Archive for the ‘calamities’ Category


There are laws about how close a nosy tourist can sneak up on a whale, and most people assume that’s to keep the whales safe from the people. So imagine this couple’s surprise at learning the law also keeps people safe from whales.

Through some combination of whale movements and people movements, the kayakers got closer to this mother humpback and her calf than she approved. First she thwacked the water with a humongous flipper. A moment later she launched out of the water for a full-body layout to encourage the couple to put on a little more distance. Great picture of the splashdown here.

As a totally unexpected bonus, we get an eye-opening comments board at the Times Online’s version of the story. Comments aren’t about whale conservation or close calls with wildlife. They’re about how annoying the metric system is. Amazingly, almost all the comments are pro-Imperial units. And they seem serious! You almost think one of the commenters is Grandpa Simpson (“My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that’s the way I likes it!”).

I’m still in shock from hearing recently about some U.S. undergraduates fighting to comprehend the metric system – one in particular whose preferred way to get from centimeters to meters was to convert to inches, then to feet, then back to meters. When did powers of 10 become arcane?

Maybe we should just measure everything in elephants, a la this Onion story. My favorite line:

We saw a rat in the street the other day and he kept going on and on about how huge it was, saying, ‘That thing must’ve been at least .074 elephants long!’

For the record, a full-grown humpback whale is only about 2 full-grown elephants long. But thanks to the power of allometry, it weighs in at 4 elephants. Probably only around 1 elephant of lifespan. Top speed? Just 0.5 elephant (but here the system breaks down: though slower on land, a humpback can surely outswim an elephant. Vice versa is just not worth contemplating.)

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There Goes the Neighborhood


File under Not-Cute Baby Pictures #1: Large white shark eats small elephant seal at Ano Nuevo State Park, about 25 miles north of Santa Cruz. (Photo via park ranger-surfer Ziad, via Heathcliff, via GeeVeePee.)

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Miracle at Gate C15


Fortunately, I had put on my brown leather Adidas yesterday morning, and checked everything but my shoulder bag. Thus unencumbered and with the best possible traction, I was able to pick up amazing speed on the moving walkways of O’Hare.

My plane from Syracuse, which took off three hours late, landed 30 minutes after my San Francisco connection was supposed to have taken off. But this was O’Hare, where all flights are delayed at least a little. The monitor said United flight 155 to SFO was still at C15, status “CLOSED”. I ran.

A shuttle bus connects concourses F and C, and from the window I could clearly see the beautiful bulbous nose of a Boeing 767 nuzzled up against gate C15, jetway still attached. The bus pulled up to C concourse’s slushy back entrance and I bounded upstairs, ran over a Japanese teenager standing dead in the middle of the moving walkway, and crashed into gate C15.

Which was empty as a morgue save a few bored travelers already awaiting the next departure. No blue-suited United personnel anywhere. I beat on the closed jetway door. Contemplated opening the door, but chickened out. Cursed a few times.

That was how I came to be pressing my face against the window and gesticulating at the pilots through their window not 30 yards away. (The other travelers didn’t even look up.) I thought I saw the copilot look over. I waved my ticket and pointed at the jetway. Now the pilot looked over. I put my hands together as if I were a Catholic holding a tearful conversation with Mary. He shrugged his shoulders and looked away. I cursed some more and went back to the jetway door to beat on it.

Three more guys, businessmen, arrived, puffing. I told them what was up, and we all gathered at the window, staring at the pilots like choirboys. A flight attendant stuck her head into the cockpit and gave us the thumbs up. Miracles. Five hours later I could smell kelp in the air.

I have no idea where my bags are.

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Fast and Loose


Those of you who have been glued to the Polar Discovery website (bless you) already know of our Christmas-day hike to the 1911 stone igloo at Cape Crozier. It was great. We walked across the stupendous Crozier landscape, straight into a fog bank that draped us like a sheet. MacOps, the official radio folks at McMurdo, gave us the wrong gps coordinates for the igloo and led us out to the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, where we couldn’t see a thing. (We stopped before the crevasses started.)

We may have been lost, but we wasn’t bad lost. We knew right around where we was lost at. And we were armed to the teeth with technology. I whipped out the Iridium phone and called the paleoceanographer-staffed GPS Assistance Hotline that operates out of Santa Cruz, Calif., and we were on our way.

So, the funny part is that now we’re back in Christchurch, New Zealand. Chris picks up the weekend paper, and on the FREAKING FRONT PAGE, FOLKS, right under poor old Benazir Bhutto, is this headline:

Mind-googling rescue recalls ghosts of Antarctic heroes

No kidding. It’s totally cool to have the story picked up in The Weekend Press (“New Zealand Newspaper of the Year,” if the masthead is to be believed). On the other hand, it would have been nice if the reporter had actually talked – or even hazarded an e-mail – to anyone involved. Or perhaps just mention that the “quotes” he got from us were just text lifted from our websites.

No harm done, really, except perhaps for making us sound like a somewhat clueless “team of five modern-day penguin researchers” rather than a group of friends out for a Christmas-day ramble. And the cardinal sin: no links back to our sites. Bad reporter.

(Image: Viola)

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A few things I’ve been mulling over in between deciding I don’t have enough time to post:

First up is attack of the cicadas. Those are the cool spaceship-looking bugs that reach dizzying numbers every so many years and then make a deafening racket. This season is supposed to be a big one in Japan for the four-year cycle of the kumazemi, a cicada so awful that it has apparently spawned its own genre of haiku.

And the headline above is not misleading: these cicadas inject their eggs into the bark of trees, but have recently found that fiberoptic cables work just as nicely. They’re peppering exposed wires all around Osaka, and whole blocks are losing their Internet access. (The worst part is that then there’s no way for them to Google “What in the hell just happened?” So forward this post to all your Osakan friends while there’s still time.)

Science and Nature have stories on this, but you need a subscription. There’s free news here, and a blog post here. (thanks Charles)

Checking back in with the surf talk show Going Off (see Kind of Like Oprah…), host Pat O’Connell and returning guest Rob Machado take up the subject of the thruster’s total domination on the pro surfing circuit. (The thruster is a three-finned design that made for much faster boards and ushered in power surfing. A bit more background here.)

O’Connell squeezes some trenchant one-word sentences from Machado. (Hey, in some circles, distilling the truth into a handful of words is called poetry.)

Discussing the possibility of a four-fin board producing a winner:

MACHADO: Hey, Trestles. C.J. Hobgood. WQS. Different.

O’CONNELL: Grovelly.

MACHADO: But Trestles can have these moments of fatness.


MACHADO: You can’t take out of the equation the possibility of a single fin or maybe a twin fin.

O’CONNELL: <sound like tire deflating>

MACHADO: Don’t laugh at me, bro.

Even later, they stretch out a bit, and latch onto something:

MACHADO: It’s sad in a way, from my perspective. Being on tour, all I did was I had eight boards that were identical, and I just wanted to get the one that felt magic and I wanted to go out and ride that thing every day and do the same thing every day…. To expand your surfing and go somewhere else was the greatest gift about, uh, getting kicked off the tour. Wait did I say that?

It’s another step forward in the bold move to put words where no words have gone before. To unscrew the unscrutable, as it’s been put. But Pat, if you’re reading, next time you’re talking about the fine points of design, consider tackling why it works, not just whether.

Finally, if all you have time for (before the cicadas close in) is 30 seconds of video, you could watch Ozzie Wright get shacked for 18 seconds. That’s about 17.5 seconds longer than your typical Santa Cruz shack. This one’s in Indo, and I love how at the beginning you can’t tell how big the wave is. It looks about shoulder high. It isn’t. (Thanks Andy)

Apologies in advance for the soundtrack. No one should talk about killer whales that way.

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ninn1s.jpg Lt. Belgrave Edward Sutton Ninnis was also out sledging in Antarctica in 1912, and having a hell of a time of it, too. But he was a thousand miles from Scott’s hut on Cape Evans.

Ninnis was on Sir Douglas Mawson’s expedition to survey Adelieland, a slice of Antarctica south of Australia. Ninnis helped handle the expedition’s huskies and became one of Mawson’s two most trusted men. Just 25 years old and, as the picture illustrates, cute as a button, Ninnis was adored by Mawson, who called him “Cherub.”

On December 14th, 400 miles from the safety of camp, Ninnis hopped off his sledge to investigate a crevasse. He went straight through a snow bridge that two men and another loaded sledge had already crossed, taking six dogs, the team’s only tent, and nearly all their food to a bottom that lay far out of sight. One dog hit a snow ledge partway down and Mawson watched it die from the impact. There was no sound from Ninnis, and no hope.

Ninnis’s health had been declining in the previous few days. But they had turned for home, they were running on a slight downhill, and there were three of them to help with the pulling. The sun was shining. And then he was falling.

Scott’s team had its share of hardship and misfortune. But they fell through crevasse after crevasse and never lost a man to one. For it to happen out of the blue to young Ninnis seemed to Mawson the act of an angry god.

With no food and only a makeshift tent, Mawson and companion Xavier Mertz said prayers over the crevasse, named the glacier for Ninnis, and bent for home. On the way they ate the rest of their dogs – right down to their thyroid glands – and unknowingly poisoned themselves with dog liver. Only Mawson made it back.

It’s all recorded in Lennard Bickel’s harrowing (if oddly subtitled) “Mawson’s Will: The Greatest Polar Survival Story Ever Written.”

Don’t worry – this isn’t the start of yet another weekly Antarctic-disaster feature. I just thought it was a good week to remember all those good men who have been taken abruptly from their families.

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homer.jpgA brief article in the UK’s Sun newspaper says officials in Minneapolis may blame the recent bridge tragedy on accumulated pigeon poo. Nothing about the article seems to be kidding. And yet.

Their thesis is logically sound: pigeons, like all birds, excrete uric acid that theoretically could eat away at steel given enough time and, er, volume.

And pigeons – properly known as “rock pigeons” to birders, were originally cliff-nesters and like nothing so much for a perch as a narrow place above a precipitous drop. Bridges are lovely for this.

But let’s be honest. For anyone to mention this with a straight face, they’d better be able to point to at least one other known instance of Pigeon Doo Corrosivity Syndrome. Bridges and pigeons have been together for a long time, after all. Not to mention a swiss-cheese effect should have become evident on urban car roofs by now.

***This post is part of an anti-pigeon-defamation initiative on the part of the Scribbler. He has become aware that many people do not enjoy pigeons quite as much as they could if they approached the topic with an open mind. In fact, it might be said that some people resent them. Strongly.

But the pigeon is a noble creature, no less worthy of our appreciation just because of its pudgy body and walnut-sized head. The birds are all muscle. In a level race, they can outfly the speed racer of birds, the peregrine falcon. They are more considerate than your typical housecat, livelier than a goldfish, and cleverer than many a chihuahua or miniature terrier.

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File under win-win: research in Kenya shows that by raising tilapia, locals can reduce the population of a malaria-carrying mosquito (by a whopping 94%), then harvest the fish for the dinner table.

Spurred by the growing incidence of pesticide resistance among mosquitoes, the researchers began looking for nonchemical ways to kill the mosquitoes’ buzz. Mosquitoes spend their larval lives wiggling around in pools of water, gobbling microorganisms and hiding out in the foliage. Tilapia seem to go after them using something of a tiered approach: larger fish nibble on aquatic plants, depriving larvae of hiding places; and the tilapia fry go right after the larvae themselves. Apparently, people postulated a century ago that hungry fish should be useful malaria-fighters, but no one had checked it out numerically.

It’s interesting that many Kenyans already farm tilapia (which are native to the Nile), leading one to wonder why existing tiliapia farms haven’t knocked down the malaria problem yet. (The town the researchers studied records 2,200 malaria cases per year; globally, more than 350 million people get malaria each year, and 1 million die.)

Chalk it up to business misfortunes: when a farming operation goes under, the abandoned fishponds collect water and breed hordes of mosquitoes. The prospect of restocking those ponds and at the same time clearing them of mosquitoes suggests a worthwhile place to invest development funds.

Image: a cool stamp collection

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frontispiece.jpgThis is from February 1911, during their first summer:

The wind increased, and with the knowledge I now have of blizzards I would camp at once. Then I thought it better to shove on, as the ponies were marching splendidly. The danger lay in the fact that though it is easy for you to march with the wind behind you, you can’t march for ever and you will probably get tired before the wind does. Camping in a stiff breeze is always difficult, to say nothing of a gale.”

Later, in the fall:

But we got our first experience of cold weather sledging which was useful. The minus thirties and forties are not very cold as we were to understand cold afterwards, but quite cold enough to start with; cold enough to teach you how to look after your footgear, handle metal and not to waste time.”

That winter, camped in a half-igloo, half-tent on Cape Crozier 65 miles from the nearest building:

I do not know what time it was when I woke up. It was calm, with that absolute silence which can be so soothing or so terrible as circumstances dictate. Then there came a sob of wind, and all was still again. Ten minutes and it was blowing as though the world was having a fit of hysterics. The earth was torn in pieces: the indescribable fury and roar of it all cannot be imagined.

“Bill, Bill, the tent has gone,” was the next I remember.

A day later the blizzard had blown the roof off the igloo:

Birdie [Bowers] was more drifted up than we, but at times we all had to hummock ourselves up to heave the snow off our bags. By opening the flaps of our bags we could get small pinches of soft drift which we pressed into our mouths to melt… so we did not get very thirsty…. The wind made just the same noise as an express train running fast through a tunnel if you have both the windows down.

Cherry is admirably honest:

I can well believe that neither of my companions gave up hope for an instant…. As for me I never had any hope at all….

I had no wish to review the evils of my past. But the past did seem to have been a bit wasted. The road to Hell may be paved with good intentions: the road to Heaven is paved with lost opportunities.

And I wanted peaches and syrup – badly. We had them at the hut, sweeter and more luscious than you can imagine. And we have been without sugar for a month.

Soon after they made it back to the hut, Atkinson got lost while trying to check the meteorological instruments:

…He found himself by an old fish trap which he knew was 200 yards out on the sea-ice. he made a great effort to steady himself and make for the Cape.

Everything else is vague. Hour after hour he staggered about; he got his hand badly frostbitten: he found pressure [ridges in the ice]: he fell over it: he was crawling in it, on his hands and knees…. He found an island, thought it was Inaccessible, spent ages in coasting along it, lost it, found more pressure, and crawled along it. He found another island, and the same horrible, almost senseless, search went on.

You’ll be relieved to hear that Atkinson stumbled back to safety after more than six hours in the storm.

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Californians live busy lives – always beating traffic, etching tiny shapes into silicon, investing, divesting, protesting, cross-dressing, grape-squishing, etc. They don’t have a lot of spare time to worry about the Big One – that final great San Andreas earthquake that has been building for 300 years and is forecast to make the 1906 quake look as innocuous as Santa Claus’s belly jiggling.

Fortunately they at least have a few government institutions to worry for them. As LiveScience’s intrepid Jeanna Bryner reports, Caltech and the San Diego Supercomputer Center – long in the earthquake monitoring business – have teamed up to provide video simulations of real earthquakes.

Starting soon, data collected from any Los Angeles-area earthquake of magnitude 3.5 or more – that’s 1-2 per month – will be funneled to make a video of the actual ground’s actual shaking.  So if you have a particularly favorite earthquake you want to relive – or you’re just out of town and you miss one – you can just hit rewind.

To get you started, here’s a simulation of a possible Big One – a M7.7 quake that starts at the Salton Sea, near Palm Springs, and ripples westward to Hollywood. The simulation took 4 days and produced 10,000 gigabytes of data. In California, even the supercomputers are busy.

Image: LiveScience.com

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