'Nature's Fury': NYC Exhibit Explores Science of Natural Disasters

Erupting volcano
Pu’u ‘O’o is a classic cinder-and-splatter volcanic cone on Kilauea, Hawaii. Expanding gases in the lava fountain tear the liquid rock into irregular globs that fall back to earth, forming a heap around the vent. (Image credit: © United States Geological Survey; Photo by G.E. Ulrich)

NEW YORK — From the eruption that buried Pompeii in A.D. 79 to the superstorm that shut down New York City in 2012, natural disasters are an unavoidable part of life on Earth. Once thought to be the wrath of the gods, these formidable events now have widely accepted scientific explanations.

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) explores the causes and aftermath of the mighty forces that shape the planet, from earthquakes to volcanoes to hurricanes.

The interactive exhibit lets visitors build their own virtual volcano, create and measure tiny earthquakes, and see what the eye of a tornado looks like. "Nature's Fury: The Science Behind Natural Disasters" will be open to the public from Nov. 15 to Aug. 9, 2015. [See more photos of natural disasters]

"For all time and in all places, people have sought to explain powerful natural phenomena, like hurricanes, floods, volcanoes, avalanches, wildfires, earthquakes and tsunamis," AMNH President Ellen Futter said Wednesday (Nov. 12) at a news briefing here at the museum.

The exhibit reveals how scientists study natural disasters, what they can learn from them and how that knowledge can help communities prepare for and adapt to these forces of nature.

"This is even more crucial in a time of tremendous environmental and climate change, when forces that scientists are actively trying to understand are having an impact on the degradation of the environment faster than we can keep up," Futter said.

Earthly rumbles

Earthquakes are some of the most destructive and least predictable natural phenomena. The new exhibit reveals how earthquakes occur along faults where tectonic plates move against each other. When that stress gets too high, the fault ruptures, producing a shock wave that can cause major disasters such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 that reportedly killed at least 3,000 people.

"We cannot predict earthquakes, and that is a scientific problem of the first order," exhibit curator Edmond Mathez, of the museum's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, told reporters at the event. What we can do, Mathez said, is "say something about the probability of an earthquake of a certain size occurring in a certain area over a certain time." [Top 10 Deadliest Natural Disasters in History]

Visitors can create their own tiny earthquake by stomping or jumping next to a seismometer, a device that measures the magnitude of an earthquake on the Richter scale. Each increment on the scale corresponds to a release of 10 times as much energy as the previous increment.

Powerful earthquakes sometimes also generate tsunamis. In 2004, for example, a 9.3-magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean triggered giant waves along most of the surrounding coastlines, which killed more than 230,000 people. The exhibit emphasizes the need for tsunami warning systems to help communities prepare for such devastating events, and the importance of cultural practices that can help the affected people recover.

Volcanic wrath

Few phenomena sculpt the Earth more visibly than volcanoes. More than 75 percent of the world's volcanoes lie along a 25,000-mile (40,200 kilometers) arc around the Pacific Ocean, called the Ring of Fire. When these volcanoes  erupt, the outbursts can have far-reaching effects on the planet's climate.

If you were to put a wall around Central Park and fill it to a height of more than 4 miles (7 km), that's how much magma is moving through the Earth toward the surface every year, said James Webster, a volcanologist and curator for earth and planetary sciences at the museum.

Webster simulates volcanic conditions in his lab, by superheating crushed lava rock inside a powerful oven. It's one of only two such labs in the world, according to members of the museum's staff.

Nature's Fury explores some of the most notorious volcanic eruptions in history, from Mount St. Helens in 1980, to Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, to Mount Pelée on the island of Martinique in 1902. Some volcanoes, such as the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park, haven't erupted for hundreds of thousands of years, but they can — and likely will — erupt again one day.

An interactive simulation lets visitors "build" their own volcano by adjusting levels of gas and silica, which influence how explosive an eruption will be. For example, stratovolcanoes erupt violently in a cloud of ash, whereas shield volcanoes erupt in gentle, flowing mounds.

Terrifying twisters

Fans of the 1996 movie "Twister" are familiar with the fearsome power of tornadoes. These violently rotating columns of air form when warm, humid air collides with cool, dry air to create thunderstorms. About 75 percent of tornadoes occur across eight U.S. states, in a region known as Tornado Alley.

The new exhibit explains how scientists, dubbed storm chasers, use probes to measure the wind speeds, air pressures and other parameters inside a tornado, which can help meteorologists predict a storm's severity and issue warnings to the public. [In Images: Extreme Weather Around the World]

Storm chaser Tim Samaras captured video footage of atornadonearStormLake,Iowa, from a special probe attached to the ground. A panoramic screen gives museum visitors a view from the inside of the twister.

Horrific hurricanes

Finally, the museum takes visitors on a tour of hurricanes (also known as cyclones or typhoons). These powerful storms, with winds of at least 74 miles per hour (120 km/h) usually form in the tropics. The exhibit describes the deadliest natural disaster on record in U.S. history, an unnamed hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas, in 1900 and killed 8,000 people.

Since then, scientists have learned a lot more about forecasting hurricanes, though the storms can still wreak havoc on communities.

The exhibit has an interactive map of New York City during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which shows the coastal areas that were most vulnerable to storm surges. The display also shows the city's efforts to mitigate damage from other massive storms in the future.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.