Saturday, September 29, 2007

The best of times!

As we are just starting the 2007 autumn season, if I may borrow a partial expression that was made legendary by Charles Dickens, I would like to say that in my mind the summer of 2007 we've just gone through could be considered as the "best of times!" My reasons are fairly simple, let me count the ways:
  • There has not been a real freaque wave case reported anywhere most of this summer.
  • There's only one named tropical storm in North Atlantic so far became a hurricane. (Tropical storm Dean was upgraded to the first hurricane of the 2007 season on August 16.)
  • A number of large damaging earthquakes ran off Indonesian island of Sumatra. Tsunami warnings were triggered all over -- but no tsunami was really actualized.
  • We are winning the counterinsurgency war in Iraq.
I guess for someone who regards half-full as half-empty may feel differently. Anyway the summer of 2007 on the planet earth is certainly not at all ordinary -- plenty of challenges for scientists and whoever it may concern. I think the no tsunami earthquake cases are especially challenging to the geophysists to find out how and why to avoid headlines such as: "Tsunami alerts quickly followed Indonesian quakes, though some sparked panic" in the International Herald Tribune, September 13, 2007 or as this kind of news questions: "Were tsunami alerts necessary?" in the Sunday Times online of Sri lanka.

In the June 2005 issue of 'Physics Today," six month after the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Sumatra, a posted question was "What is the appropriate scientific response to a human tragedy?" That's too big an issue to dwell upon here. Until scientist can provide tangible answers beyond pitiful personal interests, I suggest everyone can take a look at this advice I found from this National Geographic News
Use your common sense. If you feel or hear of a strong earthquake do not wait for an official tsunami warning. Tell your family and friends to join you in leaving for high ground.
I don't think the current crop of tsunami warning systems can do that much better than this common sense one. But, alas! we just can't make similar kind of common sense advice to anyone who might otherwise concern about freaque waves!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Storm surge is not tidal wave!

My friend Rob Stormer has a much wider information source for his blog than ordinary people. I am obliged to him for alerting me this news item (see here) about a giant wave impact on the state Orissa, India -- a littoral state with a long coast line situated on the east coast of India. The news starts with:
At least 13 houses were washed away and three more houses damaged under the impact of high tidal waves in Podampeta, a sea-side village under Palibandha gram panchayat in Ganjam district, official sources said here on Monday. The powerful waves lashed the village inhabited mostly by fishermen during the last three days. Alarmed over another depression formed over the Bay of Bengal, the district administration apprehended more tidal waves and asked the fishermen families residing very close to the sea to shift to the nearby cyclone shelter.
Later on it reports:
The sea, which was about one km from the village, is now flooding it. Meanwhile, the huge waves which have been bothering the administration caused more damage to the coastline at Puri and Gopalpur, two of Orissa's finest beach resorts. The waves also washed away a portion of the newly-built marine drive at Puri on Sunday paralysing traffic.
As it is basically confined to the local concerns, understandably it did not receive wider media attention. For the local fishermen who only wish to cast their net in the Bay of Bengal peacefully, this unwelcome, unfriendly, natural phenomenon can be very devastating.What it struck me, however, was their use of the term "tidal wave" which is somewhat uncustomary to me, because it is clearly unrelated to tide. According to Wikipedia, the term "tidal wave" can customarily refer to a tidal bore, a tsunami, or the crest of a tide as it moves around the earth. In this case the phenomenon they called "tidal wave" does not fit into any of the three indications the Wikipedia classified. I think based on the description given in the article and the fact that they are worrying about the depression formed in the Bay of Bengal, the more customary term to use could be the "storm surge" which is an offshore rise of water associated with a low pressure weather system, typically a tropical cyclone according to Wikipedia. Clearly they have been vexed by storm surges in the region as they have already built "cyclone shelter" to cope with it. So "storm surge is not tidal wave" may be just minor semantics squabbles, but customary use of proper terminology can certainly minimize unnecessary confusions in the long run. That's why we prefer to use the term "freaque wave" for the sudden onset of an unexplainable, unusually large wave come out of nowhere in the open ocean instead of a host of the currently available terms: rogue wave, freak wave, giant wave, monster wave, sleeper wave, sneaker wave, killer wave, or even mad-dog wave, and others.

Monday, September 10, 2007

History-making hurricane year?

I was talked about "halfway through the 2007 hurricane season" yesterday based on my instinctive thinking. A different way of thinking, as given in this article by the Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Anthony R. Wood, in which he declared this morning that
"The 2007 hurricane season is just approaching its climatological peak, but already it has made history."
Whether or not we are half way through or approaching climatological peak, Wood's statement that this hurricane year has already made history is somewhat surprising to me. What was history making was that out of the seven named tropical storms so far this year:
"Two of them, Dean and Felix, mutated into Category 5 hurricanes, terrorized the Caribbean, and generated ferocious 160 m.p.h. winds."
"Both made landfall as Cat 5's. As far as anyone knows, in 121 years of recordkeeping that's the first time two storms have reached land at that awesome strength in the same season."
So in spite of massive loss of lives in both cases, 40 by Dean and nearly 100 by Felix, the facts are "passed beneath the public radar screen" as Wood puts it. His article is the result of interviewing hurricanes experts to explore the reason for this query. What he found out was rather interesting. According to Lynn "Nick" Shay of University of Miami Rosensteil School:
"Hurricanes tend to pick on different regions from season to season. Florida and the northern Gulf Coast had their catastrophic turns a few years back. North Carolina was a favored target a decade ago."
Obviously hurricanes don't follow the "affirmative action" principle. They choose different preferential targets to picking on from year to year, couldn't care less if it is politically correct or not. Scott Kiser of the National Weather Service's Tropical Cyclone Program explains it as by subtropical ridge with its heavier air tends to repel clouds and rain -- the prime hurricane-steering force. But
"For reasons that defy explanation and prediction, the ridge waxes and wanes and migrates over short- and long-term periods. All that waxing and waning is tied to imponderable global patterns."
So in a nutshell, the hurricane experts don't know much about the "why" either.

So with all the sophisticated gadgets, instruments, measurements, and whatever that's available, physically or politically, plus 121 years of record keeping at their disposal, the hurricane experts still don't really know much about what is really happening out there. May be this is an unfair characterization. But at any rate, it may be somehow comforting to the freaque waves researchers, who got none of hurricane scientists' apparatus except some satellite pictures, if they can not definitively talk about understanding and prediction in any substantive fashion. Similarly to hear any of the freaque wave experts talk about freaque wave prediction glowingly would not necessarily inspire any credence. This is not to seek excuse for the ineptness of freaque waves research, only to underscore the sad facts of lacking or voiding of real freaque wave measurements -- but no one seemed to be perturbed about it.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Stories of some Felix survivors

It is just about halfway through the 2007 hurricane season now, hurricanes have so far basically spared most of the U.S. states from their paths. But the hurricanes are certainly no less ferocious by any standard. The recent Felix that rampaged Central American turned out to be one of the devastating Catagory 5 hurricanes. This morning an AP article by Olga R. Rodriguez entitled "Hurricane survivors recount days at sea" tells a few terrifying stories from Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. For instance, this one:
Cecil Clark and Manuel Vendless could see the lights from land, could see safety, when Hurricane Felix's waves picked up their boat, slammed it deep into the ocean and spit it out into the darkness again.

Still alive, Vendless clung to a rope and Clark somehow crawled onto what remained of their simple fishing vessel. But it wasn't long before Vendless looked up at his friend, his face flashing before Clark in the lightning that crashed overhead, and said simply: "I'm not going to make it."

After he died, Clark lashed the body to the boat, and assumed he was next.

Clark had perhaps one of the most amazing stories of the storm. He bobbed in the ocean for more than three days until relatives of his dead friend, Vendless, found him in the water near the Honduran coast.

His body was covered with open wounds from exposure to the sun and sea, and he was burned by boat fuel and a rope that he had used to tie himself to his sinking vessel. He was delusional, unable to explain what happened or recognize his friends.

Later, on land, he sat on his couch in Puerto Cabezas, still shocked nearly speechless. When Vendless' mother, Rosa Miller, came to see him, he told her through tears that he held on to her son's body until Thursday, when the stench became too much to bear and he let his friend sink.

Miller broke down crying with him, kissing him on the forehead and reassuring him that they would try to find Vendless' remains.

"We are going to go again tomorrow with a diver to look for my son because even if they find his bones, I want to bring him to me," she said.

And this:

In bustling Maras Cay, 39-year-old Aurora Prada was selling snacks and soda to fishermen and collecting lobster for sale on the mainland when she noticed the darkening sky and the waves tumbling onto land, rising along the beach in a way she had never seen before. She and nine others to rush to a nearby house, seeking refuge.

The wind peeled away the home's simple, wooden walls, lifted the roof and tossed it into the air like a sheet of paper.

With waters rising all around them, the group found a small motor boat and headed toward a relatively protected swampy area, but the winds were so strong it took them two hours to move 50 yards.

"I thought of my children and how I was probably going to leave them orphans," said the single mother of five, all of whom who were safe on the mainland.

Narciso Omeli, 36, was in his stilt home on Maras Cay when suddenly the ocean swallowed the island, leaving Omeli in open sea. He grabbed a piece of driftwood and was tossed about. Soon, he was surrounded by others just like him, survivors who were caught helplessly in the storm's strong currents, none knowing where they would end up or if they would live.

Off Maras Cay, Rogel Calero had to wait for two lobster divers to surface before he could turn his simple, wooden sailboat toward shore. By that time, pounding rain began filling his boat with water. It wasn't long before a wave capsized the group.

He, his wife, his 21-year-old son, and four other relatives were tossed into the sea, clinging to debris. Calero watched as, one by one, the others disappeared into the water.

He floated for hours, clinging to a tree trunk. He stopped thinking, stopped believing he would survive, even after the storm passed and the sun came out.

And back on the mainland,

. . . the storm wiped out jungle hamlets and crops, but villagers emerged with few reported deaths. Immediately they began searching for the hundreds they knew were missing at sea.

A few survivors washed ashore, as did bodies, their bloated arms stretched toward the sky. Death toll estimated ranged from dozens to more than 100. An exact count will likely never be known.

Wives and mothers packed a pier and the beach at Puerto Cabezas, crying and waiting for word of those lost. Helicopters clattered overhead, while villagers paddled hollowed out canoes through water littered with broken trees, searching for signs of life — or death.

A private boat found Prada. She and the others were still frantically scooping water from their disabled motorboat, floating amid a few remaining trees that stuck up from the flooded Maras Island.

"As soon as day broke, calm returned and I knew I was going to live," she said.

Back on land, many grew frustrated with the rescue effort. Zacarias Loren, 48, begged a government official in broken Spanish for scarce fuel for his boat so he could search for his 19-year-old son, who was with a group of 18 people diving for lobster off a distant cay when the storm hit.

"These lives are important, too," Loren said after he failed to get the gas. "They might be floating alive, but they are out there alone."

Word came of many survivors who had washed ashore or been plucked from the sea along the most remote section of Honduras' coast. But no one, not even the Honduran government, knew exactly who they were.

One of the first to arrive in Honduras was Calero, who was found Wednesday, more than 30 hours after the hurricane hit. Miskito Indians searching the sea for relatives found him instead, pulling his battered and sunburned body from the water. They then took him back to Puerto Cabezas.

But dozens were still stranded in Honduras.

On Saturday morning, 38 men stumbled off a boat and onto the pier at Puerto Cabezas and were immediately surrounded by people desperate to find their loved ones among them. Cries rang out as wives and children recognized husbands, sons and fathers.

Loren spotted his missing, 19-year-old son, Angel, and wrapped him in his arms. Both cried in joy.

For us who are lucky not to be stuck on the Felix's path, we just have to count our blessings and pray for those who were affected. Hope someday ocean science research can develop some tangible advances to help people to effectively cope and survive this kind of calamities better. I hope it will not happen, but I will not at all be surprised if some clever soul still going to make the wize comment: "It probably has something to do with global warming!"

Friday, September 07, 2007

Wow! Stronger Hurricanes Mean Whopper Waves

"Stronger hurricanes means whopper waves" is the title of an article from the Discovery Channel which my friend Rob posted in his blog "Robin Storm" this morning without his own comment-- except adding a fabulous ocean wave picture taken from a ship. My immediate reaction to this title was in part what I've used for the title of this post: Wow! Stronger hurricanes means whopper waves. What else is new? Does anyone ever doubt a Category 5 hurricane generates much higher waves than a Category 1 hurricane?

I guess I am not very impressed with the connotation this title is trying to convey. To be fair, the author did making the disclamer that it is a subject of "intense controversy." What I am even less impressed is the sad fact that academic scientists rushing to jump on the global warming bandwagon and dragging ocean waves along with them -- without any solid scientific evidence only personal speculations. Any one who has ever really worked or looked at those cited buoy data objectively will not likely to dispute my contention. That reminds me this very amusing B.C. comic yesterday:
I would like to suggest to the author of this comic strip: It may even be more amusing if he could replace the words in the second panel with "It probably has something to do with global warming!"

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

An experience of the most dangerous job

I came across this very interesting article entitled "What the most dangerous job in the world taught me about coping with stress" by Kevin Thompson, from all internet places, the naturalhealthweb. I guess the article may be aiming at coping with stress, but what he told of his story as one time Alaska fisherman is real and very much of interest to me. Here's his story:
I began working as an Alaska fisherman in 1988. My main motivation for doing this was the money. Quite honestly, that’s the only reason I took the job.

And if you’ve ever seen that movie “The Perfect Storm” or watched those shows on the discovery channel, you have an idea of what it’s like to fish in Alaska. My own story isn’t much different and it taught me why being an Alaska Fisherman is know as “The Most Dangerous Job In The World”. The winter of 1995 had been an especially bad winter in Alaska. Fishing boats and fishermen's lives were being claimed by the Bering Sea almost weekly. I was working on the outside deck after dark and we were in an unbelievable storm. It was the worst I'd seen in my 7 years of fishing.

The kind of thing you only see in the movies. I was scared to death! But I had my own way of dealing with my fears. I'd never look out at the horizon when we were in a storm like this because I didn't want to see the big picture. I didn't want to know how high the waves really were. So I'd just concentrate on my job, which was to get all the fish onto the boat. As long as I did my job, and didn't look up, I could almost convince myself that the storm wasn't that bad. While this certainly wasn’t the best way to deal with stress, at the time, it was the only way I knew how. As always, the captain was in the wheelhouse driving the boat.

His job was to keep an eye on me and watch for the dangerous rogue waves that would come out of nowhere and slam into us broadside. He'd tell me if I was in any real danger. And then it happened! I heard the captain's thundering voice over the intercom system. Kevin! Hit the deck! Before I could react, I was buried under a wall of water that hurled me all the way across the deck of the boat, face first into the railing on the other side. When the water settled, and I realized what had happened, my immediate thought was, "Thank God I'm still on the boat" The impact had knocked out my front teeth and caused serious facial damage, but at least I was still alive, and on the boat. If that wave would have lifted me just a few inches higher, I would have been thrown right over the top of the railing into the freezing waters of the Bering Sea.

And there's one thing I knew for sure. In a storm like that, there's no way in hell the captain would have got that boat turned around in time to save me. I would have died right then and there. It was at that moment I decided my life as an Alaska Fisherman was over. While it was a great experience, I’ve never regretted my decision to leave the fishing industry.

They were in a bad storm, but it appears that they had also encountered a real freaque wave. That's certainly not an uncommon occurrence. It happens all the time and that's why they are in the most dangerous job of the world. I don't think anyone would second guess his decision to quit. Watching the Discovery Channel show "Deadliest Catch" would certainly convince anyone that's most definitely not a job for everyone. At any rate it's of interest for me to have another real life eyewitness account of an encountering with the potential deadly freaque waves. We still have no idea how frequent or not frequent or where those kind of things happen. A real life experience is always helpful!