Tuesday, May 19, 2009

History Channel: Nostradamus 2012: the Mayan "Purification" date approaches

"Nostradamus: 2012" aired on the History Channel Tuesday. The program sketched a number of dire scenarios that it claims are reflected in the quatrains of his “Prophecies.” The underlying idea is that a galactic alignment (of the Sun with the black hole center of the galaxy) occurs on Dec. 21, 2012, a date that ends an era on the Mayan Calendar, and is close to the end of a Talmud Millennium. Perhaps it brings about our "purification." The History Channel link is this.

There are suggestions that a magnetic pole shift could occur, destroying all electronics, or perhaps leading to cataclysm (as in the 1976 book Allan W. Eckert, The HAB Theory).

The film then covers a number of calamities occurring in close succession: global warming, SARS and perhaps new flus, AIDS, tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricane Katrina. Interesting is the “colony collapse disorder” in honeybees, of unknown cause, and the disappearance of bats (possibly into wind energy turbines).

The film warns that the galactic alignment could trigger supervolcano eruptions (including Yellowstone and Mono Lake) that could lead to mass extinctions.

The film covered the philosophy of the Hopi, who say that at any point man has a “Krzysztof Kieslowski” choice of good or evil, and at some point mankind will find himself going through a “bottleneck period” where man has limited time to resolve the problems that threaten an advanced civilization.

Attribution link for Wikimedia Commons rendition of a (galactic) “Black Hole”.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Discovery Channel: "Apocalypse How"

On Sunday, May 16, the Discovery Channel re-aired its two part series “Apocalypse How” (two hours total), link here. The voice of the narrator is the same as in the History Channel Mega-Disasters series.

The first episode started out by enumerating four major ways that civilization could go suddenly. The first is a supervolcano, with Yellowstone the most notorious danger, but there are six others around the world, including Mono Lake in California, and Indonesia.

Check out the US Geological Survey “Core cast” “Is Something Brewing Within Yellowstone?”, link. You can follow links here to monitor the recent earthquakes which could forecast a catastrophic eruption. The Discovery film did not mention that earthquakes have increased recently in early 2009 (since the film dates to mid 2008), but a recent History Channel “How the Earth Was Made” does.

The second immediate end to mankind would be manmade nuclear war, which could start out with Pakistan and its unstable political situation. The well known nuclear winter follows the same process as a volcanic winter. The third scenario would be a pandemic, possibly manmade, that kills almost everyone. A fourth end-of-days would come from an alien attack, which scientists take more seriously than you would think. We might be treated by aliens the way we treat an ant hill (I question that). A fifth apocalypse would be a direct asteroid hit. Apophis, which could hit in 2020 or even more likely 2036 could take out a major city, but an asteroid a few miles across would wipe out almost all higher life forms. The show didn’t mention a similar risk from comets.

The second our starts out with slower threats, mostly manmade. The most notorious is global warming, the range of estimates range up to 6 degrees Centigrade. If all the earth’s ice melts, seal levels would rise 200 feet, wiping out much of the earth’s coastal cities, and putting us all under a permanent Katrina.

The next risk could be something like Transformers, the movie. That is, our robots could get smarter than us and attack us. More insidious would be nanotechnology. The show speculated that an asymmetric terrorist could manufacture a nanobot that becomes infectious and converts all of the earth’s matter into gray goo in a matter of hours (sort of like the way prions cause brain disease). (Nanotechnology was the inspiration for the show “Jake 2.0”).

The show then covered the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research, and the Hadron Collider (website)) experiments underneath Switzerland. Scientists pooh-pooh the idea that a mini black hole created by the experiment would destroy earth. But maybe the experiment could produce a strange matter, and by “prion-like” infection the whole earth and maybe universe turns into a strangelet. Here is a story by Lewis Page in a British paper about a lawsuit to stop CERN to stop “hurling Earth into a parallel universe”.

The show returned to some of the unpreventable other forms of apocalypse. A gamma ray burst from a supernova even several thousand light years away could destroy us. The film also simulates what would happen if a rogue black hole approached earth.

The film also covers the wobble in the Earth’s orbit, which 80% the time favors an ice age. We live during a time of the fortunate 20%.

At the end, the film covers the possibility of a super solar flare, which would be like an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and possibly wipe out all electronics, or at least all satellite operations. (The superflare scenario of the Summit Entertainment film "Knowing", combined with prescient alien visits and rescues, is not mentioned.) In 5 billion years, the Sun will become a Red Giant and heat will destroy the Earth, so mankind must find a new home by then or mankind will expire. Get ready to terraform Mars, maybe even Titan or Triton.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, a Columbia astronomer, often appears in this film, as does John Rennie, a chief editor of Scientific American. The film seems to have the same narrator as the History Channel Mega-Disasters series, Roger Tilling, and has the same expository style.

A similar film was ABC's "Last Days on Earth" in 2006, about which ABC has an article here. That film has been re-aired on the History Channel several times.

Watch out for The Purification! What happens to all of us on Dec. 21, 2012?

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Hawaii: More volcanoes and giant tsunamis loom ("How the Earth Was Made": History Channel)

On Tuesday, May 5, 2009 The History Channel presented another ominous entry in its “How the Earth Was Made” series with emphasis on volcanos. This time, the treat was “Hawaii”. Here is the latest link.

The Big Island may lie over a hot spot that goes all the way to the center of the Earth, Jules Verne style (even more so than Yellowstone). The show covered the Great Crack, or Hilina Slump. A coastal underwater volcano called Loihi will become the next island and one day reside over the tube, exposed to “mantle plumes” from deep within the earth.

The high cliffs (Molokai) rising to 1700 feet above the water are the tallest seaside cliffs in the world. All of this gives evidence of the likelihood of landslides some day, that could send one of the largest tsunamis possible, over 1000 feet high, past Oahu to the West Coast of the US and possibly Japan, depending on circumstances. The risk could be comparable to or perhaps greater than that posed by the Canary Island volcanoes for the Atlantic as recently discussed here. The cliffs show that such a tsunami has occurred in the past.

The Hawaiian islands are part of a “straight line” underwater ridge, caused by meeting plates, extending for 3000 miles to the west. Portions of the islands have appeared and disappeared suddenly. Wikipedia shows the extended archipelago with a diagram and NASA photograph.

I visited Hawaii in 1980, and rented cars on the Big Island (the rental contract did not allow us to drive up Mauna Loa, which required a 4-wheel drive), and Maui. I did drive up Haleakala crater, at 10000 feet, where in August the temperature was in the 50s in mid morning. On the same trip, with a triangle fare on the now defunct Braniff, I also visited Anchorage, and flew of Mount St. Helens, still steaming, on the way to San Francisco afterward. I also remember that in Hilo there occurred one of the only two bar fights I have ever witnessed (the other was in Soho London in 1982).

I visited Kilauea on the 1980 trip. It was not erupting, but was steaming in many areas, and one could walk in limited areas near visible hot spots.

Attribution link for Kilauea commons picture, here.

Attribution link for Maui Haleakala crater, pretty much what I saw, here.

(For a write up on "Volcanic Winter", the Mega Disater episode that followed, see this blog on June 10, 2008).

Saturday, May 02, 2009

CNN Newshour covers Influenza A(H1N1) with comprehensive report

On Saturday, May 2, 2009 the CNN Newshour at 1 PM PDT or 4 PM EDT focused on “Swine Flu Facts” (that is, A(H1N1) Flu Facts). The main link is the “Health” link on CNN and the contents are likely to vary with time.

Fredericka Whitfield moderated. The main contributor was Carlos Del Rio. Much of the show consisted of questions from viewers.

The panel explained the World Health Organization level chart, color coded very much like our terror status. We are at level 5, which means that “the virus has caused sustained community level outbreaks in at least two countries in one WHO region. At phase 5 a pandemic is considered imminent.” The link defining the “Levels of Pandemic Alert” is here.

One viewer said that she had just returned from Cancun, Mexico and asked if she should stay a way from a wedding. Dr. Del Rio said no, as long as she didn’t have symptoms, it was safe to go.

Another question was, isn’t it better if a lot of people get mild disease now in order to protect them if a much more virulent epidemic occurs in the fall. The doctors said no, one should never be deliberately be exposed to an infectious disease, because the consequences are unpredictable. Yet, in the past, health experts have said that children exposed to many infectious diseases when very young grow up to be more resistant and stronger – but they must survive first. It sounds like a moral question rather than a medical one.

There was discussion of the timeline for vaccine availability and the difficulty in preparing one and testing it properly before fall. The 1976 experience with Guillain-Barre syndrome and the vaccine was discussed briefly.

The greatest concern about this H1N1 strain remains its apparent novelty and therefore unpredictable. So far it does not seem to be any more communicable than common flu, and is not going to be transmitted excessively easily on subways or in bars or workplaces. Schools deserve attention, however.

There have been a number of films with fictitious scenarios for pandemics made, mostly for TV or cable, and they are covered by the “pandemic” label below. Another such film was “Outbreak” (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1995, Warner Brothers) about a monkey virus, shown to an AP chemistry class when I was substitute teaching.