Thursday, June 12, 2008

Weathering Mother Nature's sucker punches

Weathering Mother Nature's sucker punches

June 06, 2008

Brace yourself.

As your eyes skim these words, the earth's crust is cracking, hissing and heaving under your feet. Chances are these tectonic shifts are triggering an earthquake. Somewhere.

It's just another day on our unpredictable planet. That's the unsettling theme of "Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters," a new interactive exhibit on display through Jan. 4 at the Field Museum. Quakes, tornados, hurricanes and volcanos happen. Our job is to respond, adapt and prepare.

For Tom Skwerski, it's a tale as old as time. No one -- sorry, Tom Skilling -- can predict the weather. Even a forecast based on meteorological data is an educated guess.

Despite global-warming theories, these natural catastrophes "have been going on for billions of years," said Skwerski, project manager of exhibitions for the museum. "They're normal for our planet. They're signs that our planet is working. ... As they affect us, we consider them natural disasters."

Consider volcanos, which can violently shake and reshape landscapes. Despite bad press -- ash and lava, anyone? -- they may be the cradle of life. Hot springs in their vicinities teem with microbes, single-cell organisms thought to be the oldest life form on earth.

Like plants, these ancient bacteria drew on the sun's energy and released oxygen, a photosynthetic process that refined the atmosphere for complex species like humankind. Volcanoes also release gases and water vapor necessary for life, and volcanic soil is famously rich, supporting crops like olives and grapes.

Without volcanoes, "we probably wouldn't have life as we know it," Skwerski said.

Nor would we know the fury of Mother Nature. A film at the exhibit entrance could be billed as her "Greatest Hits," a scary compilation of famous eruptions, twisters and tsunamis. The hurricane segment is ultra-intense, spanning the storms that left an estimated 8,000 people dead in turn-of-century Galveston, Texas, to the ongoing trauma of Hurricane Katrina.

A formidable quartet

Divided into four galleries, the Field-curated exhibit explores a quartet of weather phenomena -- earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes and tornados respectively -- and seeks to present the human side of the story through archival photos, videos and memorabilia. Each section recaps specific events, including the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

Some revelations are nerve-rattlers. For example, a high-tech seismic monitor tracks quakes in real time and shows they're second nature to Mother Nature. Earth logs about 50,000 a year, from imperceptible twinges to the magnitude 8 quake that devastated the Sichua province of China on May 12. The death toll has passed 70,000 and up to 11 million could be left homeless.

Despite their frequency, earthquakes defy science, ranking among the most volatile of natural phenomena. In most cases, the earth's crusts can move as slowly as a millimeter a week. That's about the same growth rate as a human fingernail, Skwerski said. Then they collide unexpectedly, releasing enough energy to topple buildings.

Hurricanes and tornadoes are a little easier to track, but still susceptible to variable factors like air pressure, wind, speed and temperatures. The exhibit brands Katrina an "unnatural disaster," pointing out that human error sealed New Orleans' fate in August 2005. As a survivor says in an audio segment, "I had a bad feeling."

Built below sea level, the Big Easy quickly flooded when Katrina swept ashore. Then manmade levees broke and most of the city went underwater. Slow rescue efforts, hampered by some locals' reluctance to evacuate, contributed to the death toll of more than 1,800. Artifants on display include a damaged print, a clarinet and a newpaper salvaged from abandoned homes.

A popular draw is the two-minute video projected "in the round" that sets visitors in the path of an incoming tornado. Shot by storm chaser Tim Samaras, guests can see the funnel cloud approaching and witness the destruction in its wake.

Curators, sending the show on tour, rounded out the cyclone section with a battered hotel door, a tree stump stripped of its bark, and other artifacts that bear mute witness to one of the fiercest tornados in recent history. An EF5 tornado -- one that can reach wind speeds almost half the speed of sound -- demolished the town of Greensburg, Kanas, on May 4, 2007. Residents, determined to put a positive spin on the aftermath, are rebuilding Greenburg as a "green" town.


Be Prepared for Severe Weather When Camping

One of the scarieset things that can happen to a person when they are camping is to have severe weather approach. I’ve been lucky and have not had it happen when I was camping but during a road trip to take my son to college orientation in another state we ran into bad weather with tornados and it was really scary. The radio announcer kept announcing the tornado’s path by county but I had no idea what county I was driving in. Plus it was so windy and rainy that visibility was near zero.

We thought about pulling off the road under an overpass but there was no room under the nearest one we found. It was already filled with vehicles. About an hour earlier we had picked up a state highway map at a rest stop but it was in the trunk. So, while my son climbed into the backseat of the car and pulled it down so he could reach into the trunk to find the map, I used an “emergency turnaround” on the highway to go back to a restaurant we had seen a few miles back. When my son found the map and pinpointed our location, we realized we were about 10 miles south of the location of the tornado. We were also nearly to the restaurant which is where we waited out the rest of the storm.

The reason for telling that story is that we had no idea of where we were and felt helpless because we didn’t know if the tornado was 50 miles away or 50 feet away. We should have been aware of the weather we were driving into; in other words we should have been better prepared.

I started thinking about this story and that April is tornado awareness month last night as I sat in my basement waiting out a tornado warning and figured it was a good time to remind all of us to be prepared for the threat of severe weather when camping.

A weather radio is a good investment. Many of us aren’t watching television or listening to a radio when camping which makes a weather radio a good thing to have along so it can alert you if threatening weather is heading your way. The Midland WR-300 Weather Radio costs around $50 and has a 4 1/2 star rating on Amazon. weather radio

A few other things to do and to remember:

When checking into a campground ask about their severe weather procedures and where the nearest shelter is (in most campgrounds it’s the bathrooms).

Check the daily forecast to see if severe weather is being predicted (weather forecasts are usually posted at the campground office and often at camp host sites as well).

Make sure the entire family knows what to do in case of severe weather. A great resource to read and review is the National Weather Service’s Preparedness Guide which you can access by clicking here.

30/30 Lightning Safety Rule - go indoors if, after seeing lightning, you cannot count to 30 before hearing thunder. Stay indoors for 30 minutes after hearing the last clap of thunder (if you can hear thunder you are close enough to be struck by lightning.)

If you are caught outdoors when lightning strikes try to find a low spot away from trees, fences and poles but if you are caught in a wooded area take shelter under a short tree.

If you are caught outside when a tornado strikes like flat in the nearest ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands.

If you come across flood waters (swiftly running water just 6 inches deep can knock a person off their feet) turn around and go another way, climbing to higher ground if possible.

And, although tornadoes and lightning seem like they are the deadliest, it’s actually flash flooding that causes the largest number of deaths each year.

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Two People Saved After Boat Sank

NEW YORK-Two people were rescued from a life raft after their sportfishing vessel sank approximately nine miles off the coast of Moriches, N.Y., at about 5:45 p.m., today.

Greg Mastonardi, owner of the 33-foot Topaz sportfishing boat First Light, was transiting between Egg Harbor Inlet N.J., to Shinnecock Inlet, N.Y., with passenger Mark Edwards, when he called Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound to notify them his boat was taking on water and his dewatering pumps were having a difficult time keeping up. The Coast Guard instructed Edwards and the other passenger to put on their life jackets.

"We launched a 47-foot motor life boat from Coast Guard Station Shinnecock, a 27-foot rescue boat from Station Moriches, and a HH-60 rescue helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod immediately," said Peter Winters, a civilian search and rescue controller at Sector Long Island Sound.

Nine minutes later, Mastonardi notified search and rescue controllers at Sector Long Island Sound that water was overtaking the vessel and he was going to have to abandon ship.

"We asked them to activate their Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) right before we lost communications with them," said Winters. "Seatow overheard Mastonardi call to Sector Long Island Sound and told us they were nearby. We passed their position to Seatow and they headed towards the location."

Seatow arrived at 6:03 p.m. where they pulled Mastonardi and Edwards from their life raft to safety. The First Light sank in 108-feet of water.

The 27-foot rescue boat is currently escorting the Seatow vessel back to Coast Guard Sector Field Office Moriches to safely bring Mastonardi and Edwards.

The First Light was carrying 250 gallons of diesel fuel, though no pollution was reported on scene.

Winters attributes the timely success of this rescue to the alert mariners aboard Seatow, and the Coast Guard Rescue 21 system, which is composed of two, 400-foot towers at Station Shinnecock and Coast Guard Station Montauk that are able to assist in cases just like this.

"We managed to get a latitude and longitude from them," said Winters. "After we lost communications with them we used Rescue 21 to create a fix on where they would be. It was right on the money."