Battle of the Epic Whirlwinds: Hurricane Vs. Tornado

Earth Satellite Space

Versus

Destructive Powerful Tornado

In the Free State of South Africa, 2012 was a year marked by an outbreak of severe thunderstorms. This province lies quite far inland of the subcontinent, to the northeast of Cape Town and to the west of the Drakensberg; the magnificent mountain chain that borders the eastern coastline of South Africa. These severe thunderstorms caused quite a bit of grief for the inhabitants of the Free State, levelling 55 houses and hospitalising 5 people, according to All Africa online publication. But in addition to the heavy rains, lightning and wind damage, these thunderstorms had the ill-grace to drop a couple of tornadoes too!

To put things into perspective, South Africa is not a country known for tornadoes. If you’re thinking of tornadoes, your imaginative context is probably located in the aptly named ‘Tornado Alley’ in the mid-western states of America. Now, as someone who has a degree in atmospheric science, you can imagine how many questions I was fielding from people who had heard about the severe weather events I just mentioned. Not questions as such: statements rather. People rarely ask me questions about the weather. I think they’re afraid of the answers. I can handle that… but what I couldn’t handle was the fact that people were confusing hurricanes with tornadoes!

“Did you hear about the hurricanes in the Free State?”

Portrait of young woman slapping hand on head having a duh momen

To anyone in atmospheric, Earth, ocean or any related sciences – regardless of your specialization – confusing tornadoes with hurricanes is like confusing your grandmother with Megan Fox. It’s like confusing an elephant with a pineapple. The concept of a hurricane tearing across the Free State is about as alien to the weather educated as a giraffe cavorting around the North Pole. Wearing snow shoes.

But, before you cringe at the memory of you making this rather Herculean error, one must take into account that the majority of you out there aren’t weather educated. That’s perfectly all right! We’re going to change that right now. Hurricanes and tornadoes: what’s the difference? Moreover, what’s the big deal if you get them confused? Well, when it comes to these two somewhat (ok, VERY) tempestuous weather phenomena, size really, really, REALLY…

… really, REALLY, really, REALLY, REEEEEEEEALLY does count.

Hurricanes: Kicking Ass and Taking Names

Hurricane Fran satellite image

Satellites captured this fairly terrifying image of Hurricane Fran hurtling towards North Carolina on the 5th September 1996. “Fran” caused so much trouble that they decided to NEVER call another hurricane “Fran” again. 

FYI, hurricanes are named alphabetically according to their order of development during the hurricane season. The first to appear will be named something beginning with an ‘A’, the second ‘B’ and so on and so forth. Hurricane Fran was therefore the 6th fully fledged tropical cyclone to develop that season and one whose limelight was solidly claimed in 2005 by Katrina and again in 2012 by Sandy. Those bitches!

Hurricanes are large tropical storms born over the equator. Fed by prodigious updrafts of hot, moist, sexy air, these giant swirling monsters generate, via condensation alone, 200 times the electrical generating capacity of the entire freaking planet, according to the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory. For those of you who like numbers or are easily impressed by them, this equates to 600,000,000,000,000 Watts. This is not even to mention the amount of energy generated by hurricane winds, which is an additional 1,500,000,000,000 Watts of unbridled weather rage!

I don’t even know what that number is… a billion million? A trillion zillion billon million?

Ooh! Aah! Hurricane Statistics

Windy Coast huge waves

  • Damage: Should they make landfall, hurricanes can cause tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage. Katrina was only a category 3 storm when it had its fender-bender with the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And yet its damage was estimated at $81,000,000,000!
  • Storm Diameter: Hurricanes are huge systems with an average diameter of 800 km (500 mi), although Hurricane Carla, which raged into the Texas coast in 1961, was an especially big girl at 1280 km (800 mi) across.
  • Wind speeds: Hurricanes are wrathful systems with category 5 storms (you do not get larger) generating winds of over 250 km/hr or 156 mi/hr.
  • Associated Severe WeatherHurricanes are social creatures. They have loads of friends they like to bring to the party they tend to gatecrash. These include torrential rainfall, thunderstorms, lightning, hail and storm surges, which is an increase in average sea level that can be in excess of 5 meters or 19 feet! To add insult to grave injury, hurricanes can even generate tornadoes.
  • Weakness: For all their size, energy and capacity for total annihilation, these tropical super storms cannot survive over land. They require a tireless volume of hot, moist air – as is found over the equatorial oceanic regions – in order to preserve storm motion and momentum. That dry continental air just won’t do. Plus, all the friction and turbulence caused by onshore topography (mountains and such) tend to break up the party pretty quickly.

Tornadoes

“Cow…

‘Nother Cow!”

“Actually I think that was the same one”

– ‘Twister’, 1996

I regard tornadoes the same way a sadomasochist regards nipple clamps: they’re deliciously terrifying. Having said this, my opinion is fantastically unfounded because I have never, ever witnessed or had my house relocated by a tornado. If I had, I would probably drop the enthusiasm a notch.

Strong tornado in Kansas

 A Kansas tornado tears across a country roooooad, take me hooooome.

A tornado is a raging column of rotating air that extends from the ground to the base of its parent cumulonimbus cloud, “Cumulonimbus” being the longest and fanciest word everyone remembers from High school geography. I know this because every time I tell someone I have a background in weather, they say, “Oh! So you, like, studied cumulonimbus clouds!”

Yeah, something like that buddy.

Tornadoes are generated by severe thunderstorms in atmospheric environments full of wind shear and abundant lower level moisture, amongst other ingredients. Next time you’re in the bath or swimming pool, make your hand flat, put it in the water and paddle. You’ll notice tiny little vortices or whirlpools that spin off in either direction.

“Wind shear” really just refers to two masses of air moving at different speeds and/or different directions to each other. And, just like your hand in the pool, shear in the atmosphere generates the same kind of ‘whirlpools’ in the air, although you can’t see them because air is invisible. What happens next in tornado genesis is a powerful updraft of air, which pushes these horizontal columns of rotating air vertical. And this is when shit starts getting real.

Severe weather thunderstorm.png

A gorgeous supercell thunderstorm at sunset. This cloud formation, known as a “mesocyclone” to academics and a “mothership” to nerds, is the atmospheric platforms from which tornadoes are commonly spawned.

Ooh! Aah! Tornado Statistics

  • Damage: It just takes one tornado straying into a heavily built up area to rack up damage totals that would bankrupt an entire country. In May of 2011, a single tornado tore through Joplin in Missouri – a city of 50,000 inhabitants. The reports that emerged at the time estimated the damage of insured property alone to be in the region of $3,000,000,000 (billion), and all from a single tornado. This doesn’t even take into account the uninsured losses suffered.

Tornado damage in Lapeer, Michigan.

On the brighter side – Tornado, 1: Insurance companies, 0.

  • Wind Speeds: Tornadoes are violent creatures. The wind speeds that tear around the funnel, more specifically, of F5 tornadoes, have been clocked in at over 500 km/hr or 315 mi/hr. This is more than half the cruising speed of a commercial airliner.
  • Associated Severe Weather: Like hurricanes, tornadoes are social. You will generally find them hanging out with lightning, torrential rain, giant hailstones, wind (duh) and the occasional cow or 18-wheeler semi-trailer.
  • Lifespan: For all their fury, tornadoes are relatively short-lived with the longest ‘twister’ on record having raged on for 3.5 hours. This suspected F5 tornado, dubbed the Tri-State Tornado, tore through 350 km (220 mi) of Illinois, Missouri and Indiana on the 18th March in 1925, leaving almost 700 people dead in its wake.

While hurricanes may boast more impressive size statistics than a single tornado, one should note that the kinds of thunderstorms that generate tornadoes are rarely isolated and often travel in waves with one thunderstorm cell feeding the formation of several others. In 2011, in fact, the National Severe Storm Laboratory recorded the most prolific outbreak of tornadoes in American history! Between April 25th and April 28th 2011, a staggering 358 tornadoes were recorded, with the majority of them having touched down within a single 24-hour period. Thanks to a much more sophisticated weather forecasting and tornado warning system, this outbreak caused half the death toll as the single Tri-state Tornado of 1925.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

real airport weather map Hurricane Frances

There are many big and important differences between hurricanes and tornadoes, most of which are related to scale: scale in size, in wind speeds, in damage done and in lifespan. Hurricanes are huge weather systems that last days and can cause widespread destruction. Tornadoes are much, much smaller weather phenomena generated by severe thunderstorms. Yet, in spite of their exponentially smaller size and shorter life spans, they can do incredible localized damage and frequently boast wind speeds greater than even a Category 5 hurricane.

So, to sum it all up and pack it in a nutshell:

Tornadoes can rearrange your back garden and perhaps relocate your house.

Hurricanes can rearrange your province and perhaps the entire eastern coastline of your country.

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Epic Rap Battles of History: Ghostbusters vs. Mythbusters

I could quite happily watch Epic Rap Battles of History all day. If there was a job that involved doing this, I’d cut a bitch to be the first in line to get that job. However, reality dictates that I wade my way through work of a slightly less glamorous nature in order to pay my bills. I’ll just have to be happy posting the odd science-themed rap battle on this blog… and with the Ghostbusters team up against the Mythbusters nerds, this one’s a real doozy!

Video Source: Uploaded by ERB on YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0pnTm-KK9k

Prehistoric Life: A Time When Size Really, Really Did Count

From flying insects that would cave in your car’s bumper to a snake that, at an average 50 feet (15m) long, could easily have eaten a herd of cows for breakfast… there are some pretty large animals to have roamed the Earth in its history and this amazing science video takes us on a journey through them. It also provides us with a relative scale, so that we can appreciate just how f***ing huge they are in comparison with our own tiny selves. Just do yourself a favour and turn your computer’s volume off, because the accompanying music will make you want to bludgeon yourself to death with a brick.

Video Source: “World’s 10 Biggest Animals of All Time” Uploaded by Hybrid Librarian on YouTube channel https://youtu.be/qVftGh4K8JA

How To Bake a Diamond

Beautiful diamond gem

Diamonds have been getting men out of trouble for hundreds of years. They have also been getting men into trouble for hundreds of years. So, what’s so special about diamonds? They’re really pretty, they’re really strong, they have a great pair of tits…

Sorry, that’s Lara Croft.

DIAMONDS are really pretty, they’re really strong and they’re really RARE. They are also the gemstone of choice when it comes to getting hitched because, just like Shirley Bassey sang, diamonds are forever.

Diamonds are Forever… No, Really, They Are!

Aside from their unparalleled resilience and durability, diamonds are spectacular-looking rock minerals. Cut into a complex and intricate array of facets and planes, their refractive light properties send out a kaleidoscope of colour which spans the visible light spectrum, even though the gem itself appears totally translucent and colourless.

What are diamonds? What are they made of? How are they formed?

Yeah, yeah… what you REALLY want to know is what it takes to bake your own diamond so that you can become super rich and super lazy just like Paris Hilton. Well, just like everything else on this planet and in our universe really, diamonds are made of tiny, tiny building blocks. A closer look into their crystal structure tells us just how these highly coveted stones are formed.

Diamond, which is derived from the ancient Greek word adámas, meaning ‘unbreakable,’ is made from one of the most common elements here on planet Earth. It’s in the soil we walk on, in the air we breathe and in the food we eat. Here’s another clue: you’re made from it.

Carbon!

Diamonds from black carbon

It’s the same black crap your science teacher created from burning sugar, the same black crap the graphite in your pencil is made of and the same black crap shown in the picture above. Oh, how unromantic!

Surely such a rare and highly prized stone would be constructed from something equally as exotic and just as rare? Alas, my friends. It is not the building blocks of diamonds that make these stones so special, but rather the conditions under which they are forged. It’s like baking a cake: at the right temperature and with the right cooking time, the cake will come out beautiful, spongy, moist and delicious. At the wrong temperature and cooking time, the same batter will come out black, bitter, inedible and more appropriately used as a bludgeoning weapon.

Carbon + Contaminant = Colour!

Colorful diamond array

We’ve established that diamonds are made from carbon. Actually, they’re made from a carbon allotrope, just so that you geology geeks don’t get a kick out of correcting me. But for all intents and purposes, diamonds are essentially made out of carbon. And carbon is abundant. So, theoretically, you should be able to make your own diamonds! Just don’t tell anybody about it or you could throw a major spanner in the traditional works and symbolism of marriage, just like those pesky homosexuals who want equal rights. I mean, who do they think they are?

Hold on a minute! All it takes is carbon? Then what gives some diamonds their colour? Well noted, my avaricious rapscallions! Diamonds don’t ONLY come as colourless, expensive globules of carbon. Interestingly enough, the unique and very rigid arrangement of carbon atoms in the crystal structure of a diamond (cubic to be exact) makes it difficult for other chemical elements to infiltrate it, causing impurities. This explains why the insides of most diamonds look so beautifully pure and translucent.

Most, but not all.

Diamond, actually, is quite snobby. It only allows very particular elements into its crystal lattice and then again, it only does this on the rare occasion. To give you an idea of just how fussy diamond is, it is estimated that for every million atoms of well-behaved carbon, there is a single alien atom infiltrator. The result: a fantastic analogy for opening your heart to different races, creeds, genders and nationalities.

And colour!

The colour of a diamond can have a huge influence on the amount wealthy housewives get their husbands to pay for them. Blues and greens are exceptionally rare, so they will fetch a high price. Yellows and browns are more common. And there’s nothing like a brown diamond to make you feel REAL special.

Now, gather your cooking implements and turn the oven on… HOT.

Hot temperature oven

Diamond Recipe

What You’ll Need:

  1. Carbon
  2. A choice of chemical impurity or radioactive element (for colour)
  3. Titanium metal
  4. A shovel
  5. Patience
  6. A degree in town planning

Step 1: Take carbon and mix in desired chemical impurity, or pilfer local science laboratory for radioactive element*.

* If you want to bake a blue diamond like the one Rose threw into the ocean at the end, you need to add boron to your mix of carbon. If you want to bake a yellow diamond, you’ll need nitrogen. If you want your diamond to turn a more exotic shade of purple, pink, red or orange, then make sure you bury it close to a radioactive element, such as plutonium or uranium. Other colours, such as black, brown and sometimes even red and pink are caused by structural flaws that harbour dark impurities that only make them appear the colour they are.

Step 2: Put ingredients into an air-tight and incredibly durable box.

Step 3: Phone NASA for left-over titanium to build said box. If you struggle to get past some power-tripping secretary, you can always melt down your brother’s professional tennis racquet; a legacy from the days he actually thought he’d be a professional at anything. If THAT fails, dental implants are made from titanium, but whatever you do, don’t get caught at the morgue.

Step 4: Bury carbon-filled box at a depth of between 140 and 190 kilometres, or 85 to 120 miles, where there exist conditions of immense pressure and temperature. An ambient temperature of at least 1,050 deg Celsius is what you’re aiming for.

Step 5: Bake for at least one billion years, but it could take as long as three billion years. This is where patience comes in handy.

Step 6: Wait for a super-deep volcanic eruption to bring the box of crystallized carbon to the near-surface of the Earth.

Step 7: Plant a flag at the location, build a town, exploit the native inhabitants as your labour force and dig a big hole in the ground to retrieve your creation.

Step 8: Allow to cool before eating.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Beautiful gem diamonds

It’s probably better to buy a diamond than make your own.

This aside, the next time you walk past a jewellery store or stare lovingly at your own engagement/wedding ring, you should look – really look – at the diamond. Know that the real beauty of these radiant gems transcends the price tag affixed to them. Diamonds are approximately half the age of the Earth, they will last your lifetime and millions more like yours and they’re composed of carbon, the very same building blocks as you and me.

The very same material that is forged in the hearts of dying stars.

Fire and Brimstone – the Story of Volcanoes

eruzione Etna volcano
Mount Etna eruption, Nicolosi Catania, Italy

There’s something beautiful about a woman’s rage (not counting the tarts from Geordie Shore) and in no better way is this sentiment illustrated than by Mother Nature’s ire. As terrifying as it is to be at ground zero, from a safe distance, natural disasters are incredibly awe-inspiring and angry volcanoes deserve a top spot for making people go “ooooh” and “aaaaah” and “oh shit…”

Volcanoes are literal pathways from the Earth’s fiery guts to its crusty exterior. But the channels available for the molten rock and gas that spew forth are far too narrow to satisfy the sheer volume of indigestion within and the result is an immense build-up of pressure. The release of this pressure includes, but is not limited to, violent sprays of lava, devastating pyroclastic flows, stratospheric columns of volcanic ash, electrical storms, scalding gas and dust and Hiroshima-type explosions that not only dislocate millions of tonnes of solid rock, but have been reported to be audible many thousands of kilometres away from the point of origin.

Vesuivio_Eruzione eruption volcano
Source: “Vesuivio Eruzione April 26th, 1872” by Giorgio Sommer – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Volcanoes have the potential to send species to extinction, yet at the very same time, they nourish the biosphere in an appreciable radius around them (volcanic ash is highly fertile). Volcanoes are magnificent and a wonderful example of how the surface of our planet is in a constant state of dynamism.

Where Not To Go On Summer Vacation

Planet tectonics plate diagram

Volcanoes typically form at the convergent and divergent boundaries between the enormous shifting tectonic plates that comprise the Earth’s crust (see gorgeous image above). It is here that the seams of the Earth permit plumes of its molten interior to travel towards the surface. But as it was mentioned, the surface-bound transport of this material is anything but a six-lane highway. It’s more like a gravelly, pothole-ridden country road. The gas and molten rock that are trying to get from A to B encounter rigid rock and the cracks they exploit along their journey are incredibly narrow. A build-up of pressure results in a potentially explosive situation, so that when something finally gives, the results are disastrous for the local biology: human habitation included.

Volcanoes also form over features called “hot spots”, which don’t necessarily occur near plate tectonic boundaries (see diagram below). The Hawaiian Islands – all of them formed by volcanic activity in the middle of the Pacific Plate – are a prime example of this.

volcanic-hot-spots

There are several scientific theories that seek to explain what hot spots are and a popular one is that they are upwelling intrusions of molten material (mantle plumes) that originate at the boundary between the Earth’s core and mantle. The exact depth of this varies, but the Hawaiian hot spot is estimated to be 3,000 km deep. That’s 9,842,520 ft. for those of you in ‘Merica.

Volcano Classification

There’s more to volcanology than your stock standard angry Earth pimple. Volcanoes come in many shapes, sizes and compositions. What happens at the surface – what we see and experience when volcanoes awake from their slumber – is dependent on a suite of factors and an especially important one is the composition of the magma that is trying to escape the lithified constraints of the crust.

Lava Composition

Lava flow in Hawaii

Rock that is rich in silicates tends to form chunky, viscous slow-moving magma. This subset of liquid rock is in no hurry to go anywhere and tends to contribute to terrible congestion. It also has the particularly nasty habit of trapping gas, which is why things can get explosive. Since Hawaii is no stranger to seismic activity, its inhabitants have coined a word for this particular magma and it’s pāhoehoe.

At the other end of the spectrum, you get magma that doesn’t contain a lot of silicates, but is rather rich in ferrous (iron) compounds. This magma – ʻAʻa, pronounced “ah ah” – get’s extremely hot and tends to flow hard and fast. If you’ll excuse the crass analogy, the difference between pāhoehoe and ʻAʻa is much like the difference between constipation and Delhi belly.

Both, however, are extremely uncomfortable.

Magma isn’t, of course, one or the other. There is a vast spectrum of mineral compositions between, but by understanding the difference between one extreme and the other, we can begin to understand how different kinds of volcanoes are formed.

Cone, Shield and Stratovolcanoes

If there’s one thing to be said for geologists, it’s that they don’t mess around with terminology. The name bestowed upon a volcano is as transparent as a wet T-shirt.

Cone (Cinder) Volcanoes

Bromo volcano in Indonesia
Mount Gunung Bromo (Indonesian island of Java): A classic cinder or cone volcano

Cone volcanoes, also known as cinder cones, generally consist of a hill that can be anywhere from 30 meters (98 ft.) to 400 (1,312 ft.) meters in height. Formed from the eruption of materials that are riddled with gas, crystals and a hodgepodge of fragmented rock. To see an example of this kind of volcano, put on your sombrero, crack open the tequila and get on a plane to New Mexico. There, you will find a spectacular volcanic field called Caja Del Rio, which comprises more than 60 cone volcanoes. If the prospect of New Mexico doesn’t appeal, you can always bum a lift on the next scientific mission to Mars or the moon, both of which are believed to feature this type of volcano.

Shield Volcanoes

Kohala-Landsat Hawaii shield volcano
Kohala Mountain, the oldest of Hawaii’s five volcanoes. The entire island is a massive shield volcano. Source: By USGS (source usage) via Wikimedia Commons

Shield volcanoes have a much broader profile than cone volcanoes and, as the name suggests, are shaped like shields. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. These beasts are formed from the eruption of very runny lava that tends to escape the Earth’s crust before causing too much mayhem as a result of a build-up of pressure. Shield volcanoes are, by comparison, the placid elderly aunt of volcanoes and are most commonly found at oceanic tectonic boundaries. Oceanic plates aren’t usually rich in silicates, which explains why the magma produced here is more felsic in composition, hence its lower viscosity. Skjaldbreiður in Iceland (say that three times fast) is an example of a shield volcano. The Hawaiian Islands, which have formed almost smack bang in the middle of the Pacific Plate over a “hot spot,” are also shield volcanoes.

Pyroclastic_flows_at_Mayon_Volcano
In June of 2013, the Mayon stratovolcano in Albay, Philippines, reached Level 1 alert level due to what the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology refers to as “abnormal behavior”.

Stratovolcanoes 

Stratovolcanoes, or composite volcanoes, are the tri-polar member of the volcanic family. They look like your typical volcano but actually consist of alternating layers of different kinds of erupted material as the above diagram depicts. Stratovolcanoes produce a range of eruptions depending upon their mood and these include chunky cinders, choking ash and molten rock (lava). One of the best known (and least loved) of these volcanoes is Mount Vesuvius, which is located in Stromboli, Italy. This one was responsible for the notorious levelling of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD 79, killing 16,000 people. It is estimated that Mount Vesuvius released 100,000 times the energy liberated by the Hiroshima bomb.

Volcanic Hazards

Mount Pinatubo Explodes
Run? Source: “Point of View Photos” Huffington Post

When volcanoes become active, a number of things can happen, none of them good if you’re fond of life. One of the most devastating of these consequences is ash. You wouldn’t think so… ash is soft and white. How on Earth could it possibly inconvenience you the way a searing hot lake of lava might? Stratovolcanoes are especially fond of explosive eruptions, which send voluminous clouds of ash into the atmosphere and cascading down their slopes.

This ash, however, isn’t the kind you find in your barbeque pit after a night of camping, beer and sing-a-longs. It’s mixed with gas that is hot enough to disassociate your atoms. These eruptions send roiling clouds of gas, dust, ash and other debris down the mountain, which devastate anything organic in their path, leaving behind a scene that looks like a bomb went off in a cocaine factory.

Extinct, Dormant and Active Volcanoes: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Stromboli volcanic eruption3

Volcanoes are dangerous creatures. So an apt analogy for the popular classifications of these geological features would be your mother. When she has a gin and tonic in her hand (dormant), you may want to make plans for the evening. When she’s 10 G&T’s down (active), it’s time to execute those plans and get the hell out of the house. When she’s passed out on the couch (extinct), it’s safe to come home, although my recommendation to you would be to move out your childhood home and get yourself an education.

Extinct volcanoes, such as the Netherland’s Zuidwal and Shiprock volcanoes, are no longer considered to be active at all because they don’t have a supply of magma. They also have no documented history of indigestion. Dormant volcanoes, on the other hand, are known to have erupted at some stage in recent history. They may be quiet, but that doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly awaken. Mount Vesuvius (Gulf of Naples) was a purring kitten before it went psycho in AD 79, as was Mount Pinatubo (Philippines) prior to its epic tantrum in 1991. The latter is now considered an active volcano, which is one that has exhibited recent activity and is therefore a potential hazard to all within its vicinity.

Krakatoa

krakatoa-volcano-1883-eruption

If you’ve ever had a fight with Mexican food and lost (who hasn’t?) then integrating “Krakatoa” into your vocabulary is a wonderful idea if you need help explaining exactly what just happened to you to the flat mate who is next in line for the bathroom. You may not be absolved for your sins, but it’ll get you a laugh or two.

Krakatoa is a first class example of what happens when Mother Nature gets really cross and decides to let off a bomb that makes Hiroshima look like a fart. In 1883, the build-up of pressure under the Earth’s crust between the islands of Sumatra and Java in the Sunda Strait was so immense that it caused an apocalyptic-sized explosion, sending a once much bigger island into the stratosphere.

The Krakatoa eruption was reported to have been heard almost 5,000 km away (the loudest sound ever made in recorded history) and the resultant shock waves sent barograph needles oscillating violently off the page. Over 36,000 people were killed by the eruption: if not by the devastating pyroclastic flows and falling debris, then by the tsunamis that followed. The dust catapulted into the atmosphere caused stunning sunsets around the world for months after the eruption.

Too bad colour photography wasn’t in vogue in the 19th Century.

krakatoa - krakatau volcano map
Source: Krakatau Tour Website: A map of ex-Krakatoa and the now much smaller island of Anak Krakatau, which means “son of Krakatoa”. The dotted line represents the size of the island before it went nuclear.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

If you ever needed to respect the fact that we are just not in control of our natural environment, then stand next to an active volcano. From lakes of lava and earthquakes that shake the foundations of your stick hut to falling debris and scalding hot pyroclastic flows that choke the biosphere, volcanoes are creatures to be respected, studied and understood. If ever there were an item to put on your bucket list, it would be to stand next to an active volcano and feel the heat of Earth’s exterior lap at your cheeks. Just make sure you’ve ticked off the rest of those bucket list items before you do so…

Mount Redoubt Eruption
“Mount Redoubt Eruption” by R. Clucas – Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Mount Redoubt is a stratovolcano and is part of the very seismically active Aleutian Range in Alaska.

Sharks – They’re Just Not That Into You

Shark fin above water

When I step into the ocean, the furthest thing from my mind is getting eaten by a shark. There are so many other, more obvious things to think and worry about: getting laid, venereal disease, not getting a venereal disease from getting laid…

Hell, even falling coconuts are more likely to boot you out of this mortal coil than the love bite of a big fish. Yet, I know many people personally who are utterly terrified of sharks. I even had a girlfriend once who made a point of waiting to see whether the water was safe before getting in herself. And she did this by stationing herself on the beach while I cavorted around in the waves for a good ten minutes. When I didn’t disappear in a frothy explosion of blood and surf, she would sidle surreptitiously in and make sure to stay within two metres of the shore.

I dumped her shortly after.

Shark movie poster.png

Most of what we know about sharks comes from their portrayal by movies such as Jaws (1, 2 and 3), Open Water, Deep Blue Sea and a smattering of awful, completely scientifically inaccurate low budget films, a more recent one being the truly horrendous Sharknado and now Sharknado 2. Sweet Lord, as if one wasn’t enough! I can assure you that the last thing on a shark’s mind while being flung through the air by freak atmospheric whirlwinds is food.

True, a horror film about head bludgeoning coconuts probably wouldn’t clean up at the box office, but sharks really do get a bad rap from our insatiable appetite for being terrified in the comfort of our own homes while shovelling fistfuls of popcorn into our face holes. The fact of the matter is, sharks really aren’t that into you! And they’re as misunderstood as men with moustaches.

A hairy lip does not a paedophile make.

Creepy moustache guy

Shark Attack! Or Is It?

My good friend Christopher Reeves – marine biologist by day, superhero by night – raised this incredibly exigent point during one of our many intellectual and totally debauched conversations. Rather it was an exercise he regularly brings up with the bright volunteers that help out at the Seymour Marine Discovery Centre at which he works in Santa Cruz, California. He asks his students to close their eyes and imagine swimming in a cold, dark ocean and I’m going to ask you to do the same right now.

Imagine the feel of the cold salty water gripping your legs, arms and torso and the yawning depths of merciless dark seawater beneath you. A shark is nearby. The hairs on your neck stand up and an atavistic fear clutches at your breast. Imagine the shark: its lines, its inky black eyes, its snout, its rows of jagged, broken teeth.

Did the shark you pictured in your imagination look like this?

Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in an attack

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)

I would put my money on the vast majority of your answers being “yes”. This is a great white shark… the one made famous by Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel, Jaws, and later by Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film adaptation. MOST of the subsequent pant-soiling movies made about these fish are based upon the man-eating rampages of this very same species. So, it’s no wonder that our fear of sharks is not actually of the group as a whole, but specifically of great whites. It’s the reason they’re also referred to as “white death.”

Shark Diversity

In reality, the great white is only one of more than 470 different species of sharks in the oceans that comprise 70% of our planet’s surface. And these species are as diverse in habitats, diets and vocations as the crowds that make up a gay pride march. Great whites are amongst the largest species we know of, but sharks come in all shapes and sizes. Many species could easily fit in a paddle pool or even in a fish tank, while the biggest sharks – the whale shark and the basking shark – don’t even eat big fish or seals! Like baleen whales, they trawl the ocean with their mouths wide open, filtering the water for tiny plankton, crab larvae, krill, squid and micro-algae.

Whale shark and underwater photographer
Does a whale shark speak whale or shark?

These massive creatures are, like a vegetarian zombie, slow moving and completely disinterested in eating humans or any other large, fleshy animal for that matter. Braaaaains. That is, unless you were stupid enough to hang out near the mouth of a whale shark, in which case sheer bad luck would see you gagging the poor creature. In any case, you’d drown long before you were digested and I’m guessing that’s probably the more favourable option.

Dwarf_Lanternshark
“Dwarf Lanternshark” photograph by Javontaevious. Previously published: Javontae Murphy@ Facebook. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia.

On the other end of the size spectrum is the dwarf lanternshark, which is the smallest shark we know of according to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research.The dwarf lanternshark is thought to be the smallest species of shark in the world. I say “thought” because not even humans are arrogant enough to assume that every single species has been discovered and given a place into our taxonomy system. This particular shark lives along the upper continental shelf off of the coast of Venezuela and Columbia and at maturity, reaches a length of around 17 cm (± 6 inches). 6 Inches may be a whole lot of fun in the bedroom, but it’s certainly not going to send bloodied limbs flying in every which direction.

Lanternsharks produce light from tiny pores in their skin, which causes them to glow beautiful otherworldly colours. See? Size doesn’t always count. Pushed really, really hard, a lanternshark could probably give your toe a nip or at the very least a nasty suck, but they’re certainly nothing to be afraid of. In fact, they’re probably utterly terrified of you and so they should be. Ruthless overfishing of the Caribbean has put these sharks and many other species like them on the endangered list.

Why Do Sharks Eat Humans Then?

Great white shark

If you were a seal, a fish or a very unlucky seagull, you’d have every reason to get nervous around great white sharks or other similar carnivorous fish. Of course, sharing the water with a large predator would make even the most masculine of men scream like a four-year old girl, but the point is that we are not sharks’ natural prey. Shark attacks aren’t attacks at all… rather they are “accidents”. Like going on a second date with a guy who spends the whole evening talking to your boobs.

Sharks do make mistakes occasionally and appearances can be deceiving. A thrashing wetsuit-clad surfer on a torpedo-shaped board can quite easily pass for a delicious seal, so can you really hold them accountable for the gore that follows? At least we can blame alcohol for our poor decision-making. Sharks, will take a chomp, realise they’ve been duped and then tend to swim off or around in confusion. This is why so many shark bite victims have escaped with their lives.

Trust me. If an apex predator weighing more than 2,000 kg and having more teeth than a love-struck Tom Cruise wanted to eat you, it would. Consider your arm or leg to be a small sacrifice. An hors d’oeuvre.

So What Do We Need to Know About Sharks?

Funny shark picture meme

 Image Credit: WeKnowMemes.com

There are many hundreds of different species of sharks, but only a tiny handful have been known to take the occasional bite at a human being. Since larger sharks don’t hang around heavily populated beaches to indulge in easy feeding, we can only assume that these very rare events are cases of mistaken identity. We are simply not on the menu.

Does this mean that we don’t need to be afraid? Yes… but that’s not a license to be stupid either. Just because bears, wolves and other large predators don’t normally eat humans doesn’t mean you can go cavorting naked around the wilderness with a rasher of bacon strapped to your pink bits. And the ocean IS one big wet wilderness.

Just like Hugh Heffner’s mansion.

Sharks do not hunt human beings. They aren’t ruthless killing machines out to “get” you. They deserve much more understanding, far more respect and certainly far less blind fear and discrimination. Sharks are magnificent, powerful creatures and incredibly diverse and successful as a group.

Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message

Small shark in the ocean with amazing light ray

You are more likely to die from opening a bottle of champagne than by being eaten by a shark. Personally, I’d choose the shark… No one wants “died tragically from flying champagne cork” on their headstone and you didn’t even get to drink the champagne first! Choking, tripping, wind (the weather-related kind), bees and ANTS claim more lives per year than sharks. You love dogs and will readily walk up to one in the park for a scratch and a cuddle, but there are 20 canine-related deaths every year in the United States compared with sharks, which only claim one life every TWO years, according to the endless wisdom of National Geographic News. Hell, even cows pose a greater threat to human safety than sharks!

Sure, there are more cases of shark bites annually (16 in the U.S.) than there are actual fatalities (one every two years), but this is testament to the fact that they don’t like eating us. In most cases, a shark will leave you alone once they find out that you aren’t their type and you can’t say the same for tenacious love-struck human beings.