Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Karatoa's Revenge: Mega-Disaster, History Channel

Tonight Dec. 18 2007 the History Channel film in the Mega-Disasters series is "Kratatoa's Revenge". It describes and simulates the series of eruptions at Karatoa, where Java and Sumatra meet in Indonesia, in 1883. The eruption was the loudest in decibels in modern history, and 36000 people died. There was a super-eruption in 535 AD and possibly 416 AD. The 535 eruption caused massive climate change and a brief in temperature and crop failures for several years.

The mountain was destroyed, but an island over the caldera location called Anak Karkatau ("Child of Krakatoa") exists and the program offers speculation as to what would happen if there were a super eruption there now. The sky could turn black for months even over the U.S. and Europe, with widespread famine. The risks seems comparable to what could happen if the Yellowstone caldera in the United States were to erupt. The fact that Krakatoa is close to the equator makes the dust cloud issue worse.

There was a film in the 1960s, "Kratatoa: East of Java," directed by Bernard Kowalski (Cinerama Releasing Corporation).

The January 2008 issue of National Geographic has the cover story "Indonesia's Ring of Fire: Volcano Gods," story by Andrew Marshall with photographs by John Stanmeyer. "Geography has dealt Indonesia a wild card: Nowhere else do so many live so close to so many active volcanoes." There is a related story about a catastrophic mud flow in East Java in May 2006.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I Am Legend: 28 Days Later Becomes 3 Years Later

Well, we think of vaccine development as something good. Necessary. In fact, we are critical of our government for allowing liability concerns to slow down the development and mass manufacture of a avian influenza virus vaccine. We know that rapid deployment of a vaccine presents risks, as in 1976 when some people inoculated with swine flu vaccine, developed rapidly under Gerald Ford’s leadership, got Guillain Barre Syndrome. Even now, we allow some people to take a live virus flu vaccine through nose drops – not neo-synephrine.

Well, imagine if a deliberate virus infection could cure all kinds of cancer, by turning off the immortality genes. That’s a supposition of the movie "I Am Legend", starting this weekend. Directed by Francis Lawrence, based on a novel by Richard Matheson, from Warner Brothers and Australian film producer Village Roadshow, it gives us Manhattan three years after a live measles virus cancer vaccine went wild, with weeds growing in the streets, bridges down, and Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) apparently the only survivor. He even has a medical lab in his fortress Washington Square apartment. He also has, not just Medeco, but double level lock levers and metal boards for his windows, since the one percent of the world that has survived the man-made virus has turned into raging hairless zombies, reminding us of “Night of the Living Dead” (where the infection is comes from some sort of dust from a space probe) or “Dawn of the Dead.” At least in Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain” the infected don’t become belligerent (although the doctors have to undergo sterilization and depilation with the photoflash). In this movie, there is no narrator V. Martin tracing the steps of the breakdown of civilization as in a History Channel mega-disaster.

For that matter, Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (Fox Searchlight, 2003) presented a similar experimental misfire in London, with Cilian Murphy the hero. Same rage virus.That movie would be followed with an unfortunate sequel “28 Weeks Later” where they are still trying to keep the infected from coming back.. This concept of warning the public happens in some other horror films, like “Cabin Fever” (Lions Gate, 2003, Eli Roth), and even “30 Days of Night” (Columbia, 2007, dir. David Slade). A variation of this idea would, of course, be a virus that prevents women from getting pregnant, “Children of Men” (Universal, 2006, dir. Alfonso Cuaron) and even Clive Barker’s “The Plague” (Screen Gems, 2006, dir. Hal Mosenberg).

Films like this, even as silly and bloated as they are, at least do the service of keeping the public ask questions about vaccine development.

The ultimate yarn about a man-made virus may be Stephen King's "The Stand" (1978, full version in 1990), made into a TV series movie in the mid 1990s and sometimes shown today on the Sci-Fi channel.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Mega Freeze (History Channel Mega Disasters)

Mega-Disasters: Mega Freeze: Climate Change. I see that in 2006 the History Channel broadcast the film "Climate Change" and this one (broadcast at noon EST Dec 5) seemed to be substantially the same one hour film. I don't know if it was updated. There was the technical discussion of the Dryus climate change that backslid from the Ice Age and lasted about a millennium, forcing nomadic Stone Age crowds south. It discussed the Little Ice Age (possibly caused by sunspots) that stared around 1300 with jumpy climate changes, and didn't lift until about 1800, and may have contributed to the Black Plague and the political foment that led to the American and French Revolutions.

It discussed the thermohaline feedback circulation that accounts for the Gulf Stream that warms Europe and to some extend coastal New England. It could fail suddenly if glacial melting from global warming dumped enough fresh water descending into the ocean, resulting in turning Europe and northern US into having a climate like Siberia, even as far down as New York City. The west coast would be bashed by storms bringing devastating floods and mudslides even into downtown LA. But the Midwest would become a desert. A sudden climate change could reduce the "carrying capacity" of Planet Earth from about 8 billion people (the population is now about 6 billion) all the way down to 2 billion, causing wars over tribal survival. That certainly complicates new moral arguments about population replacement and falling birthrates in western countries (and China's one child policy).

Popular lore talks about a winter "superstorm" that descends from the poles and freezes most of North America, as in the movie "The Day After Tomorrow" (as well as another TV film called simply "Ice"). Just this past weekend (Dec 1, 2007) the Oregon and Washington coasts were bashed by Category 2 hurricane force winds from a Pacific storm in an area where the water is too cold for hurricanes to form as in the tropics. Felicity Barringer, of the New York Times, has a headline story on AOL today "Study Finds Rise in Stormy Weather" here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Naples: It's Pompeii II (on Mega-Disasters)

In January 2004 the Discovery Channel showed the lumpy film "Pompeii", to reenact the 79 AD mega-disaster -- an event with widespread advertising, even in the Washington DC Metro. (The July 25 2006 entry on this blog discusses that film.) Tonight (Nov. 27) The History Channel mega-disasters series "The Next Pompeii" related the possibility that Naples, to the northwest of Mount Vesuvius (Pompeii and Herculaneum had been to the SE) could be a mark for a mega-eruption.

Vesuvius eruptions can be "Plenian" "sub-plenian" and "strombolian". The largest (plenian) can end in pyroclastic flows (like Mt. St. Helens or Pinatubo) where the ash mushroom cloud collapses under its own weight, leading to the "surge" at 200 mph that incinerates everything in its path. If an eruption of the "Bronze Age" eruption occurred with a SE wind, it could blow the cloud and potential cloud over Naples. Up to 3 million people could be at risk.

There was a sub-plenian eruption around 1664 and a smaller eruption in 1944, when the Allies rescued the residents of a town of San Sebastian.

In the 1990s, the government started paying residents to leave, in order to make a potential evacuation easier. The program was resumed in 2003. There is an observatory on Vesuvius that purports to be able to anticipate a major event with about a week's notice, but this might not prepare for the largest events. Significant eruptions from Vesuvius may occur on an average of every 64 years.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Hallmark Channel's "Pandemic" -- a novel avian influenza

On Nov. 4, 2007, the Hallmark Channel took advantage of the extra hour from the clock fallback and aired the three hour TV film “Pandemic” from Larry Levinson Productions and director Armand Mastroianni, who had directed “Robin Cook’s Virus” in the 1990s.

The film seems like a “two’s complement” to ABC TV’s “Fatal Contact: Bird Flu in America” which I discussed on this blog July 25, 2006. The film is a stereotyped TV disaster movie, in which the script is rigged to provide the public with a lot of information in the dialogue, and therefore, despite all the activity in the film, the movie seems a bit lifeless.

Nevertheless, the movie offers some more ideas about bird flu. This time, the virus is not H5N1 but a variant that the film calls H7N3. (In fact, in the script there is some question as to whether this is really avian influenza or just some other novel zoonosis or pandemic.) And the outbreak starts very suddenly with an index case, a college age young man hiking and diving off the Australian case discovers some dead birds. (In practice, it’s pretty unlikely it could start this way.) Pretty soon, he becomes sick himself on the plane back to LA, coughing up blood, and passes away on the plane. You guessed it, the passengers are quarantined, the whole city is quarantined, and martial law gets declared. But the other interesting thing is the antidote: in the film, the researchers figure out how to make a pseudo-vaccine from patients who have recovered from tuberculosis. The T-cells contain proteins that somehow prevent the new virus from attaching to lung tissue.

Another interesting similar film “Outbreak” came from Wolfgang Petersen and Warner Bros. in 1995, about a monkey virus. Also, "V for Vendetta" (2006) made allusion to bird-flu-like epidemics (maybe government planted). Stephen King's "The Stand", which filled out four two-hour TV segments in 1995, was a lot more effective.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

L.A.'s Killer Quake - Mega Disasters, History Channel

This program, "L.A.'s Killer Quake", the latest in the History Channel's mega-disaster series (Nov. 20, 2007) imagines what would happen if there were a 7.5 magnitude earthquake along the Puenta Hills Fault (a thrust fault, compared to the San Andreas Fault which is a strike-slip fault), which runs right under downtown Los Angeles.

The program traces the history of earthquakes and building codes in L.A. There was a 1933 earthquake near Long Beach, and then a big quake in 1971. The largest was the Northridge quake on January 17, 1994 and everyone says that this was not "The Big One." A quake along the Puenta Hills Fault happens about every 1000 years, and it is not known when the last one was. The largest earthquake ever in California was in a rural area in 1857, and the San Francisco 1906 quake destroyed the city.

The program covered modern technology to isolate new buildings from quakes, and some older buildings can be retrofitted with reinforcement. Nevertheless, a large Puenta Hills quake could kill thousands and cause $250 billion damage and leave several hundred thousand homeless, a housing catastrophe bigger than Hurricane Katrina's. The ultimate scenario is that the earthquake happens while Santa Ana winds are blowing, stoking uncontrollable fires over the entire region dwarfing what just happened in October of this year.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Oil Apocalypse: Mega-Disasters -- History Channel

This ("Oil Apocalypse") is certainly one of the most sobering entities in the History Channel's Mega Disasters series. But this disaster is manmade. It is an economic and political unraveling (in the fictitious scenario here the year is 2012), leading to depression and possibly nuclear war, as demand for oil outstrips the ability of oil companies to provide it, especially after a postulated Al Qaeda attack on a major oil terminal in Saudi Arabia. The problem is made worse by the sudden increase in oil consumption by consumers in developing countries like India and especially China, after decades of doing without under (at least in China) totalitarianism. During the depression society unravels and becomes a "Mad Max Thunderdome" world ruled by motorcycle gangs whose bikes run on ethanol.

This scenario has been explored before with CNN's "We Were Warned" which postulates this scenario starting in 2009. The Red Envelope film "A Crude Awakening" also explores this, but more from just the mathematics of oil production peaking.

Again, this problem is related to but somewhat separate from global warming. If enough oil were generated (through other sources like oil shale or tar sands) the emission of greenhouse gases would continue. It's also true that other sources of oil like Venezuela and Nigeria have political stability problems.

There is some attention to hybrid cars and a discussion of the problems with hydrogen fuel cell cars.

The show mentiosn the book by Matthew Simmons, "Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy".

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

History Channel: Inner Planets, more indirect warnings about megadisasters

The History Channel series The Universe, while surveying the solar system and other astronomy matters, at least provided another warning about possible megadisasters with the Nov 6 broadcast of "Mercury and Venus: The Inner Planets."

The first half hour was about Venus, and covered the well known runaway greenhouse effect that has risen temperatures on Venus to almost 900 o F. There are clouds of sulfuric acid and lighting that does not reach the ground. The insinuation is that a runaway carbon dioxide (and methane) greenhouse effect could happen on Earth.

The second half hour dealt with Mercury, and the most ominous portion concerned asteroid crater, and especially the Coronas Crater, that created a small mountain in the middle. A similar asteroid (10 miles), if it hit the earth in Arizona, would case the submersion of one fourth of the United States, and the rising of a mountain off Madagascar.

On Nov. 20, the program was "Saturn: Lord of the Rings" and the coverage of Titan, with an unlimited supply of hydrocarbons (if they could be brought back) was striking visually. The dynamic surface is like a pudding, and the sky has a twilight smog, and the lakes and rivers consist of liquid hydrocarbons.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Science of the Ten Plagues (Short with "The Reaping") -- another mega-disaster report?

Warner Brothers has included a ten minute short “The Science of the Ten Plagues” as a History Channel-style documentary accompany the horror feature “The Reaping” (Village Roadshow / Dark Castle, written by Carey and Chad Hayes), in which a scientist (Hilary Swank) investigates events in a small bayou town (“Haven”) that imitate the ten plagues in Exodus.

The documentary gives an analysis of the Santorini Volcano in the Mediterranean, which may have set off a chain of events in Egypt amounting to a History Channel mega-disaster, resulting in the freeing of the Jews under the leadership of Moses in Exodus. Even the parting of the Red Sea could be earthquake related. The most controversial plague could be the slaying of the first born, which could have occurred because they slept lower to the ground and got chlorine gas from the volcano. The documentary shows chlorine burns from a volcano in Iceland in the 1970s, and is more horrifying that the horror movie feature itself.

The feature film actually starts with a methane-style gas disaster intoxicating and then killing victims in Concepcion, Chile, from some ocean-oriented earthquake-generated emission.

The filming apparently spanned the occurrence of Hurricane Katrina in the region (much of the movie obviously was filmed in wetlands and bayous), and this may have delayed WB's distribution somewhat. It also provides a certain irony.

So, anyway, one can read The Bible, not just from the idea of spiritual inerrancy, but as a warning of natural disasters that can occur again in the future.

So in 1954 did Cecil B. DeMille make a mega-disaster VistaVision movie with “The Ten Commandments” (Paramount)? It seems so. There is a 2006 remake for ABC by Ronald Dornhelm.

The History Channel, on Nov. 6 2007, aired a "Mega Disaster" show called "Super Swarm" about locust or grasshoppers swarms, such as the gigantic Rocky Mountain locust that move north in the nineteenth century as a biological storm a mile thick. The desert locust in North Africa is similar and could cover 20% of the earth's land mass, and the Central American locust (with nymphs) could move north to the US with global warming.

Of course, Universal's "Evan Almighty" (2007, dir. Tom Shadyac) is a "warning" about about a sudden Biblical flood after drought, and is a pretty good satire on taking Biblical commands literally. Although, the actual mega-disaster turns out to be man-made here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

New York Earthquake: Mega-Disasters, History Channel

The last time a significant earthquake hit the New York City area was 120 years ago. In American history, there have been destructive earthquakes near Boston and near Charleston, SC.

The program ("New York Earthquake") examines the geology of the region, and the behavior of Atlantic quakes. Liquefaction is a serious threat, as much of extreme lower Manhattan is built on landfill. (I lived in Greenwich Village in the 1970s at a little less than 100 feet above sea level). The City has 1000000 buildings, and 1500 of them could collapse in a magnitude 6 quake. There could be catastrophic damage to the subway system and water mains. Buildings in extreme lower Manhattan might topple slowly as did those in Kolbe, Japan. The damage would greatly exceed that of 9/11. The inflexible construction of many brownstone buildings in non-earthquake-conscious NYC is also a major peril.

The wildfires in Southern California are turning into a Mega-Disaster on the date this show aired (Oct. 23, 2007).

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Alien infection from comet dust (History Channel, Mega Disasters)

Mega Disasters: Alien Infection.

The History Channel tonight (Oct. 16, 2007) posited another version of the bird flu scare. The basic theory is that a disease like this could be seeded by comet dust, probably accumulate East of the Himalayas, settle when there are sunspots, get picked up by birds and then transfer to man. Scientist Chandra Wiksamasinghe discussed the theory of panspermia, the seeding of life from the cosmos by comets. The possibility of life on Mars is presented (with recent discoveries about aquarian channels on the Angry Red Planet -- they didn’t mention the 1996 meteorite from Mars landed in Antarctica) and the danger of bringing material back is also discussed. Life on Mars or in comet dust samples can be tested for with PCR.

The 1918 Spanish flu is discussed, with the emphasis on how it struck down the young and healthy, with lungs filling with fluid and feet and legs becoming cyanotic. The immune system went into overdrive. It seems to have been a bizarre virus. The connection with today’s avian influenza in southeast Asia was not well presented. One very interesting historical fact is that the epidemic appeared almost simultaneously in Boston and Bombay, decades before air travel was common, an observation that could support extraterrestrial origin.

The last few minutes of the film presented the hypothetical course of an explosive epidemic of H5N1 bird flu or something similar. (Get real? Does Chandra really believe H5N1 itself came from comet dust? He says that SARS could have.) . There is some sloppy discussion that suggests that both bacteria and viruses together could travel on comet dust and be spread explosively in an epidemic. H5N1 is a virus, not a bacterium.

The concept reminds me of the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain (mentioned) based on Michael Crichton’s book, directed by Robert Wise. In that movie the five scientists go through “body analysis” and then the photoflash chamber, with almost complete body depilation (on camera once) before admission to the Project Wildfire lab. Will hospital infection control ever reach these measures? No man would become a surgeon.

The History Channel film on an avian influenza epidemic was discussed Sept 15 here:

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mega-Disasters: Methane Explosion (History Channel)

On Tuesday October 9, 2007 The History Channel presented “Mega-Disasters: Methane Explosion.” (or "Methane Eruption"). The one-hour show documented a theory by Northwestern University professor Gergory Ryskin to the effect that at a few times in geologic history (particularly 250 million years ago with the Permian Mass Extinction) methane (C-H4) may have bubbled out of the oceans from some stagnant areas and then been ignited by lightning, producing a global firestorm. In fact, the bubbling could cause huge tsunamis comparable to those from the largest volcanic landslides.

Other scientists question the theory. It takes a huge amount of methane at once to produce an explosive mixture, which can happen only over a large area of stagnant ocean, probably filled with frozen methane hydrates at the bottom. Methane hydrates are a form of ice with embedded methane molecules surrounded by water in odd ring structures. It forms only at very great pressure and low temperature at great depths. Methane hydrate crystals will burn despite the water content (and so would vapor with a high enough concentration of methane); it seems to be a real covalent compound and not just a colloid. That could make an interesting high school chemistry laboratory experiment (under supervision of course).

There was a geyser of carbon dioxide at Lake Nyos in Cameroon, released by volcanism, with the carbon dioxide sliding down and killing villagers and animals.

Release of methane from hydrates could cause extreme global warming. This may have happened 55 million years ago with the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum.

The History Channel also had a show on Jupiter, whose weather is an extreme blowup of earth’s, as well as a detailed discussion of Europa and the possibility of life under its global icecap

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hawaii Apocalypse: Mega-Disasters, History Channel

Today, Tuesday October 2, 2007. The History Channel presented a 45 minute film in its Mega-Disaster series, "Hawaii Apocalypse", focused on how much of the Big Island could be destroyed by an eruption of the shield volcano Mauna Loa. There are several other volcanoes on the island, including the smaller Kilauea, and more than one can erupt at once.

A really large landslide from Mauna Loa could create a tsunami, which could devastate Honolulu in half and hour, and conceivably could reach the US West Coast with 300 foot waves, although quakes capable of generating these are supposed to happen only every 100000 years. (A similar threat may exist with volcanoes in the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, which could conceivably cause landslides and subsequent large tsunamis that reach the US East Coast -- see July 25, 2006 on this blog.) Mauna Loa and Kilauea erupted simultaneously in 1984. A really large eruption of Mauna Loa may happen every 200 years.

The program ends with a simulation of the damage that could occur to the Big Island from a large eruption.

I visited Hawaii in 1980. Car rental agreements normally don't allow driving up Mauna Loa, but I did drive up Haleakala on Maui, at 10000 feet. A friend went on a birding trip on the slopes of Mauna Loa in 1990.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

History Channel: Glacier Meltdown (Mega-Disasters series)

Mega Disasters: Glacier Meltdown. The History Channel, on Tuesday September 25, 2007, broadcast this program that starts by documenting the loss of glacial ice in Greenland, the Andes, the Alps, the Himalaya, even Kilimanjaro at 19000 feet on the Equator. The loss of ice means the loss of reflection, and a “feedback” effect that accelerates warming. The same effect explains the prolonging of cold weather in the late winter or early spring. But with the loss of snowpack, springs will come even earlier with rising sun angle.

The film documents the catastrophic effect of the rise of sea level, but other global warming films have done this. But the film maintains that major cities along the East Coast are at far more risk that people have supposed. A Category 2 hurricane, positioned to hit in the hook underneath New York, could floor lower Manhattan and the financial district.

The program places particular emphasis on the vulnerability of some of Washington DC. The Mall is only six feet above sea level. Sea level could rise three feet by 2050. Imagine a Category 5 hurricane forming off the North Carolina Coast, moving into the Chesapeake Bay, causing a fifteen foot storm surge overrunning Annapolis (the Naval Academy), and then funneling fifteen feet of water up the Potomac overrunning lower parts of Washington DC. The flood water would almost reach the White House. It would flood Reagan National Airport. True, parts of Washington and nearby Arlington are almost 500 feet, and they would be OK.

The TV guide claimed that the program would document a new dust bowl that can occur with global warming (dwarfing that of John Steinbeck’s 1930s) but apparently that will be another program.

The island nation of Tuvala, less than 6 feet above sea level, between Hawaii and Australia, was presented. The nation may sink, and the country is considering suing the US.

Picture: The National Park Service documents the flood in Harpers Ferry in 1996, from torrential rains. Towns above the Potomac Fall Line would not be at risk from a hurricane flood, but Appalachian towns are at risk from torrential rains that follow hurricanes and flood streams. Further west, strip mining increases the flood runoff risk to towns below.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

History Channel: Mega Disasters: Gamma Ray Burst

The History Channel aired this one hour film ("Mega Disasters: Gamma Ray Bursts") on Sept. 18, 2007. Gamma ray bursts appear to come from supernovas or hypernovas (mostly in young galaxies) (long type) or when neutron stars collide (short type), as may happen sometimes in our own Milky Way. Because GMB's are flares in specific directions (as from a lighthouse) most of them are unnoticed. It appears that earth may have had a mass extinction 450 million years ago from a GMB.

GMB's close enough to damage early (< 10000 light years) probably occur only every few hundred million years, but there is no way to predict when another one could occur. If it did, there would be a bright blinding flash, and the gamma rays would cause the various nitrogen oxides to form in the stratosphere, wiping away half of the ozone layer, causing a brown smog and acid rain and a "nuclear winter" leading to mass starvation of 90% of the world's population. There would be an EMP effect destroying electronics, and the nighttime sky would be green with auroras.

Fortunately, this catastrophic event seems to be extremely rare, compared to other disasters. It sounds like it could make a Screen Gems movie.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

History Channel: Mega Disasters on comets, asteroids

This particular blog, smaller than many others, is set up to remind visitors of some of the life-changing external threats out there, those bolts from the blue, especially when these apocalyptic potentialities are documented in films (usually documentaries) and television shows (often on cable). On the blog, I try to present the appearance of new films as “news items” that may alert the public to some particular possible disaster. The discussion is more about the newsworthiness of the content than a review of the object merit of the show as a “film”.

The History Channel seems to be adding to its “Mega-Disaster” series (they go alone pretty well with Weather Channel’s “It Could Happen Tomorrow”). During the first week of September, 2007, The History Channel presented “Asteroid Apocalypse” and “Comet Catastrophe,” each one-hour shows. These supplement shows already reviewed about earthquakes.

A comet is a soft ball of ice, sometimes a few miles across, that usually revolves in a highly eccentric orbit around the sun, sometimes reaching as far from the Sun as the Oort cloud. An asteroid is a planetoid, a piece of rock that somehow didn’t get consolidated into a planet. Most asteroids circulate between Mars and Jupiter (Ceres is the largest, over 400 miles across) but a small percentage may cross the Earth’s orbit. The orbits of Asteroids are usually less eccentric than those of comets.

The last major asteroid strike may have occurred 65 million years ago near the Yucatan, resulting in the extinction of the dinosaurs, the appearance of modern birds and mammals, which had a competitive advantage in a world so suddenly changed. The last major comet impact might have occurred around 2807 BC a few hundred miles east of Africa in the Indian Ocean and caused the great Flood in Genesis. Historical migrations and “Babel” language development may support that hypothesis. Comet impacts may be more common than asteroid impacts, and the presence of Jupiter in our Solar System as a “vacuum cleaner” (Jupiter took a major hit in 1994) may well protect us and account for the fact that we can be here. The Tunguska explosion in Siberia in June 1908 was probably a "moderate sized" comet.

Both kinds of catastrophes would have similar consequences. Both can result in a huge fireball, earthquakes, and tsunamis hundreds of feet high, followed by a “nuclear winter” and possibly the end of technological civilization as we know it. An asteroid the size of a football field (100 yards) could wipe out a city. Either a comet or asteroid of several kilometers in diameter could punch through the atmosphere and result in an extinction event. The films “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon” in 1998 explored these possibilities.

The asteroid film presented Space Guard, with seven tracking telescopes (in the US, Hawaii, and Australia) to detect NEO ‘s (Near Earth Objects). An asteroid that has a narrow miss might return on the next orbit if it passes through a "keyhole". It seems as though there may a better chance of preventing an asteroid hit than a comet hit, and that unavoidable comet hits might be more likely, "eventually" as topologists say.

(See also July 25, 2006 on this blog.)

Update: Sept. 15, 2007

A review of an important 2005 History Channel film on bird flu (The Next Epidemic: Avian Influenza) was posted Sept. 15 on the TV blog, here.

Update: On Oct. 7, 2007
The History Channel presented "Siberian Apocalypse" about the 1908 Tunguska explosion over Siberia, 600 miles north of Lake Baikal. The most likely theory is a stony asteroid or carbonaceous chondrite. But other theories, including plasma ball lightning, were discussed. A similar fictitious explosion of New York City was simulated. There is a review of a short film "Russian Roswell" here on my TV blog.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Right at your Door (aka 24): almost a docudrama

Lions Gate recently helped produce the doomsday thriller “Right at your Door,” directed by Chris Gorak, about 90 min, R, to give a quasi real-time experience of what might happen at home to a man alone in a house if bioterror devices went off a few miles away. This is a real "Home Front" "war movie." The location is downtown Los Angeles, the home seems to be an ordinary bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, the man is a 35-ish unemployed musician supported by his wife, who happens to be at work. The scenes with the smoke over LA are quite effective, and more extensively done than in a similar scene in a similar plot line in the hit Fox series “24” last year.

The ultimate point of the film seems to be to show how government could mistreat its civilians in such a horrible situation. The man seals up his house with duct tape, after the police shoo everyone home (and shoot a few people) while imposing martial law. A neightbor comes, and this his wife crawls back home, and he must deal with the possibility of “contamination” he lets loved ones in. But, the G-men say, he could be the most contaminated of all. The climax is really quite horrifying, and there is plenty of red tape, literally. Nobody will stop to ask the Trump "Apprentice LA" question: what happens to Southern California real estate values?

The film is shot regular aspect ration in sepia color that in many scenes looks almost like black and white, especially toward the end as dust flies through the outside air like a blizzard. The look is a bit grainy.

Lionsgate used another company, Roadside Attractions, for theatrical distribution. I don’t know why, as Lions Gate Films normally is associated with distributing controversial films, like Michael Moore’s. RoadSide Attractions has its own blog here.

The best film of this nature may well be “Testament” (1983, Paramount, dir. Lynne Littman) when a woman is home when her kids in northern California when a nuclear blast goes off in San Francisco. That film was all drama, with no special effects (just television news feeds) as the radiation descends. But then there is always Stanley Kramer's film On the Beach (1959, United Artists), based on Nevil Shute's apocalyptic novel.

The film bears comparison to "The Trigger Effect" (1996, Universal / Gramercy / Amblin, dir. David Koepp) in which a prolonged power failure and lack of information leads to the breakdown of civilized order, as Biblical neighorliness fails also. It's interesting to compare the course of this film (given its date well before 9/11) with the reality of the northeast power blackout in 2003, which did not go nearly so badly.

Monday, August 20, 2007

It could happen tomorrow: Miami (Weather Channel)

Recently, the Weather Channel has broadcast some of the "It Could Happen Tomorrow" series, half-hour programs on various catastrophes. This one demonstrates what would happen if a Category 5 hurricane made a direct hit on Miami Beach, downtown Miami, and Coconut Grove. It could render more than one million people, many immigrants and low income, homeless for months and challenge ordinary Americans to house them on a scale that even dwarfs Katrina. Miami does extensive drills, and has a "storm activation level time" of SALT system. The show had practical tips for reinforcing homes, and ownership in that area requires a commitment not necessarily expected in inland or less exposed cities.

In 1992 Hurricane Andrew passed to the south of Miami but did tremendous devastation. Hurricanes in August often follow straighter paths than those later in the season, but Katrina was an anomaly, forming suddenly off the Florida coast and intensifying explosively in the unusually warm Gulf of Mexico. That risk is greatest in August.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Sunshine: could the Sun go dark?

I don’t know how plausible is the scenario that some kind of unusual matter could “infect” the Sun and turn off its nuclear furnace, but that’s the premise underneath Danny Boyle’s latest DNA film / UK Film Council psychological sci-fi “thriller” Sunshine. (I have read of some wild speculations of how physics experiments could go so wrong.) On the closed world of the spaceships, we see the crews deal with the morality of "playing God" -- drawing straws on their own lives and on civilization back home.

Of course, we don’t see how people got by on earth during the seven bad years of reduced sunlight. We see more of that in a 1998 TV film from ABC called Ice, directed by Jean de Segonzac (from Trimark, which used to be another indie film company). It starts with a sudden cold snap in May, where it freezes in LA and snows in Washington and St. Louis, and where meteorologists sound nonchalant. But soon the Hollywood sign itself is covered with snow, and bedlam breaks out. The explanation has something to do with infection by sunspots. This film was much less convincing, however, than “The Day After Tomorrow” (where the freeze happens because of the loss of the underwater Gulf Stream, with a resulting superstorm).

Conventional astronomy, or course, says that the Sun will swell up to a red giant in a few billion years, and then shrink to a white dwarf. We have to get off the planet by then.

Don’t mix the Sunshine film up with an earlier film of the same name from 1999 directed by Istvan Sazbo, about an Austrian family that undergoes true catastrophe under Hitler and then Communism.

By the way, the new Sunshine comes from Fox Searchlight Pictures, and the company trademark eases into the film by zeroing in on the Sun on the horizon in the trademark.

Update: Sept. 15, 2007

PBS film on "Dimming the Sun" (and global warming) reviewed here on the TV blog.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Al Qaeda No 2 release video on "end of the West"; some disturbia in the links

On July 4 CNN “World” released a story about a new 94 minute video from Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian “doctor” (famous for the 1981 "We are Muslims!" jailhouse chant and rant) who is second in command under Osama bin Laden and in hiding somewhere. The video is called “The Advice of One Concerned” and supposedly predicts the end of the West and the eventual forced conversion of everyone to Islam, an idea that the Pope used to called Islam “irrational.” The story is called “Al Qaeda No. 2 says end of the West is imminent, video shows.” The link is here.

Although I review beaucoup movies and "videos", I would hardly want to watch this. Remember the horrible and menacing broadcast from Osama bin Laden on Oct. 7, 2001, the Sunday that Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan – or the self-indulgent video that he released on Dec. 13, 2001 – the day of my layoff – where he gloats about the falling of the Twin Towers. Of course, the video can provide clues as to the whereabouts and situation of bin Laden and Zawahiri.

For a while, the CNN page featured an advertising link to a Christian “end of times” sponsored page “Secrets of Survival”, link here. That page gave subsequent links to news stories that take the threat of nuclear terror quite seriously. There is a blog called "The Swamp" in the Chicago Tribune (link here) Cheney: Nuclear terrorist attack inside the U.S. "a very real threat'' by Mark Silva, who asks what has changed Dick Cheney during the two terms and quotes:
'' And the stakes of terrorist threats that the United States faces today have only increased since then,” calling fear of the detonation of a nuclear weapon inside an American city "a very real threat.... It's something that we have to worry about and defeat every single day. ''.

The New York Times had a Strangelove-like op-ed by By William J. Perry, Ashton B. Carter and Michael M. May, June 12, 2007, “After the Bomb,” arguing that it is time to discuss how to prepare for this. The article poses some horrible scenarios, like going back into radiation stricken areas to find loved ones. Even a “dirty bomb” could make large areas of real estate uninhabitable and economically worthless for decades.

Finally The Los Angeles Times reprinted a Washington Post story (without writer’s attribution) on May 10, 2007, “President Bush orders contingency plans for attack on U.S.” LA link is here.

A world in which something like this really happens on domestic soil has little use for a "spoiled" introverted pseudo-geek like me. But, of course, this grizzly possibility (as do threats like pandemics and cataclysms associated with global warming) has led some to argue for the end of individualism and a new willingness to accept personal "interdependence." Whatever the carbon efficiency of high density living, it does expose city dwellers to certain horrific risks. (Hence the 1970s preoccupation in some religious circles with "small town real estate").

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Saturday, June 02, 2007

CNN: We Were Warned: Out of Gas

On June 2, 2007 CNN rebroadcast its March 2006 (Special Investigations Unit) one hour film, "We Were Warned: Out of Gas". The film supposes that a crisis starts in September 2009 when a category 5 hurricane, Steve, makes a direct hit on Galveston and Houston, TX and all of the surrounding refineries and ports. A deserted city is shown, with the evacuation along I-10 and I-45. Two days later, Al Qaeda attacks a major oil loading facility in Saudi Arabia by crashing a plane from Iran. It all sounds like it comes from a Tom Clancy novel. But that's what we need, isn't it -- imagination. The stock market drops 20%. Many retail businesses close and lay off workers as truckers cannot find fuel to make deliveries.

Oddly, the movie doesn't mention gasoline rationing. During the 1973-74 crisis, we printed ration cards, and many communities adopted even-odd license plate schemes with gasoline station closure on Sundays and a 50 mph national speed limit. President Nixon prosaically suggested that people "stay home more." There were suggestions of forbidding driving on even-odd schemes, or commuting without carpools, impractical in salaried jobs where people were on-call in the days before telecommuting. We did have gasoline rationing during World War II, to save rubber. I once suggested at MCC that the church develop a carpooling program after the Iran oil and hostage crisis, but no one would take it seriously (the motion died for lack of second, an embarrassing moment, but maybe not in the future).

Matthew Simmons, author of "Twilight in the Desert," discusses how bad it could get if oil production eventually fails. Constant wars, and total breakdown of law and order are foreseen. "It is so bad you don't want to go there."

The film goes on to examine some of the alternatives, such as oil tar sands in Alberta -- but China will be competing for that oil, and it cannot replace that lost from Saudi Arabia. Later it depicts ethanol from sugar cane plantations in Brazil. Former CIA director James Woolsey is shown with his energy efficient house and hybrid car.

This was broadcast on a day where the breakup of a major plot to attack refueling pipelines at JFK airport in New York City was reported all day on the media, especially CNN.

Other links: A Crude Awakening; The Epic of Black Gold

Friday, May 04, 2007

Anderson Cooper 360 updates Edge of Disaster

On Sunday April 29 2007 Anderson Cooper CNN "Special Investigations Unit" presented an updated "Edge of Disaster" that included discussion of radioactivity dispersion in Washington DC -- an event that would cause few fatalities but enormous economic uncertainty and disruption (other reports claim that this could make some areas uninhabitable), smallpox (which could kill 30% of unvaccinated people exposed in a large city -- and vaccinations stopped in 1972), of (as before) the power grid failure in the Northeast in August 2003 (caused by a tree falling on a power line in Ohio, and a software failure in the "reverse Lake Erie loop"), and (as before) especially of the land protected from inland waterways (much of it for irrigation)in the California Central Valley, where levees could be sundered by earthquakes. The potential for economic damage in the Sacramento, CA area is greater than that if New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina. The LNG risk in Boston was also reviewed again.

Surprisingly, the possibility of pandemic flu (avian influenza), a natural hazard) was not covered. In 2003, the SARS outbreak in China gave us a warning of how a new infectious disease can arise naturally, especially in areas of the world where people live very close to livestock and crops. Another hazard is disruption of the food supply -- the contamination of pet food is not yet solved, and the loss of honeybees, possibly to a new parasite, has not yet been explained and represents a real agricultural threat. In early 2001, foot-and-mouth disease broke out in England and somewhat in Europe, resulting in sterilizing shoes of air travelers and possibly a real threat to livestock if it entered the US, which it did not. In early 2001 there was also a threat of hostilities between China and Taiwan, well before the shocker of 9/11.

An earlier review of an earlier version was here.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Jules Verne had anticipated some catastrophes

Recently I watched Hallmark's three hour "The Mysterious Island (1875)," Jules Verne 's sequel to "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." Neflix had slipped the Hallmark DVD in when the 1962 Columbia film (less than two hours) had been ordered, but no matter. Captain Nemo (Patrick Stewart in the Hallmark film) has harnessed sea water for electricity (a good renewable energy idea in the age of global warming) and threatens to blow up a thorium weapon (equivalent to nuclear weapons 80 years later) to teach the rest of the world a lesson about war (his captives had escaped from The War Between the States in a balloon). At the end of the film, a volcano obliterates all, foreshadowing Krakatoa.

Verne also later authored "Off on a Comet (1877)" in which he anticipates the destruction that could be caused by an encounter with one. But it seems unlikely people could live on a comet, as happens on his book (nor could they live on fragments of earth if it broke apart).

A couple of other books from two decades ago give us fair warning. David Niven and Jerry Pournelle teamed up to write Lucifer's Hammer (1982), where a meteorite strikes the earth and wipes us out; and Allan W. Eckert gave us The HAB Theory (1979) which anticipates a sudden shift of the Earth's magnetic poles, which might happen because of changes in magnetic charge in molten iron in the earth's core. (There was Paramount's movie "The Core" a couple years ago (2003, dir. John Amiel), where the Core stops rotating because of some government black ops project and the Earth loses its magnetic field, which would be a catastrophe. Neither Mars nor Venus have a magnetic field, which could help account for Mars's loss of atmosphere and Venus's runaway greenhouse "global warming" catastrophe a billion or so years ago. Believe it or not, Venus might once have been habitable.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

History Channel rebroadcasts ABC 20/20's Last Days on Earth

On March 18, 2007 The History Channel rebroadcast ABC 20-20's "Last Days on Earth" which had originally been shown by ABC as a special 20-20 on Wednesday Aug. 30, 2006. ABC's website for this show is this. Here is the History Channel's link.

The list, in reverse order or probability, is (7b) Gamma ray burst from a supernova in our galaxy, which would appear suddenly as a "second sun" and wipe out all forms of multi-cellular life in about 30 days with radiation poisoning and come without warning, leaving the Earth's physical infrastructure intact for what had been (a large enough supernova within our galaxy, say a few thousand light years, could cause this if the light reached us, but that has never happened, and supernovas have occurred without harm; (7a) rogue black hole, that would give us about 100 years notice as it neared the solar system, (6) artificial intelligence (or maybe stem cell cloned intelligence!) sabotages us, like HAL ("IBM") in Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey (or maybe like ABC Family's Kyle XY) (5) Supervolcano eruption, such as the caldera under Yellowstone, which could leave the earth in permanent winter for decades, (4) Asteroid or comet (we could have near misses in 2029 and 2036) (3) Nuclear war (2) Super-pandemic, such as by H5N1 (which could conceivably have a much higher mortality rate than the 1918 flu, or by a bio-terror engineered virus, such as an "Ebola Reston" -- a version of Ebola (in Robert Preson's "The Hot Zone") that is casually contagious (author Laurie Garrett provided a lot of commentary), or (1) Global Warming, which could cause a 40 foot rise in sea levels well before 2100, resulting in mass refugee populations and enormous political stresses, as well as wiping out many coastal cities. As in "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore discusses global warming in detail. Stephen Hawking evaluates the probabilities of many of the scenarios.

For "Siberian Apocalypse" -- which could happen in a populated area -- see this link.

The weakening of family structures and communities, and increase in personal autonomy, could reduce the chances that people could deal with real calamities. Here is a related blogger discussion of Osterholm's concerns about H5N1.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Thought experiment -- screenwriting The Purification

Imagine, if you will, writing a screenplay about a fictitious "real" armageddon. The worst case scenarios are described ABC 20/20's broadcast "Last Days on Earth" on Aug. 30, 2006, or in Martin Rees 's books Our Final Century, or Our Final Hour.

With a gamma ray burst, people would sicken and perish within 30 days of what seems like radiation poisoning (though maybe on only one side of the planet, facing the burst, if it was short and intense enough.) With an approaching black hole, we might have about a year's notice, but a few days before the collision everything would be torn asunder by tidal forces. However, none of these have happened in 4 billion years. My writeup is on this file, near the end of the text.

But one can learn a lesson from the fact that Venus was "ruined" by a runaway greenhouse effect with Carbon dioxide, maybe a billion years ago. The heating appears to have been rather sudden. The surface is now 800 degrees F. Maybe there really was a civilization there that ran amok. The Venus of today (where the surface turns inside out every few hundred million years) is the result of purification.

My own screenplay "Baltimore Is Missing," which I entered into Project Greenlight in 2004, supposes that the earth is going to collide with a previously undetected brown dwarf. It is here.

The films "Armageddon" (asteroid strike) and "Deep Impact" (comet strike) in 1998 really didn't convey that much what it would be like (well, maybe "Deep Impact" did as it went for drama and showed the selection of people for the permanent shelters). Nor did "The Day After Tomorrow" (about a sudden ice age) in 2004. A small film named "Testament" in 1983, about a women and her children awaiting the end in a small town in northern California after nuclear weapons hit San Francisco, comes closer to the mark.