The hair-raising truth about the Cornish tsunami triggered by under-sea earthquake

UPDATED: 10:23 EST, 17 February 2012

Calm as a mill pond: The normally steady waters around St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, were hit by the unexpected mini-tsunami

This week, parts of the Cornish coastline were hit by what appears to have been a mini-tsunami. The wave was of no great height, but it was still substantial enough to suck the sea out for 150 feet or more, before surging back in to drench the causeway linking St Michael’s Mount to the mainland near Penzance, and giving tourists a soaking.

The wave rolled up the estuaries and rivers from Mounts Bay in the West to Plymouth in the east, sending small boats rolling on their keels.

If that isn’t strange enough, witnesses said it was preceded by a surge of static electricity. ‘People’s hair stood on end,’ said a National Trust guide on the Mount.

Others reported the air going unnaturally still, with a dense, warm clamminess settling over land and sea before the wave struck.

Of course, the Cornish tsunami on Monday morning was tiny compared to the one that devastated Japan earlier this year. But the reports raise a tantalising question; might we have found one of the great holy grails of seismology — a reliable way of predicting earthquakes which could save thousands of lives?

Experts suggest that the Cornish tsunami was caused by either a small earthquake or an undersea landslide off the Irish coast 250 miles away.

One theory is that the resulting rock vibrations could generate a powerful electrical charge, strong enough to travel all the way along the seabed to land, up the beach, and reach the top of a tourist’s head.

‘It’s called the Piezoelectric Effect,’ says Chris Shepherd of the Institute of Physics, explaining that quartz crystals, present in the ancient rocks in and around Cornwall, could generate a high voltage if squeezed. ‘It’s the same effect used in gas lighters on your cooker.’

Intriguingly, something similar but far more dramatic seems to have taken place several days before the Japanese earthquake.

After studying data sent by satellites over the Pacific Ocean, NASA scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland have discovered that there was a sudden and dramatic pulse of heat high in the atmosphere over the epicentre of the quake 72 hours before it struck.

The heat pulse was associated with an equally dramatic increase in electrical charge in the air. Similar effects were reported, retrospectively, before the Haiti earthquake in 2007.

Just what was happening is something of a mystery. A persistent conspiracy theory doing the rounds on the internet links recent big earthquakes and secret radio experiments allegedly being carried out by the Pentagon.

Far more likely, however, is a little-understood phenomenon called the ‘Lithosphere-Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling mechanism’.

The theory is that in the days before an earthquake, the great stresses that have built up cause the release of large amounts of radioactive radon gas from deep in the Earth.

The radioactivity from this gas ionises the air on a large scale, electrifying it and heating it up. So could something like this, on a smaller scale, have explained the weird phenomena seen in Cornwall this week?

Perhaps what we saw was a combination of the piezoelectric effect and the release of radon gas — large quantities of which are present in Cornish rocks.

It is still very much a mystery. Dr Simon Boxall, an oceanographer who was out at sea on a small boat off the coast of Falmouth when the tsunami struck, thinks the wave had nothing to do with an earthquake at all, but instead was something called a ‘seiche’.

‘I’m 99 per cent certain,’ he says, pointing out that seismographs of the British Geological Survey did not seem to have detected any earth-shaking at all before the wave struck.

A seiche is a freak wave which can be caused by an area of very low or high pressure crossing an area of water.

If the speed at which the weather system is moving is just right, the sea underneath can ‘resonate’ like a wine glass ringing when you rub the rim in the right way, and a single big wave can come seemingly from nowhere.

‘The static had nothing directly to do with the wave, but it did have a lot to do with the low-pressure system,’ Dr Boxall insists, adding that southern England was hit by a number of powerful thunderstorms later that day.

‘The air would have been charged with static.’

Whatever the explanation, we may be getting tantalisingly close to finding a way to predict earthquakes — something dismissed as a pseudoscience until very recently.

For centuries there have been reports of lightning, static and even fireballs in the sky associated with earthquakes together with, of course, persistent reports that animals are able to sense that something is about to happen and flee to higher ground.

These reports are now being taken more seriously.

More than a third of a million people perished in the Indian Ocean tsunami, and 25,000 more in Japan this year.

If satellites — or even the hairs on the back of your neck — could be used to predict disasters like these hours or even days ahead, millions of lives could be saved in years to come.

The hair-raising truth about the Cornish tsunami triggered by under-sea earthquake | Mail Online.


NASA Gravity Experiment Finds Space-Time Vortex Around Earth, Like a Vat of Fourth-Dimensional Molasses

Gravity probe experiment used the most perfect spheres ever created

By Rebecca Boyle
Posted 05.05.2011 at 10:44 am

Perfect Spheres The spheres inside GP-B’s gyroscopes are considered the world’s most perfect spheres, yet tiny aberrations forced scientists to perform updated calculations to make sure their observations were correct. Stanford University

Like a beach chair sagging under a sunbather’s weight, the fabric of spacetime does indeed warp around the mass of the Earth — just as Albert Einstein predicted. And like a swimmer moving through the water, the rotation of the Earth affects the movement of spacetime itself. A gravity probe whose origins date to the era before human spaceflight has finally proved general relativity right, according to NASA.

The Gravity Probe-B measured the geodetic effect, the amount that Earth warps the space and time in which it sits, and frame-dragging, or the extent that Earth’s rotation churns spacetime around with it.

Einstein’s theories of relativity hold that space and time are woven together into a four-dimensional fabric, and that a weighty body like a planet or a star depresses that fabric, like someone sitting on a chair or a trampoline. Gravitational attraction is really just objects following the warped path.

What’s more, the rotation of a massive body would also affect the fabric, so that a distant observer would perceive objects close to a gravitational body as being dragged around. Think of Earth sitting in a vat of liquid — as the planet rotates, the liquid starts to swirl, too, and so does everything near the Earth.

If this is true, the axis of a gyroscope would change when compared to the light from a faraway star. This is what GP-B was designed to do.
Orbiting 400 miles above the Earth in a polar orbit, GP-B contains four gyroscopes made of quartz-silicon spheres that are considered nearly perfect — they’re in the Guinness Book of World Records. It has a telescope that stared at a single star, IM Pegasi, while the satellite made its rounds. If the Earth’s mass did not affect spacetime, the gyroscopes would point the same direction forever. But they didn’t, experiencing teeny but measurable changes in the direction of their spin. This is exactly what Einstein predicted back in 1916.

For those who are interested, it measured a geodetic precession (spacetime depression) of 6.600 arcseconds, plus or minus 0.017, and a frame-dragging effect of 0.039 arcseconds, plus or minus 0.007, according to lead researcher Francis Everitt at Stanford University. An arcsecond is 1/3600th of a degree. The satellite’s precision is thus equivalent to measuring the thickness of a sheet of paper edge-on from 100 miles away, according to an email from NASA. The calculations, published online in Physical Review Letters, mesh with Einstein’s predictions.

Scientists are calling it an “epic result,” and NASA announced the news at a press conference today. The success is despite the many twists and turns GP-B has experienced in its long life, from conception in 1959 to its eventual launch in 2004. It required new innovations along the way, including technology that can reduce drag, temperature fluctuations and magnetic influences on orbiting satellites. GP-B technologies are used in GPS equipment and were used on NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which determined the cosmic microwave background. After finally launching in 2004, GP-B ran out of funding in 2008 before researchers in Saudi Arabia stepped in.

GP-B’s legacy will be this verification of relativity, said Clifford Will, a relativity expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
“One day this will be written up in textbooks as one of the classic experiments in the history of physics,” he said.

[NASA Science News]

NASA Gravity Experiment Finds Space-Time Vortex Around Earth, Like a Vat of Fourth-Dimensional Molasses | Popular Science.