When Science Alone Is Not Enough…

September 8th, 2005

Sometimes, even the best of science isn’t enough to prevent human catastrophe. Scientists and engineers had known for decades that it wasn’t a question of whether the flood walls and levees in New Orleans would break, but when they would break. Hurricane and flood models clearly illustrated the kind of disaster that would happen…and, like a scripted Hollywood movie, it was pretty much exactly what did happen. Beyond the issue of emergency preparedness…beyond the incredible lack of planning on what to do with hundreds of thousands of people when they were displaced…and even beyond the utter lack of urgency to respond after the hurricane hit…is the greater issue of why the people of New Orleans…and the people of any state, for that matter…more times than not, disregard the warnings of impending doom.

Survey upon survey reveals that most people ignore warnings of high probability natural disasters. And not just for hurricanes…heck, people ignore the threat of earthquakes, El Ninos, tsunami and any of a host of other potential dangers. The addage goes that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink…is the same thing true for humans…you can warn a fella he’s about to be hit by a propellor but you can’t make him move out of the way?

The ugly truth is that public education on the dangers of disasters, the means to plan and prepare for a disaster and the course of action required to implement those plans and adapt during a disaster is sadly lacking in our country. Back in the days of the cold war, school kids practiced diving under their desks if an air raid siren sounded. We drew up home nuclear fallout shelters and talked about what to do in the event of a nuclear blast. We even prepared hurricane kits with food and water, batteries, flashlights and first aid kits. An informal survey of my classes this week revealed uncertainly over what to do in an earthquake. Many students still thought doorways were safe. (Duck and cover is the rule of thumb now). I am sure that many of the people along the Gulf Coast reasoned that they had survived the last hurricane…and this one would be no different.

It’s really up to all of us…not just city, county, state and federal officials…to be ready when the next disaster hits. It’s OUR individual responsibility to educate ourselves about natural disasters. When a hurricane bears down, we need to listen to the news, go to a web site if possible, glean as much information as we can and make an INFORMED decision about the coming danger. At the very least, we can stockpile food and water, make sure our first aid kits are up to date, make sure we have fresh long-lasting batteries, check our flashlights to determine if they are sufficient for our situation and PLAN for what to do if we are away from home, in our car or somewhere out of touch with our loved ones.

All the science in the world is not going to stop hurricanes, stop earthquakes or calm a tsunami. But we can educate ourselves about these natural disasters and be prepared as best we can when they come. Granted, we will need a little help from our friends…but if we are all prepared, then we have a better chance to help those around us…and we increase the likelihood that everyone…no matter what their walk of life…has a chance.

Be prepared. Share what you know. Learn more. If there is any lesson in Katrina, hopefully, it’s that we will all know better next time.

Click here for today’s podcast about the theory of plate tectonics, a theory 50 years in the making and, perhaps, an example of how even scientists don’t always agree on how nature works.

Global Warming 1, Humans 0

September 2nd, 2005

The War on Terror has taken on added dimensions in the aftermath of Hurricane Al-Katrina. If we can’t mobilize our own forces on our own turf to rescue our own people from a well-predicted natural disaster, then what the hell good is Homeland Security and emergency preparedness anyways?

Since the 1960s, scientists and engineers have warned that under certain conditions, the levees in New Orleans would crumble and drown the city. The Gulf Coast is certainly no stranger to hurricanes…crimeny, they named a drink after them on Bourbon Street! If that’s not enough, we’ve bulldozed the natural barriers that once protected the Gulf Coast, created a huge sinkhole by sucking out all the gas and oil beneath it, starved the region of sand by diverting the natural flow of the Mississippi…and accelerated sea level rise by ignoring global warming! Talk about the chickens coming home to roost…

Rather than insure the safety of a million-plus people, our poultry politicians chose to spend billions of dollars on shoe-checks at airports. Rather than maintain adequate levels of personnel to respond to national emergencies, the pollies sent National Guard troops to fight a medieval-style crusade in the Middle East. And rather improve the Third-World status of impoverished and marginalized Americans living along the Gulf Coast, our leaders robbed social and infrastructure improvement programs to give tax breaks to the wealthy. Let freedom ring…eh?

Hurricane Katrina was not, as one National Hurricane Center scientist put it, a rare event. Sure, it packed powerful winds and a tsunami-like storm surge. And sure, it hit the one spot along the Louisiana/Mississippi coast that scientists predicted would set the doomsday scenario in motion. But hurricanes of Katrina’s size and power have been racing across the Atlantic for decades. And we have known for decades that the Gulf Coast was completely ill-prepared for such hurricanes. We knew it was coming…and we did little to prepare…even when we knew Katrina was going to hit.

If federal, state and city officials knew the city would flood, why weren’t rescue boats placed in strategic locations? Where were the stockpiles of food and water and medicine that at the very least would have let people survive when the flood hit? Whose bright idea was it to put flood pumps on the same circuit as the city’s main power supply? What kind of emergency response plan is the Superdome…or the Astrodome, for that matter? And just where are all our troops? Doesn’t it mean anything to protect and serve our own citizens…at home?

My heart weeps for the Dome people and the forgotten people at the Convention Center and the devastated people all up and down the coast. I am sad for the children aren’t old enough to understand what is happening to them…but who will bear the scars of this catastrophe for the rest of their lives. To them I say, this is not how America treats her citizens.

Global warming may not have directly caused Hurricane Katrina but there is little doubt that it sparked her fury. The most “powerful” nation in the world is also the number one culprit where global warming is concerned. How many more innocent people must die needlessly and how many more billions of dollars must be lost before we wake up and take responsiblity for our actions? We have met the enemy…and it is us.

Click here for today’s podcast and learn more about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“This ain’t no party…”

August 31st, 2005

The gut-wrenching devastation along the Louisiana-Mississippi-Alabama coastline takes me hauntingly back to similar images and impressions on Dec 26, 2004. As video after video paint the grimmest of pictures…as the enormity of the damage and the ongoing deterioriation of nature and society continues…as I sit glued to the television and internet trying to gather as many facts as possible…I am vividly reminded of the days immediately following the Dec. 26 tsunami.

Though completely different forces, the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina share one thing in common: the power to move water and everything in its path. Whereas the Sumatra earthquake generated a mega-wave that raced towards the shore at 100s of miles per hour (slowing once it neared shore), the Katrina storm surge crept up on the shoreline at 10-15 miles per hour. Unlike the tsunami, which struck quickly in waves separated by long intervals, Katrina’s storm surge appeared like a relentless and fast-rising tide…one that moved for miles inland…submerging the land in 25 feet of water or more. The sheer volume of water…its ability to wrench structures free of their “moorings”…its turbulent momentum on the way in…and the way out…wrought a catastrophe never before witnessed in the United States.

Like a horror film unfolding in slow motion, the aftermath of Katrina further underscores the destructive power of this hurricane. The breaching of levees…designed to hold back a Category 3 hurricane, not a Cateogry 4 like Katrina…has made an already desperate situation impossible. Having walked the streets of New Orleans…shouted at folks in the balconies…sipped coffee in the Cafe DuMond…I cannot imagine a scene so completely alien to the spirit and vitality that is New Orleans. It will be hard to dance in the streets…without thinking of those whose lives were taken by the flood.

Like the tsunami, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will be with us for years. The memories of the lives of friends and love ones lost…the cities and neighborhoods destroyed…the ugly face of humanity making itself visible in the form of lotting and violence…will remain with us forever…but hopefully, the hurt and pain will be supplanted by the warmth and generosity of humans with the will to share their strength with others…with the will to pick up the pieces and move forward…and the grace and dignity to respect one another and the forces of nature. In all catastrophes, there are bad sides and good sides…let’s hope we can learn from this one and take measures so that we are prepared…when it happens again.

Click here for today’s podcast and learn more about Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.

Water, water, everywhere…does life really need water?

August 25th, 2005

A group of organic chemists are challenging the notion that water is essential for life, or at least trying, according to the August 25, 2005, issue of Nature. They want to know: can life exist…without water?

Life on Earth depends on water. Indeed, every cell of every living organism contains at least some water. But water makes a poor solvent for some life processes, according to these chemists. It disrupts the chemical bonds of numerous biomolecules, including RNA, a molecule that may have been important in the origins of life. The implication here is that RNA may have originated in a “drier” environment, or at least once in which water was kept busy. Understanding the relationship between RNA and water may provide clues to the nature of RNA-world and when and where it might have fluorished.

Still, the chemists admit that many, many life functions depend and thrive on water. Their work is more directly aimed at discovering exactly which properties of water make it a neccessary ingredient for life and whether there are any alternative solvents in which self-organized, self-perpetuating, life forms might develop. By manipulating the properties of water…and examining other solvents…these scientists are learning more about the conditions under which life thrives…and may have come into being. At the very least, these experiments help us better understand just why water is so important to life on Earth.

As we explore the origins of the world ocean in our first lectures here, consider that the Universe is chock full of water. More than sixty oceans a day are produced in Orion Nebula alone. Yet, as far as we know, Earth is the only planet with an ocean of water on its surface. Were the conditions that spawned Earth’s ocean unique…or will we find ocean-like planets elsewhere in the cosmos? How do our current models of Earth’s formation constrain the origins of water on Earth?

The search for life in the cosmos begins with the search for water. If scientists can better understand the relationship between life and water, perhaps we can discover whether life elsewhere in the cosmos may be a rare thing indeed…or…as I hope, whether life in the cosmos is more abdunant and diverse than life on Earth.

Click here for today’s podcast and learn more about oceanography as a multidisciplinary science, the activity model of the scientific method and models for Earth’s formation.

Welcome to the Remarkable Ocean World!

August 22nd, 2005

Jumbo squid…red tides…black jellyfish…blue whales gorging on krill…off Long Beach?

The ocean off southern California has indeed been a strange one this summer. We’ve seen one of the longest red tides in ages…some of the most rare and extraordinary animals…and few signs that the ocean will return to normal anytime soon.

Northern California has had their share of wierdness, too. Ill-directed winds failed to pump nutrient-rich waters from the deep. The resultant “desert-like” conditions fell hard on birds, seals and other forms of sea life that depend on a highly productive ocean for food.

Is global warming to blame? Are we experiencing some kind of large-scale shift in ocean currents? Has the Day After Tomorrow already started?

For answers to these questions, you’ll have to stay tuned…and listen to my podcasts. Twice a week I’ll post lectures from my oceanography classes at Fullerton College. We’ll cover the ocean and all that happens in it around the world.

The world ocean is the only one we have. We need to better understand it…and protect it. Educating yourself about the ocean is one of the most important things you can do to insure that future generations witness all there is to experience…in the remarkable ocean world.

Click here for today’s podcast about my oceanography course, what is required of students and how to navigate the course.