Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sci-Fi: "Earthstorm" imagines consequences of an asteroid hit on the Moon

The Sci-Fi channel shows a number of custom-made low-budget movies that seem to be genre clones of the “Armageddon” variety, but the scenarios are so fanciful as to be out of range for speculative “mega-disasters.”

Earthstorm”, shown tonight, is a good example of a Tinseltown disaster movie rip off. A major asteroid slams into the Moon, send up debris that comes to Earth. That probably would happen. The orbit of the Moon is perturbed, causing aberrations in tides and a succession of Category 5 hurricanes (or perhaps hypercanes). Maybe that would happen. But soon the scientists find out that the pellets hitting the Earth (they do major damage to Baltimore and then level Mexico City) are far too dense even for normal asteroid or lunar surface fragments. The Moon has been cracked, and material is regurgitating all the way from the small heavy metal core. I don’t that this would happen. The concept reminds me of the way my hip broke when I fell in a convenience store ten years ago: a crack in the acetabulum (hip socket).

The models of the moon on television are interesting, and the crack makes for good landscapes. Imagine a canyon hundreds of miles deep. The rest of the story involves sending an implosion and demolitions expert in the space shuttle to implant the right explosives to implode the crack and seal the Moon.

We hear a lot about the ability of the Air Force or NASA to send missions to detonate asteroids and comets approach Earth, but nothing about what to do if a large asteroid approaches the Moon. The largest asteroid in the Solar System is over 400 miles in diameter.

The film (2006) is directed by Terry Cunningham and written by Michael Conyves.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

History Channel: "Glow Train" (Las Vegas); "American Volcano" (Rainier) mega-disasters

On Tuesday June 24, the History Channel “Mega Disasters” series premiered two new one-hour films.

The first was “Glow Train Catastrophe” which does sound like something from the sci-fi channel. (I thought about the train on Mars in John Carpeter’s “Ghosts of Mars”). The program hypothesizes that a freight train carrying nuclear waste, in hardened canisters, has a collision with another train on a wrong track near the Las Vegas strip. A cloud of black waste powder spreads over the city and contaminates it, requiring full permanent evacuation and a cost of billions. Of course, one wonders why the train tracks for such material should not run far from any city.

I was in Vegas in 1997 and 2000, and traveled to the Scott’s Castle area in California, not too far away from Yucca, in 1997.

The film recapitulates a derailment of a train with propane cars in Weyauweagan WI in March 1996. One car had to be blown up deliberately, and three square miles were destroyed. The film then covers the derailment with a chlorine leak in Graniteville, SC in January 2005. It also covers the in-tunnel derailment in the Baltimore Harbor. The film shows freight trains passing near the Capitol in Washington DC.

American Volcano” presents the danger of a Mt. Rainier eruption 60 miles from Seattle. The most destructive part of the event could be a mud flow (or lahar) which would reach Tacoma, exacerbate by the volume of ice and glacier (which may be decreasing because of global warming). If the wind were blowing from the east, ash and dust could cover Seattle.

The show then gives the details of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in May, 1980. The eruption occurred after three months of warnings, and occurred in several stages and blasts (starting with a landslide popping the cork on the mountain), including a mud flow and destruction of 150 square miles, “ash snow” in Yakima, WA 75 miles away, and some ash fall all the way to Minnesota. It was St. Helens that made scientists aware of the threat of lahars. The show next details a small 1985 Andean eruption in Colombia that killed 23000 people with the mud flow, which has the consistency of poured concrete, filled with debris, and is scalding hot.

The minerals on Mt. Rainier include a lot of weak rock that tends to liquefy. A lot of it remains on the west flank, facing Seattle. Some people in the area live on old mud flows, deposited as recently as a few hundred years ago. The towns nearest the mountain could be difficult to evacuate.

The closing minutes of the film simulate a Mt. Rainier mega-disaster. The explosion would make St. Helens look like a “footnote” according to the film. There would be a huge mushroom cloud, reaching 15 miles into the stratosphere. The animation in the film is quite realistic. Imagine what this animation would look like in Imax. A Rainier eruption would take 20000 lives and become the worst natural disaster in US history.

I visited the area in 1976 (Paradise WA), 1978, 1990 (the St. Helens site), and 1996 (Mt. Hood). I am familiar with how few evacuation roads there are. The roads have Volcano Evacuation Route signs. I remember a personal “epiphany” in 1978 at the Snoqualmie Pass, but that’s another story.

Picture: Freight train in Minneapolis, E of Mississippi River (from video that I took in 2003).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

"The Summit" on ION: elaborate smallpox plot (very fictitious)

Tonight, ION television aired the four hour film (or “miniseries”) “The Summit”, directed by Nick Copus, written by Kirzanc. (The film had premiered on ION June 15.) The title of the film refers to the “next” G8 summit which conveniently takes place in “northern Ontario” – the woods, 200 miles north of Toronto, in the “main” part of the province usually not shown in road maps. It has to take place there because is a totally Canadian DGC film (I recognized a couple of Vancouver sets used in Smallville), and I thought, with a chuckle, that Summit Pictures itself is a significant indie film company. Not here, though; the film seems to come from Shaftesbury Films and the CBC. The title of the film reminds me of 1960s Irving Wallace novels (like “The Prize” and “The Plot”). The film has some A-list stars like Christopher Plummer, Bruce Greenwood, James Purefoy.

Of course, what matters is the “mega disaster” concept. Here, the elements are a corrupt pharmaceutical company and jihadists. Another potential player is a corrupt government, which in this case means "Blame Canada!" So, what are the pieces of the plot? Develop a live smallpox vaccine, and inject it into immunocompromised people. In fact, deliberately infect some of the marks with HIV if possible first. Then, send a smallpox-infected “typhoid Mary” to the site of the conference, and watch a body count. It’s pretty grisly. The plot starts in Colombia, with the assistance of the drug cartels, and particularly distressing is the use of a teenage boy as one of the first victims (and his mother may be a culprit).

More elements enter into the mega-disaster. The developing countries threaten to default on their debt, so that the entire Bretton Woods financial system can come to a collapse.

Somehow the G8 summit continues, although the premises get locked down for 48 hours. It seems that they really conceal the outbreak. But there are plenty of scenes of grass roots violent demonstrations. At the end, the reported starts coming down with symptoms on the air, bleeding from the nose, as she says, “there is no evidence that there ever was a smallpox outbreak at the summit.”

These miniseries are too long and too hysterical to be really effective. A much better film about the smallpox risk came from British director Dan Percival and Fox in 2002, “called “Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon” which shows the relentless progress of an epidemic through New York and London.

We do need to think about a revaccination program. I can see my own scar now.

The major film on corruption in pharmaceutical companies came from Focus in 2005, with director Fernando Meirelles, "The Constant Gardner."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Dam Break": History Channel Mega-Disasters

Tonight (June 17) the History Channel Mega-Disasters series presented “Dam Break”, a one hour documentary that examines the risks downstream from dam failures that may occur because of torrential rains, or earthquakes.

The early part of the film gave the history of the Johnstown PA Flood in 1889 (then population 30000, supported by steel mills), which occurred partly because a rich man’s South Fork fishing club that owned an upstream dam had maintained it poorly and undermined it to improve fishing pleasure. The flood occurred after two days of heavy rains associated with a stationary front. The catastrophe was spectacular, with trains washed off tracks, a second dam collecting downtown at a viaduct, and a huge fire.

The film chronicles a dam failure in the Ozarks in Missouri, and the destruction of the home of a family that escaped. An Army Corps of Engineers project, Tuttle Creek, in Kansas is shown, with analysis of Midwestern earthquake risk. Projects in Tennessee are next analyzed, but the climax of the film hypothesizes a rain and earthquake induced rupture of the Hills Creek Dam (built in 1962) above Eugene Oregon, and demonstrates the destruction that would occur in Eugene.

The film takes the position that many dams and bridges were built before the risks of earthquakes in many areas were properly understood. Furthermore, many dams and bridges are in danger because of age. The Army estimates that 10% of all dams are at some risk. The film shows live video of the collapse of the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, 2007.

There is also a DVD of a film “Johnstown Flood" (2003, Inecom, narr. Richard Dreyfuss, dir. Mark Bussler, 65 min, PG). I visited Johnston in 1994 and again in 2007.

In 1997, I visited the Hoover Dam in a car rented in Las Vegas, and the ignition key for the car broke in the ignition. I had to be rescued by Alamo.

Picture: Johnstown PA, from 2007 trip

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"The Happening" - Shyamalan's mega disaster

Well, if you’re a teacher, permanent or substitute, and an administrator calls a bunch you in, and says, “We have an event happening.” You something really bad is going on, in the “Outside World.” And this time, the horror comes with gentle 30 mph winds, like those of a backdoor cold front, moving into the mid-Atlantic states from the Northeast.

We see Marky Mark Wahlberg, a grown man in the past decade, as science teacher Elliot Moore in the Philadelphia public schools. He quizzes his class on what can go wrong the world. Why are the bees disappearing? If they did, mankind would last only four years. (That sounds like a future History Channel Mega-Disaster scenario.) Colony Collapse Disorder? Is it global warming? Pollution? Is it some kind of planetary moral breakdown? He teases a particularly handsome kid Jake (Robert Lenzi) about his good looks, and how they could change before he’s finished growing because of the “biology” of adolescent growth spurts yet to come. That was weird. About to announce the science project assignment, he teases the class with the light switches. Now, I though this whole scene could have been more precise. Have it be tenth grade biology, and show the kids in lab with microscopes, drawing and labeling animal or plant “body parts.” But the principal shows up.

The mega-disaster starts in Central Park, but somehow authorities decide to evacuate Philly (hometown AOL for director M. Night Shyamalan). Moore takes his family on the train west, towards Harrisburg and Three Mile Island. (That’s another theory: another meltdown.) The train stops and dumps them in the wilderness. “We’ve lost contact,” the conductor says. “With everybody.”

Of course, most people now know the pretext of Shyamalan’s latest movie “The Happening” (20th Century Fox, UTV, Spyglass). Just like algae releasing red tide, flowering plants decide to take revenge, communicating through the wind, and release neurotoxins into the air, quickly leading to grisly mass fatalities. I don’t want to dwell on some of the spectacle here, but the concept seems nihilistic. Shyamalan presents the film in “flat” aspect ration 1.85:1 and did not want to use the anamorphic Cinemascope wide screen. That keeps the film somewhat intimate and small, particular in the second half of the movie when the family is on the run, daring among broken down farmhouses, running from the winds. The movie suggests that it isn’t a good idea for people to congregate. If they stay further apart, the plants don’t target them.

The concept does remind me of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 classic “The Birds” who attack for no obvious reason other than some accidental insult in San Francisco, as well as Danny Boyle’s taking of London and most of the UK with an epidemic in “28 Days Later” (also from Fox).

The progress of “The Event” as Breaking News in the media (the “World News Network” – apparently CNN did not want to be associated with this tale) is well handled, as the twenty-four hour event is deciphered and quickly determined to be natural in origin rather than a terrorist chemical weapons attack. (One clue: it spreads geographically so quickly.) It can recur at any time if we abuse the planet – as the closing scene in Paris demonstrates.

The film made me think about other scenarios that Shyamalan could explore, such as a social behavioral crisis starting in cyberspace. I won’t give away the details here, but just think about some of the recent news. (And, no, I haven’t put my Final Draft script for this online.)

Despite the rather unfavorable reviews, I found opening night performances in northern VA at AMC theaters sold out. I had to buy in advance.

There was a film with the same title in 1967, and I actually saw it in Lawrence KS when in grad school, at the trendy Varsity Theater on Massachusetts Street downtown. The film, from Columbia and directed by Eliot Silverstein, has some bored hippies (“nothing is going to happen”) kidnapping a Mafia figure, and featured a very popular song.

There was a black and white half-hour TV series called "Science Fiction Theater" on Sunday nights in the 1950s. There were scenarios like a woman turning into a plant. The byline was, "it hasn't happened, but could it happen?"

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Toba Eruption (History Channel Mega-Disasters): "Volcanic Winter"

Today (June 10) the History Channel Mega-Disasters series presented “Toba Volcano”. About 75000 years ago in Indonesia, on the island of Sumatra, a supervolcano erupted, leaving a lake today in the caldera. The volcano was probably ten times as Tambora, also in Indonesia, that produced “the year without a summer” in 1815 and even inspired literature (the Frankenstein story). The ash cloud circled the world, and even worse, sulfur dioxide built up into the stratosphere. The result would not be just acid rain, but a volcanic winter. At the time, an ice age may have been underway, but the result was at least 1000 years with much expanded ice caps. Snow fell at low elevations even in Africa, and people and animals starved. Mammalian life on earth might have become extinct. The Toba eruption was 100 times as large as the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991, the largest volcanic eruption in modern industrial age history.

There may have been a million people before the eruption, but the world’s population may have shriveled to 30000. This created a “genetic bottleneck” meaning that the world’s people today are unusually consistent genetically relative to other animal species. This means that the world’s races are reproductively compatible, and (even given the tragedy that race has caused in history) that there are no significant differences between races in terms of basic human skills. One can imagine other planets like ours (maybe within a few hundred light years or so) where this is not so, and the enormous social and political consequences of larger genetic variations in a species of about our level of civilization. It’s possible to trace the mitochondrial DNA of every human today to female ancestors, perhaps only 10000 or so, surviving the eruption.

A supervolcano results from a large dimple of magma under the Earth’s crust. Tora is showing some vague signs of reawakening today, but there are alarming areas in western US that cover supervocalno calderas, such as in the Owens Valley near US 395 in California, and in Yellowstone in Wyoming. A supervolcano eruption would cover the US with an average of 4 inches of ash and would wipe everyone out for several hundred miles, as in Las Vegas. But a volcanic winter would ensue. Unlike local catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, there would be no where to go for help. Civilization as we know it would probably perish, and there is nothing we can do to prevent a mega-disaster on the scale of a supervolcano (even though we could probably stop an asteroid). This would be The Purification, not just “The Happneing”.

Update: May 5, 2009

Tonight the History Channel rebroadcast the program renamed as "Volcanic Winter". The link is here.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

IMAX film "Forces of Nature": volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes

The Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Institution at Dulles Airport, VA offers the National Geographic / Destination IMAX film “Natural Disasters: Forces of Nature,” a 40 minute short in full IMAX (without 3D), directed by George Casey and narrated by Kevin Bacon. It should not be confused with the 1999 comedy “Forces of Nature” with Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock.

The film covers three kinds of disasters: earthquakes, volcanoes, and tornadoes.

The middle part of the film is the most important because it warns of an immediate peril. It traces an earthquake fault along northern Turkey, following the Black Sea (subject of a recent History Channel film), and showed that the zone of stress was pushing westward. The film showed spectacular shots of the 1999 leveling of many tenements in Izmit, Turkey, and warns that the greatest instability now lies ten miles south of Istanbul (Constantinople), and that a major earthquake affecting Istanbul can happen now at any time. It showed the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and traced the multitude of repairs in the past. Mosques and cathedrals have always withstood the earthquakes, but housing did not.

The first part of the film covered the 1995 and continuous eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano near the town of Plymouth on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. It would be surprising to find a volcano there, since it is in a mountainous group more or less contiguous with eastern Appalachians (all the way to the Brazilian Highlands). The film showed the explosive eruption and pumice clouds towering and filling the screen, much like Mount St. Helens in Washington (which I visited in 1990; I also hiked down some of Haleakala crater on Maui in 1980). The barren terrain and colors of the hardened lava rivers were stunning.

The last part of the film showed the development of a tornado in Oklahoma in progress, and then showed a huge wedge tornado, and a perspective that showed the full size of the thunderstorm.

Photography is not allowed in movie theaters, including Imax; otherwise I could show what the volcano looked like up close, or the tornado. I’ve wondered why stills aren’t “fair use” but my understanding is that even still photos from theatrical presentations are never allowed. So the picture here is a quiet one from a wild life refuge near Ocoquan, VA (which I took in person when present there myself).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

"The People" document tornadoes up close on digital video

There are a lot of vides on YouTube now that show up-close footage of tornadoes. "Amateurs" are producing video that traces in some detail how these storms form and progress, and there are some videos that seem to be collages of many tornado sightings.

There is one from Sonicboom at this link called “Tornado” with moog synthesize music, and various shots around the country, such as a waterspout near Miami, and an image of two funnels from the same wall cloud (about 5 minutes). The video seems to try to make storms into ballet dancers.

Television station WCNC has aerial footage of the devastation in southeastern Virginia, specifically Suffolk (near Virginia Beach and the Hampton Roads area, near the North Carolina Border and still in the low, flat tidewater area) from April 2008, here.

The best video that I found quickly is probably “There’s a Tornado Outside My House” by TechnoB11, eight minutes of footage that documents the April Suffolk VA tornado as it happens. Two young men spot the wall cloud near their townhome complex, and drive through residential neighborhoods to “chase it” from a distance. The backtrack over an area where it hit, and fund upended vehicles on the road. The video has a reality and immediacy that you never see in professional Hollywood films like “Twister.” The link is here. Maybe this somewhat substantial video could be submitted to a documentary festival!

Another “amateur” documents a menacing dark wall cloud over Cleveland County, NC, but it never shows much rotation. The film also shows the storm on a local weather station to correlate the images to an actual Doppler radar image. The link is here.

The Weather Channel "Blue Box" offers a video from security cameras inside a bank in Parkersburg, IA on May 25, 2008 of an F5 tornado tearing through, three takes. Note the blackness outside the window comes in, just like in a Stephen King movie. The one minute video is followed by 30 seconds from a hailstorm in Jacksonville FL. The link is here.

The picture is of a storm-fallen tree left in its natural state in a county park in Arlington VA.

Second picture: Crooked Bridge, near Leesburg VA, damaged by floods in May 2008. Residents do not have safe vehicular access out of the community on this private road. This has been heavily covered in the local DC and northern VA media.