Over 60 dead after crane collapse in Mecca's Grand Mosque

Muslim pilgrims pray around the holy Kaaba at the Grand Mosque
Images and video in this post contain graphic images of death, and may be disturbing.

Indonesia's plane crash problem


Another Indonesian passenger jet went down, this time with 54 people on board. Read the rest

Earthquake early warning system gets a $4 million boost from USGS

A demo of the ShakeAlert warning system prototype, in action.
What if there were a way to warn people right before a big earthquake hits? Earthquake early warning system technology is already serious stuff in Japan, and a system in development for the U.S. just got some serious funding.

Photo of a monstrous hole swallowing a neighborhood

This giant hole is the result of water flowing into a salt mine in Russia. When the soil started shifting in 2005, the government shut off power to the area to encourage residents to leave.

On Tuesday, the mines were evacuated due to shifting earth, and the hole opened up on Tuesday evening. Russian authorities are studying the scene and performing air quality tests to determine whether noxious gasses are being released.

There Goes the Neighborhood Read the rest

Farmhouse narrowly avoids boulder-flattening

A farm in Ronchi di Termeno, Italy, was nearly squashed by titanic boulders that rumbled off nearby mountains in a landslide. One of them destroyed the barn, while another stopped a whisker shy of the farmhouse itself. The furrows the boulders cut through the fields are straight out of a golden age DC comic.

Boulder smashes through Italian farm [BBC]

(Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Images: downsized, cropped thumbnails of photos from the Associated Press) Read the rest

Chernobyl's deadly Elephant's Foot

This is a photo of the Chernobyl "Elephant's Foot", a solid mass made of a little melted nuclear fuel mixed with lots and lots of concrete, sand, and core sealing material that the fuel had melted through. The photo was taken in 1996. At that point, the Elephant's Foot had cooled enough that a human being could stand directly in front of it for an hour before receiving a lethal dose of radiation. When the Foot was first discovered, shortly after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl power plant, it delivered a lethal dose in just five minutes. You can read Kyle Hill's interesting history of the Elephant's Foot at Nautilus. And be sure to check out this 1991 video that shows how people were able to rig up robotic camera systems to safely take photos of the thing (though, as Hill points out, not all the photos of Elephant's Foot were taken safely). Read the rest

How to: Protect people from tornadoes

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about a story I'd written on the socio-cultural systems that underly natural disasters — how the way we think, and build, and think about buildings affects who dies and who doesn't. If you'd like to dig into that a bit deeper, Andy Revkin recently pointed me toward several stories he's written at the Dot Earth blog, about designing safety systems, buildings, and cities in ways that allow them to better stand up to the threat of a tornado. Read the rest

Why Oklahomans don't have basements

Seriously now. Why don't people in central Oklahoma have basements to protect them from tornadoes? The answer, according to the engineers and geologists I spoke with for a column at Ensia magazine, is almost entirely cultural. In fact, people who study disasters say that all natural disasters are really cultural ones — created when environmental forces run headlong into complex human social systems. And that presents an interesting question: How do you protect people from tornadoes in a state where most people don't want a basement? Read the rest

A marine biologist's guide to determining whether floodwaters really are shark-infested

This is an older piece, but given that we're into hurricane season, I expect it will come up again. How do you tell if the photo you've been forwarded, showing sharks swimming through flooded urban landscapes, is real or fake? Marine biologist (and shark expert) David Shiffman has a simple 5-step process. In fact, it's so simple that I'm sure many of you will already be familiar with these tricks. But, here's the thing, it's helpful to be reminded that the tricks are necessary. They're very easy to forget when a hurricane is crashing into shore and social media is blowing up. Besides which, this will make a handy link to forward to friends and family passing questionable photos of all sorts. Read the rest

Time Magazine uses Oklahoma tragedy to take deceptive potshot against "secular humanists"

Writing in a Time cover story about the virtue of service, Joe Klein took a religious detour: in the relief army helping Oklahoma recover from a barrage of tornadoes, he wrote, "you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals." He's lying out of his ass, Hemant Mehta points out. But that is the point, isn't it? Read the rest

At least 34 people have died in earthquakes in Iran

A 6.3 earthquake and one with a magnitude of 7.8 hit Western Iran in the course of just a week. These are largely rural areas, with a lot of mud brick buildings that tend to collapse when the earth shakes. It's hard to say how many casualties there are, in total. Scientifically speaking, the earthquakes were also fairly interesting, writes Chris Rowan at Highly Allochthonous. They happened in different — in fact, totally opposite — ways, with the smaller one happening as plates crashed into one another and the larger caused by tectonic plates moving away from each other. This was along the same plate boundary. How's that work? Rowan has the details. Read the rest

Why is it so hard to make a phone call in emergency situations?

When bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon on Monday, my Facebook feed was immediately filled with urgent messages. I watched as my friends and family implored their friends and family in Boston to check in, and lamented the fact that nobody could seem to get a solid cell phone connection. Calls were made, but they got dropped. More often, they were never connected to begin with. There was even a rumor circulating that all cell phone service to the city had been switched off at the request of law enforcement.

That rumor turns out to not be true. But it is a fact that, whenever disaster strikes, it becomes difficult to reach the people you care about. Right at the moment when you really need to hear a familiar voice, you often can't. So what gives?

To find out why it's frequently so difficult to successfully place a call during emergencies, I spoke with Brough Turner, an entrepreneur, engineer, and writer who has been been working with phone systems (both wired and wireless) for 25 years. Turner helped me understand how the behind-the-scenes infrastructure of cell phones works, and why that infrastructure gets bogged down when lots of people are suddenly trying to make calls all at once from a single place. He says there are some things that can be done to fix this issue, but, ultimately, it's more complicated than just asking what the technology can and cannot do. In some ways, service failures like this are a price we pay for having a choice and not being subject to a total monopoly. Read the rest

Meteor explodes over Russia

A meteor has exploded over Chelyabinsk , a remote part of Russia 150km north of Kazahstan. The meteor's descent was captured by many video cameras (largely the ubiquitous Russian dashboard cams, it seems).

The horrors of an avalanche (and the beauty of really amazing online journalism)

Now this is how you do multimedia.

At The New York Times, John Branch tells the amazing, terrifying story of 16 backcountry skiers and snowboarders caught in an avalanche in the Cascade mountains in February 2012. The article, by itself, is a must-read. But you should also take a look at the absolutely fantastic way that Branch and his editors put the online medium to good use — embedding interactive maps, photos that move like something out of Harry Potter, and more standard videos into a lovely, fluid design.

Alissa Walker, who pointed me toward this piece, said that she felt cold just reading it. And you really do get that feeling. All the elements of Branch's article are brought together in a way that enhances the urgency and amplifies your sense of experiencing somebody else's story. It's really, really, really fantastic.

Read the full story at The New York Times Read the rest

Crowds aren't stupid. Crowds aren't smart. Crowds are people.

We have this idea that physical crowds are stupid herds. Give them half a chance, and they'll form a stampeding riot mob driven by emotion. Look at history, though, and you'll see many examples of large groups of people being perfectly well-behaved. In fact, in disaster situations, like on 9/11, crowds can even organize themselves in practical ways to help others to safety.

Meanwhile, we tend to talk about virtual crowds — the kind that form online, or between physically distant members of a professional community — as smart. But if that's always true, why do these groups get caught up in financial bubbles and why isn't Twitter a more reliable place to pick up breaking news?

Physical crowds and virtual crowds are different things. But our stereotypes about them stem from a common problem. In both cases, we tend to treat "the crowd" as if it's a distinct entity — as if, at some point, individuals in a group stop being themselves and start to become limbs of a crowd creature. In my latest column for The New York Times magazine, I learned that that's not the way people work in real life. As Clark McPhail, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me, "Crowds don't have a central nervous system."

Gustave Le Bon was one of the first people to write about crowds as entities separate from the people in them. His 1895 book, “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind,” shaped academic discussions of human gatherings for half a century and encouraged 20th-century fascist dictators, including Benito Mussolini, to treat crowds as emotional organisms — something to be manipulated and controlled.

Read the rest

Won't somebody think of the rats?

I'm sure you've all been very concerned, worrying about the impact Hurricane Sandy had on New York City's rat population. The good news: Rats can swim and, while many rats likely died during the storm, there are probably still plenty of them alive. The really interesting news: Nobody actually knows how many rats live in New York City. There could be as many as 32 million. Read the rest

How cartographers helped clean up after 9/11

This image, made using a laser mapping technology called LIDAR, was taken on September 17, 2001. It shows a 3-D model of the rubble left behind in lower Manhattan following the attacks on the World Trade Center.

Minnesota Public Radio's Paul Tosto has a really interesting peek into the way mapping techniques like LIDAR were used to help rescuers and clean-up crew understand the extent of the damage, look for survivors, and rehabilitate the area around the disaster zone.

The Library of Congress work also includes data from a a thermal sensor flown at 5,000 feet over Ground Zero that provided images to track underground fires that burned for weeks at the site.

It's worth remembering that Google Earth didn't exist back then. The ancient science of cartography has been reborn with the technology of the last decade. Let's hope it's not called on again to map destruction.

See more at the MPR News Cut blog

Via Peter Aldhous Read the rest

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