May 20, 2013 7:36 pm
A timelapse video from wmctv shows the progress of the destructive Oklahoma tornado.
Update, 10:05 am, May 21, 2013: The Oklahoma City medical examiner said that at least 91 people had died as a result of the tornado but later revised that count, saying that only 24 deaths had been confirmed. Emergency workers were still working early this morning to make their way through debris at Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children have been found dead.
Originally posted on May 20: In Moore, Oklahoma, a suburb of Oklahoma City, an incredibly powerful tornado just came and went, a nearly hour-long ordeal that, as of the time of this writing, has trapped 75 school children in their school, injured hundreds of people and left a city in ruins.
There are a lot of parameters by which a tornado can be deemed the worst, and by pretty much all counts today’s Moore tornado is up there. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration keeps a list of historical tornadoes—devastating twisters known for their size, their duration and their destruction. Though the Moore tornado doesn’t trump any of them, its combination of size, strength and duration made it an incredibly dangerous storm.
One factor that really set today’s Moore tornado apart was its staggering size. According to The New York Times, today’s tornado was “perhaps a mile wide.” Other reports put it closer to two miles in width. According to NOAA, the largest tornado on record hit Hallam, Nebraska in 2004. That twister was two-and-a-half miles wide. “This is probably close to the maximum size for tornadoes; but it is possible that larger, unrecorded ones have occurred,” writes NOAA of the 2004 tornado.
On top of its massive girth, today’s tornado was also incredibly strong. The Associated Press reports that wind speeds in the twister hit upwards of 199 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour). The record holder, says NOAA, saw winds peaking at 302 miles per hour (486 kilometers per hour.) That storm, unfortunately, hit pretty much the exact same place as this one. It swept just north of Moore on May 3, 1999.
But while the wind speed of today’s twister falls below that of the May 1999 storm, the damage caused by a tornado isn’t all due to wind speed. The amount of time that the storm stays on the ground is also incredibly important.
Today’s Moore tornado was on the ground for 40 minutes. Most tornadoes last just a few minutes. But they can sit around for up to an hour. One of the most deadly tornadoes in history, the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, sat on the ground for a terrifying three-and-a-half hours.
Of course, while all of these parameters are a window into the destructive potential of nature, what matters most to many is the toll on human life. Though casualties are at this point still uncertain, FOX’s KDVR reports that “more than 171,000 people were in the path of the storm.” Several casualties have already been reported, but it will take time for the full destructive power of the storm to become known.
Fortunately, at least, casualties will likely be below the record set by the the March 1925 tornado that swept through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, the one that stayed down for 3.5 hours. That storm killed 695 people. Advances in early detection and warning systems have brought the deaths caused by tornadoes down over time, and one can only hope that people were able to seek shelter from the dark side of nature.
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May 16, 2013 3:39 pm
There’s an interesting relationship, borne out in polling numbers, between the “general public’s” belief in global climate change and the weather. When it’s hot out, people believe in climate change. When it’s cold, they don’t. When summer heat and drought and wildfires tore through the U.S. last summer, 74 percent of Americans believed that climate change was affecting the weather. Only 46 percent of Americans think that this climate change is caused by human activities – most directly the burning of fossil fuels.
The numbers are a little different when it is climate scientists, and the scientific research conducted on climate change, that are polled.
Writing in the Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli and John Abraham describe a new study that polled the recent research to see what scientists thought of climate change. (Nuccitelli is one of the voices behind the website Skeptical Science and one of the authors of the new scientific study.) They found that the vast, overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change.
The team searched a database of scientific studies for the words “global climate change” or “global warming.” They found 11,944 relevant studies published between 1991 and 2012. Then, they read through the study’s summaries to figure out whether the study supported, rejected, was uncertain about or said nothing at all about our role in causing climate change. They also asked the scientists behind the papers whether their research supported or refuted the idea of man-made global warming.
Of the studies that expressed some sort of position on global warming, of which there were 4,000, the team write in their paper, “97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.” When the climate scientists themselves said whether or not their work supported the idea of anthropogenic climate change, “97.2% endorsed the consensus.”
For the papers that didn’t seem to have an opinion on whether humans were causing climate change, the reason, they write, is not that the scientists don’t know. Rather, it’s that the debate is so fully and completely settled within the scientific community that they aren’t going to use space re-hashing old fights.
Some people may mention that the scientific community is conflicted over the cause of climate change. This new survey would like to remind that that is not true.
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May 16, 2013 11:16 am
In the small city of Timmins, Ontario, a town nestled half way between Michigan and Hudson Bay, there is a mine. Actually, there are many mines—it’s a mining town. But this story is about just one, a mile and a half deep, where there is water bubbling up from below that has been cut off from the rest of the world for at least a billion years—maybe as much as 2.6 billion years.
The longer end of that timeline, Ivan Semeniuk points out in the Globe and Mail, is about half the age of the Earth. This water hasn’t been in contact with the rest of the planet since before the rise of multicellular life.
But like the water trapped in frozen lakes below Antarctica’s massive ice sheets, researchers suspect there might be life in these flows.
“What we have here,” says Sherwood Lollar, a microbiologist at the University of Toronto in Canada, “is a plate of jelly donuts.” While she has yet to confirm whether the water is inhabited, she says the conditions are perfect for life.
The scientists don’t know whether there is any life in the ancient, isolated water. But they’re working on it. The water is young enough that it would have been locked away after life arose on Earth. But it’s been trapped for so long that any life that does exist would likely be unique—a relic of an ancient world. The CBC:
Some Canadian members of the team are currently testing the water to see if it contains microbial life — if they exist, those microbes may have been isolated from the sun and the Earth’s surface for billions of years and may reveal how microbes evolve in isolation.
One can’t help but be reminded of the Balrog: “Moria! Moria! Wonder of the Northern world. Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear.”
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May 16, 2013 10:11 am
In 1700, a massive earthquake struck the west and northwest coast of the United Sates. Modern scientists first caught wind of the natural disaster through the scars it left on the land—massive, toppled red cedar trees and sand deposits washed far inland. Written records weren’t being kept in that region when the earthquake happened, but several years ago, scientists managed to pinpoint the date of that mysterious earthquake. In 2005, Smithsonian explained how they unraveled the mystery:
In Japan, officials had recorded an “orphan” tsunami—unconnected with any felt earthquake— with waves up to ten feet high along 600 miles of the Honshu coast at midnight, January 27, 1700. Several years ago, Japanese researchers, by estimating the tsunami’s speed, path and other properties, concluded that it was triggered by a magnitude 9 earthquake that warped the seafloor off the Washington coast at 9 p.m. Pacific Standard Time on January 26, 1700. To confirm it, U.S. researchers found a few old trees of known age that had survived the earthquake and compared their tree rings with the rings of the ghost forest cedars. The trees had indeed died just before the growing season of 1700.
The earthquake occurred along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a major fault line running from the Pacific Northwest to Vancouver. In recent decades, scientists have determined that this fault line may produce mega-earthquakes of 9.0 or higher on the Richter scale.
Considering all the geologic evidence, scientists now say a major earthquake strikes the Pacific Northwest every few hundred years—give or take a few hundred years. That means the next one could strike tomorrow.
This is why researchers hope to learn as much as they can, as quickly as they can about the devastating quake that rocked the land back in 1700. Earthquake prediction remains notoriously sketchy (just look at the recent example of researchers in Italy who failed to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila), so the more scientists can learn about what happened in the past, the better prepared they can be for the next disaster. And that next one could be coming soon, according to new research:
The Cascadia subduction zone is of particular interest to geologists and coastal managers because geological evidence points to recurring seismic activity along the fault line, with intervals between 300 and 500 years. With the last major event occurring in 1700, another earthquake could be on the horizon. A better understanding of how such an event might unfold has the potential to save lives.
The University of Pennsylvania team turned to a fossil-based technique for studying the Cascadia Subduction Zone. They took core samples throughout the region and then picked through the samples to find microscopic foraminifera fossils, a type of single-celled aquatic protist. They used radiocarbon dating to estimate the age of these ancient creatures and to recreate past changes in land and sea level along the coastline. Through their analyses, they saw that the coastline ruptured in a heterogenous manner, or that the earthquake struck in different locations with different severity.
The earthquakes that occurred in this part of North America, they report, behaved similarly to recent major earthquakes in Japan and Chile, which arrived with very little warning. While the results are useful for modeling and understanding the next West Coast mega-earthquake, the researchers warn that some areas in Oregon will likely have just 20 minutes to evacuate before the tsunami waves arrive.
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May 15, 2013 12:53 pm
Climate change is changing the planet. Yes, it’s doing it in all those ways that you already know about: rising seas, rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, more extreme weather. But climate change is changing the planet in another dramatic way, too: It’s actually causing the entire crust of the Earth to shift. According to new research by Jianli Chen and colleagues, climate change–induced glacier melt and sea level rise have thrown the whole planet off-kilter.
The Earth is a ball that floats in space, and the Earth’s surface—the tectonic plates that make up the land—are like a shell that floats on the mantle below. Just like the hard chocolate coating can slip and slide on your soft serve ice cream, the crust of the Earth can slide over the mantle. This is different than continental drift. This is the whole surface of the planet moving as one. The rotation axis of the Earth stays steady, the land masses shift around it. The idea is known as “true polar wander,” and its occurrence is a part of the planet’s history.
The Earth is not a perfect sphere—it’s kind of fat at the middle—and changing how the mass on the surface is distributed changes how the tectonic plates sit in relation to the planet’s rotation axis. By melting Greenland and other glaciers, say the researchers, the Earth’s geographic North Pole has drifted to the east at around 2.4 inches each year since 2005. Nature:
From 1982 to 2005, the pole drifted southeast towards northern Labrador, Canada, at a rate of about 2 milliarcseconds — or roughly 6 centimetres — per year. But in 2005, the pole changed course and began galloping east towards Greenland at a rate of more than 7 milliarcseconds per year.
Seasonal shifts in how ice and water are spread around the world mean that the North Pole is always sort of wandering around. But drift triggered by climate change is new. It’s a sign that global warming isn’t just changing how we might live in the world, but the very face of the world itself.
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