Tsunamis and the energy of atomic bombs

Despite the title, this is not about the shaky state of several nuclear power plants in post-tsunami Japan. Rather, I want to fawn over Kenneth Chang’s piece, The Destructive Power of Water (NYT 12 Mar 2011). An excerpt:

A typical bathtub holds 40 gallons or so of water. That is 330 pounds. A cubic yard of it, filling what at first glance seems a modest volume of 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet, weighs nearly 1,700 pounds, as much as the Smart micro car.

And when water is moving at 30 or 40 miles an hour, like the tsunami that inundated northern Japan on Friday, the heaviness of water turns deadly. Imagine 1,700 pounds hitting you at that speed, and each cubic yard of water as another 1,700 pounds bearing down on you. The destructiveness of a tsunami is not just one runaway car, but a fleet of them.

Explanatory science writing at its best. I love, love, love coming up with these kinds of dimensional reference points so that people really get what I’m talking about (Chang, by the way, is an alumnus of the same SciCom program at UCSC that I just finished last year). One of the professors cited in the article estimates the energy of the tsunami was comparable to that of an atomic bomb. Except we’re talking about sheer mechanical destruction instead of harmful radiation. Unless you count the shaky nuclear reactors …

Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about atomic bomb equivalents hitting Japan.

The point is that water is heavy, and it packs a punch. And the idea brings to mind a director describing the filming of an iconic scene in the 1983 movie Flashdance. A huge bucket of water is dropped on Jennifer Beals’ chest while her character, a dancer, is auditioning. Skip to about 1:25 in this Irene Cara video to watch that moment:

You can see her bracing quite hard against the chair, and watch her torso recoil in slow motion at the impact. According to the director, the first time they tried it, they used a lot more water and pretty much crushed her. And it hurt. Like trying to drink from a firehose.

Nuclear War Still Not a Good Idea

A NASA computer simulation shows that nuclear war could throws up a huge soot cloud that warms, rises, and blocks sunlight to cool the Earth. Now that’s the kind of climate change we like to see!

Except there’s also that pesky nuclear winter thing. You know, where the crops die for lack of sunlight and millions of people starve to death.  Not to mention the huge amounts of mutating radiation and radioactive isotopes that cause widespread death and suffering for many years afterward.  What’s more, all that crap in the upper atmosphere helps break down the ozone layer and let in even MORE cancer-causing radiation from the sun.

The original story from National Geographic News gets it mostly right and puts the “nuclear winter” caveat up high. Unfortunately, it has an eye-catching, idiotic headline:

Small Nuclear War Could Reverse Global Warming For Years? (National Geographic news, Feb 22)

Which spawned a ton of stupidly angled follow-ups, some from usually decent news sources:

A Small Nuclear War Would Stall Global Warming (Live Science, 2011 Feb 28)

Reuters picked up the story more than a week later, which is a sign of desperation for copy. Their version of the story doesn’t mention nuclear winter effects till near the end, which is news-speak for “that part is not important or background.” Actually, it IS important, and if you spent five minutes THINKING about the background info, you would realize that putting global warming in the lede and head is a totally cheap scrabble for readership:

NASA: Limited nuclear war could pause global warming (Reuters, 2011 Mar 03)

And it’s just a matter of time until a conservative news source like New American pitches the story as proof that government scientists are crazy:

Govt Scientists Propose Nuclear War to Curb Global Warming (New American, 2011 Mar 03)

Really, this research is about NASA flexing its computer modeling muscles. That nuclear war would be a devastatingly bad thing is decades-old news. The NEWS is that we have a much better ability to describe exactly how bad. Wired, thank goodness, got it right:

How One Nuclear Skirmish Could Wreck the Planet (Wired, 2011 Feb 25)

Yay Wired.com. Boo everyone else.