in three sections, starting here.  The film is narrated  (and directed?) by Alex Emerson Rosenthal, who seems to be a college student or high school senior (maybe about 18)  doing a science journalism report (maybe for academic credit), but the amount of reporting is quite impressive. Emerson looks a bit like Aaron Swartz physically.  Emerson conducts all the interviews in the three parts of the film.
Part 1 is “New York’s Toxic Wasteland”, and is motivated when Emerson goes swimming near the Rockaway Beaches and cuts himself in a minor accident.  Nothing happens, but the concern over a dangerous infection motivates the entire film.  Much of the film concerns how waste affects New York’s water table, and how the City dumps waste off shore, and then ships a lot of it to far West Texas, near El Paso.
Part 2 is the main course, “Florida’s Sinkholes Are Swallowing Cars”.  Yes they are, and houses too.  The film covers the fact that Florida law requires property insurers to cover sinkholes, but companies claim they don’t have to cover sinkholes in yards that don’t damage homes but might destroy their value or cause them to be condemned anyway. 
The reason for the sinkholes seem to be the draining of the underground aquifer underneath the state, combined with its unique geology with a lot of soluble limestone, which dissolves when water flows back in.  Sinkholes can occur unpredictably almost anywhere in the state. Emerson concentrates the filming around the Gainesville area in the north.  He also interviews the operator of an ocean water desalination plant near Tampa.

Part 3 is “The Fight for California’s Fresh Water”, which involves a political fight over a water project for central valley farmers.  State officials refuse to be interviewed when Emerson shows up, and even Gov. Jerry Brown, generally considered progressive, is made to look bad.
The whole film uses the Gershwin “Rhapsody in Blue” as background music sometimes.
I also looked at two 14-minute videos by St. Louis filmmaker Dutchsinse.  The second of these was “Sinkholes, Explosions and Earthquakes: What Is Happening?”  from Nov. 2012 (link ).  Dutchsisne make heavy use of Google Earth and USGS simulations in his videos. The film starts out by showing a huge sinkhole in Ohio (I think it is near Cadiz and Steubenville), and then discusses sinkholes and mysterious earthquakes and explosions around the country.  He says that the North American Craton (a plate) is slowly being pushed from the west by the Pacific.  That makes some areas of the country more vulnerable the effects of fracking for natural gas, storage of waste or oil in salt domes, and draining of aquifers.

I remember visiting a site of a sinkhole along Ohio Rt 18 (in the eastern part of the state, near Akron) as a boy.  The road had collapsed into the sinkhole after heavy rain, back around 1955. 
Dutchsinse has an earlier video from August, 2012 “Louisiana Sink Hole Explained: Possible Huge Catastrophe”, where he explores a huge sinkhole in the bayou a bit south of I-10 and west of New Orleans.  He discusses the filling of salt domes as related.  Sinkholes in the area may leak natural gas, causing a huge explosion risk, or even radioactive materials, depending on what has been stored underground.

Wikipedia attribution link for sinkhole near Hawthorne, FL