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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Wave warning system approved; mysterious bat deaths

George Maul must be a happy guy these days.

Maul is a professor at Florida Tech in Melbourne. At least since 2002 he has been one of the few voices declaring that the east coast of the United States is in danger of severe damage from a tsunami. He was finally able to convince the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission to install a series of monitoring devices in the Atlantic and Caribbean to warn of any big wave's approach, but it was a low-priority project destined to take years and years to finish.

That was up until Dec. 26, 2004, when a series of tsunamis killed more than 160,000 people in coastal areas ringing the Indian Ocean. Officials said the loss of life could have been less if some warning system were in place there.

Last week, U.S. officials agreed to spend $37.5 million to install detection buoys in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean to detect the threat of a tsunami before it strikes shore. The system should be in place by 2007.

Also vital in the funding are plans for heightened public awareness of tsunami threats, plus more research and improvements and enhancements in gauges and other monitoring equipment already in place.

Tsunamis are usually created by earthquakes, underwater avalanches or after a meteorite strikes the ocean. The undersea disturbance creates a bubble of water only a few inches high that moves at speeds of upwards of 500 mph across the ocean. When the wave reaches shallower nearshore waters, the water starts to stack up, reaching heights of up to 20 feet.

The greatest tsunami threat in the States is in Alaska and Hawaii. There is an established warning system in the Pacific, though, which even includes speakers on some beaches in Hawaii to warn people to get to high ground.

However, severe tsunamis hit the western Atlantic every 100 years or so, and our time is up for another, Maul said.

In 1755, an underwater landslide - can there be an underwater landslide? - took place off Portugal, killing 10,000 people there. The wave reached Florida eight hours later but, since the state wasn't much of a tourist mecca then, the damage was minor.

Another tsunami hit the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1867 after an earthquake, casting a 20-foot wave into St. Thomas' Charlotte Amalie and a 30-foot wave into St. Croix's Christiansted Harbor. Maul has estimated a similar tsunami today could cause $500 million to $1 billion damage.

More recently, there was a rogue wave that hit Daytona Beach just before midnight in 1992 that injured 20 and damaged more than 100 cars. If it had been the next day - the Fourth of July - the damage may have been much worse.

Even Anna Maria Island was victim of a rogue wave on March 25, 1995. Called a "mini-tidal wave," there was no damage except to soaked towels and swamped beach chairs.

Island residents reported a 6-foot-high tidal wave - or a series of waves - striking the Island between 9:30-11:30 a.m.

Eyewitness Steve Gift literally hit the wave head-on.

Gift told The Islander at the time that he was riding through the pass near Bean Point on his personal watercraft when he spotted a huge wave breaking on the sandbar near the north end of the Island.

"I saw the wave and went to meet it near Passage Key," Gift said. "I'm 6 feet tall, and I had to look up at the wave. I'd guess it was at least 10 feet high or more."

Gift soared over the first giant swell on his 'ski. Then his small vessel began to "act up" - he later determined the impact of landing back into the Gulf had cracked one of the ceramic insulators on a spark plug - and he headed back to the Island.

"When I got near Cypress Street, I saw chairs and umbrellas tossed up into the grass, and a lot of people standing around looking wet," Gift said back then. "There were tidal pools where there have never been tidal pools before.

"Believe me, it's one wave I'll tell my grandkids about."

There was never any clear explanation as to the cause of the Island's mini-tsunami. There was no seismic activity in the Gulf, no reports of meteorites striking the planet, and the chances of an underwater avalanche in the usually placid Gulf were thought to be slight.

Weather experts were able to determine "ground zero" to be just south of Apalachicola between 6 and 8 a.m. that sunny morning. At the time, they were leaning toward two odd weather phenomena: A gravity wave or a dip in the jet stream that touched down in the Gulf.

The gravity wave - a rise in atmospheric pressure followed by a sudden drop in that pressure - seemed to move down the state than morning, weather officials said, with several stations reporting the fluctuation in barometric pressure. What was odd, though, was that such a gravity wave usually occurs with a cold front.

The skies were clear the morning of March 25.

The other possible option was that the miles-high jet stream took an unexpected dip down to the surface of the earth and touched the Gulf. The jet stream is literally a high-speed current of air that circles the globe.

A gravity wave was attributed to the cause of the Daytona Beach tsunami.

Early warning systems to notify the public about the pending threat of a tsunami seem to be a good thing, but I wonder if they could do more harm than good. If an earthquake-spawned tidal wave is detected off Africa and starts moving toward Miami Beach, could the affected area be evacuated in eight hours? Probably not.

Is it better to know or not know?

Wind generators fatal to bats

Power-generating wind generators are usually touted as being one of the greenest energy providers around, second only to solar power as a way to provide electricity without the burning of fossil fuels.

But researchers are now faced with a messy and potentially dangerous problem with wind power: the deaths of thousands of bats.

According to the Washington Post, a "wind farm" in West Virginia has killed thousands of bats, more than at any other such facility in the world. Environmentalists have claimed that wind turbines have caused the death of birds, particularly migratory feathered flocks, but never to the tune of the number of bat deaths.

The fatalities are putting a crimp in plans to expand wind facilities elsewhere in the eastern United States. Most wind farms are in the Great Plains or farther west. Plans are in the works to install about 700 new turbines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the next few years. The windmills are on towers about 350 feet high and catch the wind as it flows up or down mountains.

So what's the big deal about a few dead bats?

Remember that bats can eat their weight in bugs every night, and the insects they eat are the same bugs that cause crop problems. Less bats, more bugs, more pesticides to kill the bugs, more ecological problems elsewhere.

And we're not talking about just a few dead bats, either.

As the president and founder of Bat Conservation International in Texas put it, "Take the most conservative estimates of mortality and multiply them out by the number of turbines planned and you get very large, probably unsustainable kill rates. One year from now we could have a gigantic problem."

Bats navigate by using a very sophisticated radar system. Scientists don't know if the turbine sound is acting as some sort of bat attractor or if the noise is blocking the radar through some sort of stealth technology, making the bats blind to the threat.

This is definitely a story to keep on your radar screens.

Thanks for the memories, Paul

My old buddy Paul Bergin lost his battle with cancer Saturday morning. He was 60.

Paul was a freelance writer and had found a niche critiquing books, mostly mysteries. He had a couple of bookstores over the years and knew more about the art, science and trade of book collecting than anyone I've ever met. He was also a voracious reader who delighted in finding new authors and passing their works along to others.

One of the finest honors offered to Paul came from Stuart Kaminsky in his most recent book, "The Last Dark Place." The dedication: "For Paul Bergin, for his love and knowledge of the mystery and for his friendship."

I wish you well, my friend.

Sandscript factoid

Paul's favorite opening line from any novel ever was from "The Last Good Kiss" by James Crumley. He had it memorized and would recite it without any provocation. In his honor:

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

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