Natural Disasters

An invisibility cloak for earthquakes? It’s possible

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: February 16, 2012   View Article

For several years, scientists have worked on real-world invisibility cloaks akin to the one that shields boy wizard Harry Potter from light waves. While that’s neat-o and all, a research group in Potter’s homeland thinks a similar trick can protect buildings from earthquakes.

The group, led by mathematician William Parnell at the University of Manchester, has shown that cloaking components or structures in pressurized rubber would make them invisible to the powerful waves produced during a temblor.

3-D model mimics volcanic blast

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: June 1, 2011   View Article

A new 3-D model that realistically mimics the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens is helping scientists understand the dynamics of such blasts and may help them map potential blast flows at dangerous volcanoes around the world.

The eruption of the volcano in Washington killed 57 people, leveled forests and sent a torrent of mud and debris down rivers that wiped out hundreds of homes and dozens of bridges.

The damage stems from a fast-moving current of superheated gas and hot rock and debris that was blasted out sideways from the volcano, Barry Voight, an emeritus professor of geology at Penn State, explained to me today.

Disaster-proof homes that don’t suck

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 24, 2011   View Article

Earthquakes don’t kill people, poorly built buildings do. The problem is that most disaster-proof, inexpensive housing technologies don’t fit the cultural preferences of the communities that need them, according to a non-profit that’s promoting a fix.

“This is something that we can control and we can change if we know how to do it correctly,” Elizabeth Hausler, the CEO and founder of Build Change, which has led post-disaster reconstruction efforts in China, Haiti, and Indonesia, told me last week.

Implementation of simple engineering principles using locally-available materials and labor can lead to culturally-acceptable housing that can survive the violent shaking of earthquakes and hurricane-force winds.

How lightning shoots for the stars

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: May 20, 2011   View Article

On rare occasions, jets of lightning escape from the tops of thunderclouds and shoot up into the atmosphere where they pose a threat to weather balloons and other scientific instruments. New research explains how it happens.

“In some instances there is enough energy and electric charge available for that lightning to just keep propagating up and up and up and it keeps going to about 50 miles high,” Steven Cummer, a lightning expert at Duke University, told me today.

The jets come to a halt at 50 miles high because they run into the ionosphere, the electrically conducting part of the atmosphere, which “sort of shorts it out and prevents it from getting any farther,” he added.

Robots to the rescue in Japan

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: March 15, 2011   View Article

As the search for survivors and grim recovery of bodies continues following the devastating one-two punch of the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, researchers are weighing what types of robots could be most helpful.

There are ground-based robots, for example, designed to climb up and down piles of rubble and slither into otherwise inaccessible cracks to look for survivors. Other robots are designed to work underwater, looking for survivors in cars that fell off bridges and to check the integrity of infrastructure.

Could big quake happen here? Yes

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: March 11, 2011   View Article

As the world tunes in to the disaster following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan today — and with waves rattling nerves along the U.S. West Coast and Hawaii — a question rises to the fore: Could such a disaster happen here?

The short answer is yes. It already has. Major quakes of a similar style rupture along the 680-mile-long Cascadia subduction zone, a fault that runs from Northern California to British Columbia, every few hundred years. They trigger tsunami waves reaching up to 15 feet high that hit the shore about 10 to 15 minutes later.

The fault last ruptured in 1700 – a magnitude-9 event that sent tsunami waves crashing into Japan. Experts believe it is a matter of when, not if, the next one will happen, according to Brian Atwater, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington and an expert on the 1700 event.

“There’s no reason to question the history here,” he told me today.

Magnetic soap made for oil spills

Publication: msnbc.com   Date: January 25, 2012   View Article

Scientists have created the world’s first soap that can be controlled by magnets.

That’s right: magnetic suds.

The breakthrough may revolutionize industrial cleaning products and the response to environmental disasters such as oil spills, reports the research team from Bristol University in England.

© 2008-2010 Collected Writings By John Roach