Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Noah's Great Flood -- History Channel "Mega Disasters" presents theory about Black Sea

On May 27, 2008 the History Channel aired “Noah’s Great Flood” in its Mega-Disasters series. The show hypothesizes that the Black Sea, between Russia, Ukraine, Romania on one side and Turkey on the other, was once a fresh water lake, apparently about 300 feet below sea level, and that the earliest urban civilizations began to develop along the lake, particularly on the southern (Turkish) side. (Note, the endorheic Caspian Sea to the east is actually 92 feet below sea level). Then, one day about 8000 years ago, the Mediterranean Sea overflowed through the Strait of Bosporus, filling up the lake and creating today’s Black Sea, which is saline but which has unusual composition and different depths.

It’s not hard to see why this could have generated the story of the Great Flood in Genesis. Most of the civilizations described in the Bible could have grown out of descendants from these early settlements, along with other invaders or peoples (especially in Egypt). If this story is true, it is the greatest cataclysm in history.

The Flood could have been caused by a rise in sea level of the Mediterranean. That would provide a lesson for today, in conjunction with the melting of ice caps and global warming. Imagine New York City or Florida after a rise in sea level, especially with the storm surge of a hurricane. The film offered images from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as examples of how a flood affects a large area permanently, especially when some of the affected area was below sea level.

The show documented some archeological dives off the Turkish coast, and the digs may have found stone remnants of a very old civilization, although the utensils and pottery recovered are much newer.

It’s also possible that such a Flood happened much more gradually over a few years, but it still would have been cataclysmic for an early urban civilization that could not have grasped the geographical cause of its danger.

The film points out that a flood like this (unlike a tsunami) leaves geographical change that is permanent, because the flood water does not recede from any area below sea level (or from any area that is trapped).

Monday, May 26, 2008

A&E airs remake of "The Andromeda Strain"

Michael Crichton’s notorious novel “The Andromeda Strain” was made into a thriller by Universal Pictures with Robert Wise as the director in 1971, and on May 26 and 27, A&E Cable is airing a remake (also from Universal), updated to the modern concerns about bioterror and North Korea. The miniseries is directed by Mikael Salomon.

The setup is well known. A domestic space satellite crashes in the west, a civilian couple picks it up, and takes it to a small town, where everybody dies, except a baby and an old wino. As in “28 Days Later” the people sometimes become maniacal first. But here the virus may have come from outer space. Vultures hover over the town in early foreshadowing, and then they die, too.

A crypto secret Delta force of volunteer scientists is dispatched to a top secret underground laboratory called Project Wildfire. In both films the scientists undergo interesting decontamination; in the 1971 film there is a photoflash chamber that burns and depilates the entire body (perhaps predicting infection control procedures for surgeons some day); later there is “body analysis.” [I note with some amusement that one of the sponsors was Gillette, with a cute commercial of a guy using the "Body Wash"; the commercial was replayed numerous times.] There are debates as to whether to nuke the small town, and the Project Wildfire has a self-destruct capability. The project team intentionally is staffed with at least one unmarried man, on the theory that an unmarried man is more likely to obey an order to self-destruct “for the good of society”.

Jack Nash plays Eric McCormack, a somewhat rogue reporter, suspended for alcohol problems, who gets his job back by convincing the boss that he knows about “Project Scoop.” Pretty soon the chief scientist Jeremy Stone (Benjamin Bratt) is communicating with him to find out what they’re in for. The find out that the bug has no DNA and may consist of wormholes inside buckeyballs (fullerenes), an idea explored in James Rollins ‘s novel “Sandstorm.” They learn that nuking Andromeda would only make it spread.

In fact, the actual chemistry of fullerenes is much more down to earth than science fiction makes of it, but the idea that an unusual molecule or even an unusual isotope of an atom could encapsulate a wormhole or some transformative potential certainly can generate storylines and plots.

For example, in one of my manuscripts, I postulate than certain viruses could carry unusual radioactive atoms that generate micro black holes that are used to exchange absorb identities of people. One can learn what it is like to "become" someone else, someone who is a cultural patriarch, who suddenly learns to live with "your" karma. In Crichton, Andromeda carries information in the arrangement of potassium and rubidium atoms. The scientists finally wonder if it comes from the future (like "The 4400") and creates a paradox by trying to destroy the past, or if the virus is an engine for instantaneous communication across the universe with wormholes. Ironically, the "antidote" seems to be an unusual extremophile bacterium near a heat vent in the deep ocean, which environmental activists are demonstrating to protect (from "undersea stripmining").

The construction of a subplot involving the rogue reporter (Nash) doing his own "investigations" and essentially getting kidnapped by the government (with all its Patriot Act powers) and then escaping in the disaster, is interesting. One is reminded of the reporter in Sydney Pollock's "Absence of Malice" perhaps. In one of my scripts, I have a young male reporter, engaged but ambiguous in his sexuality, who goes on a supernatural quest to find out who he is, encounters like-minded people, and is drawn into a bizarre initiation that would finally identify "the UFOs" and lead to a worldwide cataclysm.

The script mentions other rogue experiments that bring the story up to date, such as one with smallpox. It also points to the politics of stopping nuclear proliferation, a transparent commentary on the difficulty of containing the downstream risk of nuclear terrorism as often written about by Graham Allison. The fact that vultures and other predatory birds carry the "strain" provides an obvious metaphor or the risk of an avian influenza pandemic.

The writing style of the miniseries resembles the Fox series “24”.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

CNN shows live coverage of Okhahoma tornados form in supercell wall cloud

Saturday afternoon, May 24, from about 3:45 PM EDT (2:45 CDT) until the present, CNN has been providing breaking news coverage of at least two tornadoes as they drop in and out of a wall cloud in the Enid, OK area and farther east.

The link (including a video) is here. Viewers with cable access who tune in now (4:20 EDT) can watch the event live. The contents of the link are likely to change with time, and more video is likely to be added as the storm progresses.

The broadcast has shown a wall cloud, with NW (mostly upper level) and SE winds (from the Gulf of Mexico, at lower levels) brushing into each other, forming a rotating “singularity” that drops to the ground in rotation. Often the tornado has been pencil think and ribbon-like, and curved. One pig farm was hit, and so was one power transformer, but no other damage to manmade structures has developed as the breaking news broadcast progressed. Most of the photography has been taken from a helicopter two miles away. The broadcast seems to come from a local television station in Oklahoma City.

Sometimes there is a ribbon from the tornado on the ground that cannot be seen at a distance. The ground effect changes color with the contents, and may turn white with a narrow waterspout when hitting a farm pond.

Residents in the Central Plains should stay tuned for local alerts, watch this broadcast if possible, or look at maps.

It’s unusual to see live coverage of tornadoes as they form. There is an IMAX film from National Geographic, “Forces of Nature” that shows tornadoes (I have not seen it yet).

Picture: Quartz mountains in SW Oklahoma, June 2005 (from personal trip), an obscure mountain area.

Friday, May 16, 2008

PBS: Savage Planet: Extratropical Cyclones

PBS has a syndicated series called “Savage Planet” and on May 13 covered the topic “extratropical cyclones” as if they were capable of producing their own kind of mega-disasters.

Actually, people who live along the mid-Atlantic seaboard know these storms as “noreasters.” The largest of these storms often occur in the late winter, just as spring is trying to arrive.

The show covered the notorious March Blizzard of 1993. It started in the Gulf and flooded communities along the Florida Panhandle much like a category 1 hurricane, surprising residents on the might of March 11. As the film shows, it caught some young people camping in the Smoky mountains with five feet of snow at higher elevations. It moved northeast and created heavy snow, for late in the season, from northern Alabama and Atlanta up through Washington DC and New York, pummeling southern Long Island.

I remember the storm in Arlington. It was around 60 degrees and sunny Friday afternoon, and the thunderstorms came very quickly in the evening. They simply continued and changed into snow, with thunder all night long. Saturday, there were 40 mph winds all day with sleet, and then as the storm pulled away Saturday night there were violent thunder snow squalls that dropped close to a foot of snow in two hours, more than has ever fallen in such a short time in the area. I-95 in south Arlington was actually closed. The next day, Sunday, the crew from Paramount was filming a scene on the snow-covered Mall with Tom Cruise in the film of John Grisham’s novel “The Firm.”

They called this the “Storm of the Century.” Stephen King made up such a fictional storm for his TV miniseries, and had it bury a Maine coastal village in late February, about the most likely time.

Everyone remembers the 1996 January blizzard in DC, but a similar storm in early February that year tracked about 70 miles further south and actually dropped even more snow on southern Maryland and some of Tidewater Virginia.

The second half of the show covered the great 1953 winter “cyclone” that hit England and the Netherlands, starting January 31. The area known as Brighton was devastated by floods, and dikes in the Netherlands overflowed. The bet is that global warming may make these storms more common and a bigger threat to Europe. Or, melting ice caps could disrupt the Gulf Stream and actually send England and northern Europe back into a “little ice age.”

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mega Tsunami (History Channel): A cataclysm 8000 years ago; what about Cumbre Vieja today?

The History Channel’s Mega Tsunami, aired May 13, 2008, explores the possibility and likelihood that an eruption of Mount Aetna in Sicily about 8000 years ago started a tsunami that spread through the Mediterranean as far as modern day Israel. At the time, civilization was beginning to build cities and develop agriculture and settle down; social institutions were following suit.

An “Adventuring Hike” on Mount Etna shows a huge cliff facing the sea, from which several cubic miles may have slid into the Mediterranean after a pyroclastic eruption. A similar slide occurred on land on Mt. St. Helens in Washington in 1980. The best evidence that human settlement was destroyed is found under the sea near Haifa, with a buried settlement called Attlit Yam. Fossils of abandoned commodities are found; early civilization could not be a consumerist society like ours with fiat money, and people stored goods.

The show discussed the physics of tsunamis. The Etna tsunami would have been 165 feet high in some areas. The Indonesia tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004 was 90 feet high at its greatest and was “smaller”.

Tsunamis care caused by earthquakes and by landslides from earthquakes or volcanoes. Those caused by landslides carry along a lot of seabed sediment.

There is some threat that cataclysmic tsunamis could happen again. For example a slide off of Mauna Loa on Hawaii could reach Oahu and Honolulu. More serious is the threat posed by the Cumbre Vieja in the Canary Islands off north Africa. That could generate a 300 foot tsunami at Morocco and a 150 wall of water reach the East Coast of the US and Canada from Newfoundland to Florida in about 8 hours, wiping out a hundred million people. Could they be evacuated? Would the Fall Line and Piedmont be high enough? (I remember a question about the Fall Line on my 11th Grade history final!)

The Cumbre Vieja erupted in 1949, leaving a crack in the mountain that could give way some day. Wiki reference.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Hypercanes: History Channel Mega-Disasters

Well, as if hurricane were not enough, now we can talk about hypercane. This is a postulated super-storm, intermediate in size between a tornado and hurricane, and eyewall speeds of up to 700 mph, extending 20 miles, into the stratosphere, and eventually capable of “eating” the ozone layer.

The film “The Day After Tomorrow” had postulated an arctic superstorm coming down from the poles because of disruption of the Gulf Stream by glacier melt, but the hypercane might result as a result of an asteroid strike. A hypothesis of this film is that the asteroid hit near Yucatan 65 million years ago triggered a series of hypercanes that destroyed the ozone layer, letting in ultraviolet light that destroyed all life above ground, including the dinosaurs. Small animals that could hide underground survived, and this gave mammals a chance. Without the asteroid hit, we wouldn’t even be here.

All of this was outlined tonight in the History Channel Mega-Disasters film “Hypercane.” The physics of the storms was discussed. It takes a water surface temperature of 120 degrees F to generate one. The mathematics of the storms involved complex variables and the kinds of equations in math class that have no solution in real space – singularities, where physics changes. The destructive force of a low-pressure storm varies as the cube of the wind speed.

There is some concern that water near volcanic activity could get hot enough to generate hypercanic activity, and there was mention of particular concern about the Red Sea (which parted for Moses).

You wonder it the storms on the gas giants are like hypercanes, but they are much larger.