Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Good Day for Engineering

I woke up this morning to news of tsunami warnings and school closings. When my phone alarm goes off I hit snooze and turn on KPLU in Seattle. The two time zone shift works for my schedule. I listened to them talk about the coming tsunami in several local news breaks before I really comprehended the seriousness of what happened in Japan and got up to look at images online. Damn.

I got good links to news stories and video on Twitter from Dr. Ian O'Neil, Space Producer for Discovery News and Dr. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy. Once again they are great source for vetted material. I also follow the official U.S. Geological Survey account on Twitter. USGS is the best source for information about earthquakes. I spent a lot of time poring over their data during oceanography graduate school.

For a human take on on the disaster I scrolled back in time on Twitter and read Patton Oswalt's live tweets watching the news coverage on TV last night. Kind of glad I waited for the edited down internet version. He makes TV sound pretty bad.
Just went downstairs. Watched CNN. I saw people die. This is horrible.    
"CNN - Yen falls sharply after quake".”// I saw that. ASSHOLES.
How in the fuck do you put an oil refinery fire out, anyway? Nitroglycerin, like in WAGES OF FEAR?
How long 'til one of these CNN shovel-brains says, "'Miyagi' was the name of Pat Morita's character in THE KARATE KID."
Al Jazeera's covering tsunami like professionals, has informed anchors, and probably thinks Charlie Sheen is a floorwax.
So back to the science. Here are some good links:
  • USGS Earthquake Summary: 8.9 magnitude earthquake cause by thrust faulting at or near the subduction zone interface plate boundary between the Pacific and North America plates. This sounds weird, but the North America plate wraps around the Ring of Fire. There were several large foreshocks and aftershocks. They say the Japan Trench "hosted" these events. Really? That's how geologists talk? Umm, I'm pretty sure they need some other word for where earthquakes happen.
  • Map of the plates
  • Autoupdated list of the Latest Earthquakes in the World Just look at how many foreshocks and aftershocks came with this thing! No wonder people in those tall building got seasick. They were rocking all day.
Some videos:

This video shows the wave rolling through the tidiest farmland I have ever seen. I mean ahead of the wave of black water and debris of course. After, not so tidy. What are all those neat lined up things like greenhouses? I like how the editor cut away when the water gets to roads where cars are driving along. I don't want to see those get washed away. Thank you for that. I'm sorry whatever channel Patton Oswalt was watching didn't have the same grace.

One of the big problems with flooding farmland during hurricanes in places like South Carolina is the spike in nitrates and bacteria from lagoons full of pig and chicken waste mixing with rivers and estuaries. I don't know if this area of Japan has anything like that, but it probably does. That is just one of many things they will have to deal with in the aftermath of this disaster -- so many things people don't even know about. It's not a matter of just picking up the actual debris, but a long process for the natural systems to rebalance.  It's a great opportunity to research these processes because there is a lot we need to learn about restoration of aquatic systems. I'm a proponent of leaving it alone and letting it happen naturally. What your mama always told you when you were a kid with a skinned knee sounds right to me: "Don't pick at it!" If anybody is going to convince me that human intervention is more efficient than leaving it alone they're going to need a lot of accurate data, and it better be precise too. Not like what we did in Louisiana.

(From MSNBC) To the south in Tokyo the main problem was the actual earthquake, not the tsunami. Not a single major structure collapsed as a result of this earthquake. Not a major bridge, nothing. I get a little choked up just thinking about that. I'm so proud of all those engineers for doing the calculations properly and the builders for following the specs and the owners for agreeing to the extra costs! I've seen a PBS special on the special dampening and isolation systems they put in those buildings. It's amazing. I can't find the link again but I heard somebody in an interview this morning say the only problem they had in their office building was that they got seasick. It's because they design them to dissipate the energy by moving instead of storing up the stress and breaking suddenly. Plus they have practice drills so the building occupants and people living in low lying areas know what to do in these situations besides panic. The people that live in that farmland are taught that if an earthquake is strong enough to knock them down they need to move to higher ground immediately. I hope they did, and I hope this motivates more people to think about what might happen and make a plan just in case.

It's important that everybody realize what Japan invested in their infrastructure and culture to prepare for this just-in-case. And also realize America has not made this investment. As a nation we have become stingy with our engineers to the point that we threaten them with legal action if they don't build a rocket ship with inadequate resources. Stingy to the point that we have major bridges collapse on a normal day when nothing in particular happens at all. This exact same kind of earthquake and tsunami could happen on the other side of the Pacific plate, except, as Robert Yeats of Oregon State University puts it, "they are better prepared than we are."

Now I could put in more videos, like the one I watched of boats breaking free in Santa Cruz harbor and bashing into other boats, but frankly that just makes me mad. Huge damn disaster in Japan, and just an inconvenient strong current in California but it makes as much news as the other stuff. It doesn't deserve it. People that can't tie a boat up properly just ruin it for everybody. HUNDREDS of boats tied up carefully and some 15 break free and bang into the other ones. I saw this one boat crash broadside into the bow of a sailboat so hard the railings got tangled together. And even with that other boat broadside to the current the lines on that sailboat held and kept that renegade boat from doing any more damage.

I listened to President Obama's press conference this afternoon. He was asked how the US is going to help Japan and he said we are going to lend them our "heavy lift capacity." I guess that means we're sending bulldozers. There was actually one particular technology they were working on at Georgia Tech that was for disaster clean up -- a portable plasma furnace that can incinerate contaminated debris into volatilized organic gases plus an inert glassy slag byproduct. The gas can be burned to generate power. Maybe those projects were cancelled. I can't find anything about them since Katrina. Another thing President Obama said in his press conference was that in the balancing of the budget we can't stop investing in research and development. "That makes no sense," he said. Welcome to my world, Mr. President.

Another tweet from @astroengine I was glad to see was titled Why Surfing a Tsunami Wave Won't Work. I thought this would be the case since a tsunami wave goes from the sea floor to the surface, not like the regular surface waves fetched up by wind. I learned about tsunami waves described with differential equations, which would be as incomprehensible to surfers as the surfer terms are to me -- thick, mushy, nothing for the board to hold onto. Huh? I notice in the comments of the article people are still bullheaded enough to think they're going to get some high surf out of this. It's not a hurricane. No surf. Back away from the water. Get far back. And for the other commenter, no it's not tacky to bring this up today. How is everybody interested in the science of this event at fault for not "doing something to help out"?

So as for helping out, I just went to Phil Plait's blog looking for a list of charities and I see he's done a post just about like mine, including that same YouTube video, which I did get from him in the first place. Not as much opinion and more links. To finish up I'm going to blatantly copy his list of places you can donate money.
There are many charitable, non-profit organizations that may or will be providing aid and relief. I asked on Twitter which ones people liked, and here are a few. I do not necessarily endorse these groups, but provide this for your information.

My 40 hr HAZWOPR certificate is still good, so if anybody needs an Aquatic Environmental Scientist  with FEMA experience, I will gladly go to Japan. I already emailed the company I worked for doing hurricane recovery work and asked them to let me know if they get a contract to work on this disaster.

Thanks to @astroengine, @badastronomer, @USGS, and @pattonoswalt
also Dr. Huettel, Dr. Spears, and Dr. Froelich, my biological, physical, and chemical oceanography professors at the now defunct FSU Oceanography department.

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