Thursday, November 28, 2013

Good story of Japan.

The light bulb above our dining room table begins to swing. The windows rattle. The table shakes.

Then the whole room shudders, the walls vibrating violently.

A vase of flowers wobbles on a top shelf. Glasses clink. There's a loud rumble and a roar.

Then the bookshelf tears loose from the wall, scattering books everywhere, before we hear a shattering crash.

Then comes silence.

But not for long.

A few seconds later the floor begins to buck. The walls bulge. The room jumps up and down and moves from side to side. Crockery starts flying through the air.

I dive under the table, hold a cushion over my head, shut my eyes and start laughing.

When I open them I see Tokyo collapse in front of my eyes.

Then a buzzer sounds and an instructor comes into the room.

My disaster preparedness instructor bends down and looks at me cowering under the table.

She's pleased with my performance.

"Well done, you survived your first earthquake," she says with a smile. "Not bad for a beginner."

More: The best sushi restaurants in Tokyo

Preparing Tokyo residents for disaster

Tokyo has a number of unusual and relatively unknown attractions -- the world's only tapeworm museum and a noodle museum housing the world's largest collection of pot noodle cartons come to mind.

But only one tourist site has been declared an official disaster zone.
Tokyo Earthquake Simulation Center visitors learn emergency first aid and how to protect themselves after a quake.
Tokyo Earthquake Simulation Center visitors learn emergency first aid and how to protect themselves after a quake.

The Tokyo Earthquake Simulation Center is located on the fourth floor of the city's Ikebukuro Bosai-kan fire station.

It's open to the public and there's no charge to experience two minutes of terrifying tremors.

"Residents of Tokyo are required to attend courses to enhance their disaster preparedness awareness," says my instructor.

"Children and salarymen all come to learn what to do in the event of an earthquake."

The computer-controlled earthquake mimics a quake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale.

There are 50,000 reported earthquakes in the world every year.

They vary in seismic intensity. No area of the earth is entirely free from the threat, although some areas are more active than others.

Japan has had more than 60 major quakes, with the first recorded in 684.

The 2011 Tohoku quake registered a 9.0 magnitude and claimed nearly 16,000 lives.

The world's biggest earthquake is believed to have been the 1960 Valdiva Quake in Chile, which was a 9.5.

The quake that hit California in 1906 and ruptured a 70-mile length of the San Andreas fault was an 8. Other big ones have hit in Lisbon in 1755, New Madrid, Missouri in 1811 and Alaska in 1899.

The Lisbon quake -- which killed at least 60,000 people -- was so powerful that the water in Loch Lomond in Scotland oscillated for two minutes.

A serious earthquake with accompanying aftershocks is simulated every half hour every day except weekends and Tuesdays at Tokyo's Life Safety Learning center.

There are similar centers in Tachikawa and Honjo.

"The Great Hanshin-Awaji earthquake brought about catastrophic devastation," my disaster preparedness tutor tells me.

"We must all learn safety measures so we know what to do in such an emergency. It might save our own life and the lives of others. Here we learn how to behave during a catastrophe. How to keep a cool head and a calm body. Our programs improve all-round earthquake skills."

The center has a permanent exhibition to the 1923 Tokyo earthquake.

On September 1, 74,000 people died in seven seconds. Fifty-four percent of the brick buildings and 10% of all reinforced-concrete structures collapsed.

One percent of the city's houses were destroyed and 700,000 homes were burned down. The shock started a tsunami tidal wave that reached a height of 36 feet at Atami on Sagama Bay, where it destroyed a further 150 houses and killed 60 more people.

More: Insider Guide: What to do in Tokyo

'The real ones are no fun at all'
With 60 major earthquakes in the last 1,500 years and regular smaller tremors, prepping for a big one is part of life in Japan.
With 60 major earthquakes in the last 1,500 years and regular smaller tremors, prepping for a big one is part of life in Japan.

Earthquake-skills students are shown video highlights of the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

We watch motorways buckle and skyscrapers cave in. It could be make believe. But there are no special effects.

Courses at the center include basic fire extinguisher training.

There's a special room where you're given a canister and told to spray foam over anything and everything.

"It's very popular with the adults, as well as the children," says my instructor. "But there's a serious side. Students learn how to protect themselves and prevent fires from spreading after an earthquake. We also use a smoke maze and a tunnel to help people get used to being in smoke and learning how to get out of smoke-filled buildings in an orderly manner.

"We teach emergency first aid. And how to resuscitate injured people and administer cardiac massage. This is all to minimize the casualties when and if a quake strikes. We also have escape shoot drills.

"We have a lot of people coming back. Not because they want to learn more. They just enjoy being in an artificial earthquake scenario. Would you like to enjoy another one yourself?"

She smiles.

"I can arrange it. I can cause earthquakes!"

So once again I sit at the table in a mock-up of a typical small Japanese apartment, complete with kitchenette.

The young woman asks me if I'm ready, then presses a button. The room begins to shake again.

Following instructions, I run to the stove to turn off the gas supply and then open the door. Grabbing a cushion I find safety under the kitchen table.

The walls tremble and then the floor. The bookcase sways.

Through the window I can see video footage of falling masonry and giant dust clouds.

One moment a building is there and another it's gone.

The Tokyo area experiences minor tremors every day. My second one of the afternoon is over.

I pass with flying colors and am equipped to deal with an earthquake if I ever find myself in one's epicenter.

"But it won't be so much fun," my earthquake examiner says. "The real ones are no fun at all."

Above story is from

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Useful information with sea-food lovers.

Acid test
The world’s seas are becoming more acidic. How much that matters is not yet clear. But it might matter a lot.

HUMANS, being a terrestrial species, are pleased to call their home “Earth”. A more honest name might be “Sea”, as more than seven-tenths of the planet’s surface is covered with salt water. Moreover, this water houses algae, bacteria (known as cyanobacteria) and plants that generate about half the oxygen in the atmosphere. And it also provides seafood—at least 15% of the protein eaten by 60% of the planet’s human population, an industry worth $218 billion a year. Its well-being is therefore of direct concern even to landlubbers.

That well-being, some fear, is under threat from the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a consequence of industrialization. This concern is separate from anything caused by the role of CO2 as a climate-changing greenhouse gas. It is a result of the fact that CO2, when dissolved in water, creates an acid.

That matters, because many creatures which live in the ocean have shells or skeletons made of stuff that dissolves in acid. The more acidic the sea, the harder they have to work to keep their shells and skeletons intact. On the other hand, oceanic plants, cyanobacteria and algae, which use CO2 for photosynthesis, might rather like a world where more of that gas is dissolved in the water they live in—a gain, rather than a loss, to ocean productivity.

Two reports attempting to summaries the world’s rather patchy knowledge about what is going on have recently been published. Both are the products of meetings held last year (the wheels grind slowly in environmental bureaucracy). One, in Monterrey, California, looked at the science. The other, in Monaco, looked at possible economic consequences. Together, the documents suggest this is an issue that needs to be taken seriously, though worryingly little is known about it.

Omega point

Regular, direct measures of the amount of CO2 in the air date to the 1950s. Those of the oceans’ acidity began only in the late 1980s (see chart). Since it started, that acidity has risen from pH 8.11 to pH 8.06 (on the pH scale, lower numbers mean more acid). This may not sound much, but pH is a logarithmic scale. A fall of one pH point is thus a tenfold rise in acidity, and this fall of 0.05 points in just over three decades is a rise in acidity of 12%.

Patchier data that go back further suggest there has been a 26% rise in oceanic acidity since the beginning of the industrial revolution, 250 years ago. Projections made by assuming that carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to increase in line with expected economic growth indicate this figure will be 170% by 2100.

Worrying about what the world may be like in nine decades might sound unnecessary, given more immediate problems, but another prediction is that once the seas have become more acidic, they will not quickly recover their alkalinity. Ocean life, in other words, will have to get used to it. So does this actually matter?

The variable people most worry about is called omega. This is a number that describes how threatening acidification is to seashells and skeletons. Lots of these are made of calcium carbonate, which comes in two crystalline forms: calcite and aragonite. Many critters, especially reef-forming corals and free-swimming molluscs (and most molluscs are free-swimming as larvae), prefer aragonite for their shells and skeletons. Unfortunately, this is more sensitive to acidity than calcite is.

An omega value for aragonite of one is the level of acidity where calcium carbonate dissolves out of the mineral as easily as it precipitates into it. In other words, the system is in equilibrium and shells made of aragonite will not tend to dissolve. Merely creeping above that value does not, however, get you out of the woods. Shell formation is an active process, and low omega values even above one make it hard. Corals, for example, require an omega value as high as three to grow their stony skeletons prolifically.

As the map above shows, that could be a problem by 2100. Low omega values are spreading from the poles (whose colder waters dissolve carbon dioxide more easily) towards the tropics. The Monterey report suggests that the rate of erosion of reefs could outpace reef building by the middle of the century, and that all reef formation will cease by the end of it.

Other species will suffer, too. A study published in Nature last year, for example, looked at the shells of planktonic snails called pteropods. In Antarctic waters, which already have an omega value of one, their shells were weak and badly formed when compared with those of similar species found in warmer, more northerly waters. Earlier work on other molluscs has come to similar conclusions.

Not everything suffers from more dissolved CO2, though. The Monterey report cites studies which support the idea that algae, cyanobacteria and sea grasses will indeed benefit. One investigation also suggests acidification may help cyanobacteria fix nitrogen and turn it into protein. Since a lack of accessible nitrogen keeps large areas of the ocean relatively sterile, this, too could be good for productivity.

The Monaco report attempts to identify fisheries that will be particularly affected by these changes. These include the Southern Ocean (one of the few areas not already heavily fished) and the productive fishery off the coast of Peru and northern Chile, where upwelling from the deep brings nutrients to the surface, but which is already quite acidic. The principal threat here, and to similar fisheries, such as that off the west coast of North America, is to planktonic larvae that fish eat. Oyster and clam beds around the world are also likely to be affected—again, the larvae of these animals are at risk. The report does not, though, investigate the possibility of increases in algal plankton raising the oceans’ overall productivity.

At the back of everyone’s mind (as in wider discussions of climate change) are events 56m years ago. At that time, the boundary between the Paleocene and Eocene geological epochs, carbon-dioxide levels rose sharply, the climate suddenly warmed (by about 6°C) and the seas became a lot more acidic. Many marine species, notably coccolithophores (a group of shelled single-celled algae) and deep-dwelling foraminifera (a group of shelled protozoa), became extinct in mere centuries, and some students of the transition think the increased acidity was more to blame for this than the rise in temperature. Surface-dwelling foraminifera, however, thrived, and new coccolithophore species rapidly evolved to replace those that had died out.

On land, too, some groups of animals did well. Though the rise of the mammals is often dated from 66m years ago, when a mass extinction of the dinosaurs left the planet open for colonisation by other groups, it is actually the beginning of the Eocene, 10m years later, which marks the ascendancy of modern mammal groups.

Oceanic acidity levels appear now to be rising ten times as fast as they did at the end of the Palaeocene. Some Earth scientists think the planet is entering, as it did 56m years ago, a new epoch—the Anthropocene. Though the end of the Palaeocene was an extreme example, it is characteristic of such transitions for the pattern of life to change quickly. Which species will suffer and which will benefit in this particular transition remains to be seen.

Source :
The Economist.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Cow points to North!

Google Earth’s collection of satellite images covers the globe (and beyond), offering viewers a realistic view of millions of locations. Users can take virtual tours, learn about distant places, and explore the world.

Scientists are putting Google Earth to good use, as well. In 2008, a group of researchers pored through satellite images of cows from Google Earth. The group, led by Sabine Begall of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, found that cows were not positioning themselves willy-nilly in their pastures; they aligned their bodies in a north-south direction.

Begall and colleagues thought the most likely explanation for their finding was magnetic alignment. This is a simple directional response to the earth’s geomagnetic field. Some animals prefer to orient their bodies, especially when resting, in a certain direction with respect to the north-south axis. Magnetic alignment has been found in diverse animals, including honeybees, fruit flies, zebrafish, bats, foxes, and some rodents.

More familiar are the animals that use their magnetic sense as a cue in long migrations, such as sea turtles and pigeons. The detection and use of the planet’s magnetic field for navigation is a well-accepted and well-studied phenomenon. Simple magnetic alignment is less readily acknowledged. This could be because magnetic alignment is a subtler behavior or because we don’t really know why animals do it. And it could be due to the difficulty in observing magnetic alignment in many animals.

That’s where Google Earth comes in. Its widely accessible collection of satellite images allowed scientists a bird’s-eye view of how cows were aligned with respect to Earth’s magnetic field.

Recently, another group of researchers set out to independently assess cow alignment and find other factors that might influence whether cows line up with the Earth’s magnetic field. Pavel Slaby and colleagues from Masaryk University in the Czech Republic again used Google Earth satellite photos to analyze the positions of 2,235 cows from 74 herds in Europe and North America. They used the same or even more stringent criteria than the Begall group: they did not count cows that were eating, drinking, or following a visible track, and herds had to be at least 25 meters from settlements, 150 meters from electric power lines, and 15 meters from pasture borders or fences.

After analyzing the positions of individual cows and the mean alignment of whole herds, Slaby and colleagues found their data supported Begall’s original conclusion: resting cows in flat pastures do prefer to align their bodies in the north-south direction.

When Slaby and colleagues divided the herds into three groups based on their density, the picture became a little more complicated. Cows in low-density herds aligned with the north-south axis, whether they were evaluated individually or as a herd. But Slaby and colleagues found no such orientation in high-density herds, either in individual cows or herds as a whole. Cows in the middle-density group were intermediate, with magnetic alignment in individual cows but not in herds averaged together.

Why would higher-density herds not show magnetic alignment? Slaby and colleagues say cows’ social lives may get in the way. “The attention paid to others depending on whether they are higher or lower in hierarchy, the division of limited room within a group or simply getting out of the way when moving are all competing activities potentially masking the north-south alignment,” writes Slaby.

There is still the question of why an animal would choose to align its body with the north-south axis. Unfortunately, the best we can do is speculate.

In ruminants like cows, magnetic alignment may help keep the course of grazing and synchronize the movement of individuals within herds. It may also help herds make efficient, coordinated escapes from predators. Or perhaps maintaining a certain magnetic direction helps cows mentally map their everyday surroundings and learn new landmarks.

Some scientists have proposed interactions between magnetic alignment and some physiological processes. This speculation comes not from studies of animals but experiments involving humans. In people, sleepers aligned in the east-west position show a shortened REM latency compared to those in the north-south position. And scientists have found differences in the EEG scans of normal, healthy people depending on whether they sit facing the north-south or east-west direction.

At present, the biological function of magnetic alignment remains a mystery. We aren’t even sure how widespread it is in the animal kingdom. It took looking at cows from space to recognize the phenomenon in one of the most common domesticated animals with which we live. Scientists will have to continue using new technological tools and looking for subtle evidence to get to the bottom of this enigma.

-By Mary Bates by

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