Tsunami photos and videos

In xkcd.com/1010 (I have a hard time not reading that as “ten”) I said that before 2004, there weren’t really any photos or videos of tsunamis. This isn’t quite true—there were a handful of photos and at least one video.

When I was a kid, I was had an irrationally powerful fear of tsunamis (Etymology-Man would suggest “cymophobia”). I swam in the ocean a lot when I was very young, so waves were a big part of my world.  I would fret about tsunamis whenever I was near the coast, and to this day I have occasional nightmares about a wave coming out of nowhere and sweeping me away.

Looking back, part of what made tsunamis frightening was was that I didn’t know what they looked like, and my imagination ran wild filling in the gaps. I read what I could find about them. In particular, I remember being just old enough to work my way through this book, and carrying it around with me so I could read the tsunami section over and over. It included a grainy photo of a ship in a Japanese harbor plowing through an unimpressive-looking line of breakers. I think that’s also where I found a photo of some people running away from something (it was this photo, but the reproduction in my book was too grainy to see what they were running from).

Years later, after the rise of the web, I realized maybe I could now find a video of a tsunami, and finally see the thing that had so captivated me as a child. But my searches for videos didn’t turn up much of anything.

Then the 2004 tsunami happened. Shortly after, as YouTube and its various clones proliferated, there was more horrifying footage available than I could handle.

A year or two ago, I read an article somewhere (I have tried to find it again with no luck) which mentioned that before 2004, there hadn’t been much in the way of photographic or video records of tsunamis, and that this had contributed to a lack of understanding of their form. My childhood impression seemingly confirmed, I worked this into a comic.

It turns out I was mistaken. There are several photographs, some of which can be seen here, here, and here. There’s also a video here (sent in by Phil Plait).

I think what confused me as a child was that none of the photos showed the wave I expected—just debris, and occasionally some visible water. Now that I’ve seen horrifying videos like this, I’ve gone back to some of those old photos and realized that they did show a tsunami. It was just so unlike what I was expecting that I didn’t recognize it.

So thank you to everyone who sent in information. It’s really fascinating stuff. Oh, and anyone interested in the history of tsunamis might want to check out a Google Books advanced search for material published before 1850 containing phrases like earthquake waveearthquake tide, or earthquake water feet. There are some gripping historical accounts buried there, along with some really interesting speculation by 19th-century scientists about the mechanisms behind earthquakes and their associated waves (the consensus seemed to be hot gas moving between subterranean chambers).

GoDaddy

xkcd.com is registered with GoDaddy. This is an artifact of my registering my own domains nearly ten years ago, back when I was completely new to making websites.

I’ve always been a little uneasy about having all my domains with them, since they’ve got a long history of screwing over domain owners, but never got around to doing anything about it. A little while back, as the SOPA thing blew up, I poked davean, the xkcd sysadmin, about whether it was time to make switching to someone more geek-friendly a priority.

He’s also wanted to switch away from GoDaddy for years (and recently met with the reddit folks to chat about SOPA stuff). He’s periodically done surveys of the alternatives, but—strange as it sounds—he’s actually had trouble finding an affordable registrar with the feature set we needed. In particular, he said he had trouble finding any that support IPv6 Glue and DNSSEC via a control system that doesn’t rely on filing and waiting on support tickets, which he says (and I quote) “freaks me out” as a means of handling registrar stuff (he’s very much an xkcd.com/705 style of administrator). The ones that did offer those features tended to be a little too high-priced for our large number of domains.

We’ve had a number of alternatives recommended in the past week or two, but none have quite satisfied davean’s criteria. If you know of any registrars that might work for us, you can email us at contact@xkcd.com and he’ll take a look.

We’re being cautious about how we handle this switch, since GoDaddy has seemingly been obstructing transfers in a way that can leave the sites trapped in limbo. But don’t worry—it’s in the works!

Money chart

I had a huge amount of fun putting the money chart together. It was the first time in a long time that my life’s been stable enough that I’ve been able to really disappear into a project—I’d almost forgotten how enjoyable it can be.

I’ve corrected a bunch of typos and other minor errors, most of which crept into the project during the final 36-hour no-sleep marathon to integrate all the pieces together. (Those corrections, plus a few more that will be added over the next few days, will all be integrated into the printed version).

Now it’s time for me to to spend some time relaxing with family, and trying to break the habit—trained into me by the research I did for the chart—of thinking of everything in economic terms. To those of you in the US (GDP: $15.18 trillion[1], total net worth: $58.73 trillion[2]), have a happy Thanksgiving!

For the handful of hurricane geeks out there

Selections from lost NHC discussion bulletins:



HURRICANE HUMBERTO DISCUSSION NUMBER 5
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
500 AM EDT THU SEP 13 2007

THE NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER HAS DETERMINED...BASED ON RECON
AND MODEL GUIDANCE...THAT "HUMBERTO" IS A RIDICULOUS NAME FOR
A HURRICANE. THIS WILL BE THE LAST ADVISORY ISSUED CONCERNING
THIS STORM...UNTIL A MORE SERIOUS NAME IS CHOSEN.

$$ FORECASTER BLYTHE


HURRICANE FABIAN DISCUSSION NUMBER 15
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
5 AM EDT SUN AUG 31 2003

FORECASTER AVILA CONTINUES TO INSIST...DESPITE ALL RECON
EVIDENCE...THAT IT WAS NOT HE WHO TOOK MY SANDWICH FROM THE
NHC FRIDGE. THIS ASSERTION IS NOT SUPPORTED BY FORECASTER
STEWART OR MY STATISTICAL MODELS...AND BASED ON THE TIGHT
CLUSTERING OF GUIDANCE...I AM ISSUING A WARNING FOR FORECASTER
AVILA...THAT HE HAD BETTER BRING HIS OWN LUNCH TOMORROW. THIS
WILL BE THE LAST WARNING ISSUED FOR FORECASTER AVILA.

$$ FORECASTER JACOBS


HURRICANE JEANNE DISCUSSION NUMBER 5
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MIAMI FL
5 PM EDT TUE SEP 22 1998

THIS IS JUST TO SAY...THAT THE STORM IN THE ATLANTIC...WHICH
WE NAMED JEANNE...IS STRENGTHENING. IT HAS A DISTINCT EYE...
LIKE A WOMAN...AND GOOD PRESENTATION ON RADAR. THIS IS ALSO
TO SAY...THAT ADVISORIES MAY BE ISSUED FOR BERMUDA...WHERE A
DRYING FISH...RESTS ON A BEACH...BESIDE THE COCONUT PALMS.

$$ FORECASTER CARLOS WILLIAMS


TROPICAL DEPRESSION IVAN DISCUSSION NUMBER 59
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
11 PM EDT THU SEP 16 2004

THE LOW LEVEL CENTER OF CIRCULATION OF TROPICAL DEPRESSION
IVAN COULD NOT BE LOCATED BY RECON...AND THE PRESENTATION IS
POOR TO ABSENT ON SATELLITE IMAGERY. IT SEEMS SAFE TO ASSUME
THAT...BARRING RENEWED CONVECTION ...THE CYCLONE HAS DISSAP--
...OH GOD...HE IS HERE...IVAN IS HERE IN THE OFFICE...EVERYONE
GET DOWN OH GOD HE IS INTENSIFYLKSDJFLKHHALKJKL...

$$ FORECASTER PRESCOTT


HURRICANE LILI DISCUSSION NUMBER 49
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MIAMI FL
11 AM EDT THU OCT 03 2002

HEY GUYS...I WAS JUST WONDERING...IF YOU EVER THINK ABOUT
THINGS. LIKE...YOU KNOW...WHETHER IT IS ALL WORTH IT.

$$ FORECASTER FREDERICK


TROPICAL STORM KATRINA DISCUSSION NUMBER 30
NWS TPC/NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER MIAMI FL
5 AM EDT TUE AUG 30 2005

THE WMO HAS DETERMINED THAT...DUE TO THE EXTREME DESTRUCTION
CAUSED BY THIS HURRICANE...THE NAME "NEW ORLEANS" WILL BE
REMOVED FROM THE LIST OF CITY NAMES...AND NOT USED FOR ANY
FUTURE AMERICAN CITY.

$$ FORECASTER SCHOEN


HURRICANE ISIDORE DISCUSSION NUMBER 24
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MIAMI FL
11 PM EDT SAT SEP 21 2002

HURRICANE ISIDORE CONTINUES TO STRENGTHEN...AND MOVE TOWARD
THE BAY OF CAMPECHE. HOWEVER...THE NHC WOULD LIKE TO REMIND
EVERYONE IN THE AFFECTED AREA THAT THE REAL STORM...IS INSIDE
US ALL.

$$ FORECASTER ANDERSON

Earthquakes

As many people have pointed out, my comic about tweets outrunning seismic waves seems to have been widely verified in yesterday’s earthquake:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/earthquake-twitter-users-learned-tremors-226481

It’s always nice to see real-life confirmation of your calculations! The quake started in Virginia at 13:51:04 EST, where most of my family lives.  Texts from my brother in Charlottesville (25 miles from the epicenter) were slowed down by the spike in cell traffic, but I got an IRC message from my brother in Newport News, VA at 13:52:09. Based on USArray/EarthScope detector readings posted at Bad Astronomy, his message overtook the seismic waves outside Philadelphia, and reached New England over a minute before the quake was felt there.

I once heard a story (originally told by Kevin Young) about Gerson Goldhaber, who was a physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. He was talking on the phone with another physicist at SLAC near Stanford University near the end of the day on Tuesday, October 17, 1989. The SLAC physicist suddenly interrupted with, “Gerson, I have to go! There’s a very big earthquake happening!” and then hung up. So Gerson stepped out into a group of people in the hall, made a big show of yawning and checking his watch, then said, “Aren’t we about due for an earthquake?” Before anyone could respond, the Loma Prieta earthquake reached Berkeley, and he became a legend.

My best friend from college is from Mineral, VA, a town of a few hundred people and one stoplight, which was at the epicenter of yesterday’s quake. A few years ago, he moved to Sendai, Japan, where he got an apartment just a few miles from the coast. Fortunately, he survived the March earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. Last I heard from him, he was moving back home. He really can’t catch a break. Fortunately, it sounds like there’s not too much damage. (Though from what I remember of Mineral, I can’t help but wonder—if the quake did cause damage, how would you tell?)

Oops!

I’m at a family reunion, where a YouTube-watching party inspired today’s comic. I woke up to find several emails letting me know, to my dismay, that the comic Doghouse Diaries has already done a similar strip about the same experience.

I linked to their site last year when I posted my color survey results, but I confess I hadn’t read through their archives, so I think this was just a case of parallel inspiration. Still, I really like their version and I’m sorry for the repetition!

Happy 4th of July, and to those of you spending it with family, enjoy sitting through your parents watching Double Rainbow for the first time!

Family Illness

Last fall I posted about a family illness, but didn’t give a lot of details.

In October my fiancée was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer. It’s rare for young women to get breast cancer, and she’s otherwise healthy and has no family history, so it was a real bolt from the blue.

She’s been in nonstop treatment for the last eight months, which has been an emotional and physical ordeal that’s hard to describe. We both have all the support we could ask for—including an incredible medical team—and we’ve had some really good moments during these months, but it’s still a terrifying and isolating experience. Treatment is ongoing, and there’s no well-defined end point; things are going to continue to be scary and difficult for a while.

I’m usually pretty private about my personal life, but I wanted to explain why I’ve missed some midnight comic deadlines and have been particularly hard to reach lately. I’ve also spent a lot of these eight months immersed in cancer science, and I want to be free to talk (and draw comics) about stuff I’m learning without the unexplained subject matter leaving everyone worried and guessing.

Thank you so much for your patience, kind words, and all the little flash games you all sent. And all the best to those of you who are also caring for someone with cancer, or who are struggling with cancer yourselves.

Answering Ben Stein’s Question

Ben Stein published a pretty awful editorial defending Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF head arrested for sexual assault. Now, I don’t disagree with him about the presumption of innocence, but the rest of the article effectively argues that smart, rich people simply don’t commit crimes. In particular, he says this:

In life, events tend to follow patterns. People who commit crimes tend to be criminals, for example. Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes?

On a whim, I just did a little research, and couldn’t believe what I found.  Guess who holds an economics degree?

Paul Bernardo.

For those not familiar with the case, Bernardo is one of the nastiest serial killers in history. He and his wife drugged, raped, and tortured to death a number of schoolgirls in the late 80′s and early 90′s. The story is the stuff of nightmares.

I’ll leave the debate over the rest of Mr. Stein’s article to others. But as for his suggestion that studying economics precludes becoming a violent sex criminal, it seems history provides one hell of a counterexample.

Edit: James Urbaniak has a list of some other economists involved in sex crimes.

Michael Bay’s Scenario

Last year I drew a comic about the oil spill in which Michael Bay spun an over-the-top worst-case disaster scenario. One of the panels was actually slightly more plausible than the others. It was based on a real disaster which almost happened in 1973, and in two weeks it may come closer to happening than ever before.

I learned about this from John McPhee’s The Control of Nature (adapted from this article), a book that my mom gave me as a kid (Happy Mother’s Day!).  I’m not any sort of an expert on the subject, but here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Every thousand years or so, the lower Mississippi changes course.  It piles up enough silt at its delta that it ‘spills over’ to a new shortest path to the ocean. At times, the outlet has been anywhere from Texas to the Florida Panhandle.

Since the early 20th century, the Mississippi has been trying to change course again—sending its main flow down the Atchafalaya river, which offers a much shorter, steeper path to the ocean.  The Army Corps of Engineers was ordered by Congress to keep that from happening.  The center of their effort is the Old River Control Structure, which limits the flow down the Atchafalaya to 30%.

Every now and then there’s a massive flood which stresses the system. The fear is that if the Mississippi ever broke through the ORCS and the main flow was captured by the Atchafalaya, it would be very hard or virtually impossible to return it to its old route. This would devastate the people and industries around in Baton Rouge and New Orleans who depend on the river (as if they haven’t had enough problems lately).  This almost happened in 1973, when a massive flood undermined the structure; this was the subject of John McPhee’s book.

They’ve since strengthened the structure, but the coming flood is quite a bit larger than the one in 1973.  In order to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge, they have to send some of the floodwaters down the Atchafalaya.

Here is the working plan for routing the water from a nightmare flood:

The Mississippi River Commission document outlining the plan is here.

This plan, put together after the devastating 1927 floods, is based around the estimate of the largest possible flood the Mississippi could ever experience.  In theory, the system is capable of handling such a flood, although much of it has never been put to the test.

The current flood moving down the Mississippi is going to stress this system to near its limit.  Here’s a version of that map with the current flow rates, with the approximate expected coming flood shown at the top:

This is based on the diagram at the ACOE Mississippi River page, which is updated daily with new flow rates.

The floods above the system are expected to crest 6′ higher than in the 1927 flood, the highest in recorded history, and 7′ higher than the 1973 flood that almost destroyed the ORCS.  Here’s the gauge just above the structure as of noon on May 8th:

The current Natchez gauge can be seen here.

The Morganza spillway has only been opened once (to take the stress off the failing ORCS in 1973), and then only partly. It’s fairly clear at this point that the Morganza spillway and the Bonnet Carré spillway will both be fully opened to route the flow away from New Orleans (which is expected to crest just a few feet below the tops of the levees there).

I have no idea how likely the Old River Control and Morganza structures are to fail, or whether a rerouting of the Misssissippi through a new channel would be irreversible.  You can read some speculation on this here.

Additional resources:

Wunderground blogger Barefootontherocks maintains a page full of resources on the current Mississippi flood, and there’s a lot of information in the comments.  The excellent Jeff Masters will probably have a post on the subject in the next few days. You can see more gauges and a ton of information at the NWS page on the lower Mississippi.

Michael Bay can be reached here.