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.