A rip current may have different shapes, but it can always turn deadly.
June of 2023 was a disastrous month along Florida Panhandle Beaches. Having saved money all year for a beach vacation, tourists were dead set on entering dangerous water. They did so despite double red flags warning of unsafe water, police-levied fines (reportedly $500 in Panama City Beach), and lifeguard alerts.
The poster below defines the classic shape of a rip current, as well as methods for escaping that irresistible force of water returning offshore.
A Chance Encounter
Reality may be more complicated than shown in the poster. The aerial photos below, taken by my copilot wife in 2017, show an alternative shape of a rip current. Sediment stirred up in the surf zone stained the flow, revealing its form distorted by the down beach, longshore current. That sediment also exposed three rip currents along a three-mile section of the sandy beach.
The aerial photos validate the swimmer escape plan shown in the above poster. It also confirms that once you turn shoreward, you may reenter the rip current if you stray too close to the drained portion of the beach.
Paradoxically, if the current loops back as it does in these photos, and if you have flotation, the current might eventually carry you toward shore. Of course, if you drift too far down the beach, you might encounter yet another rip current.
From the Experts
The University of California San Diego Sea Grant Program answered a myth about rip currents in the following web article based on insights from Dr. Dalrymple, an Emeritus Professor at Johns Hopkins University and currently a Distinguished Professor at Northwestern University. I quote from that Sea Grant article.
Myth: If you get caught in a powerful rip, you can be swept out to sea forever.
Answer: Even under the worst conditions, you won’t be swept to the middle of the ocean, though it could be a long swim back to shore.
Most rip currents are part of a closed circuit, says Robert Anthony Dalrymple, a coastal engineer and rip current scientist at Johns Hopkins University. If you ride a rip current long enough – float along with it – you will usually be taken back to shore by a diffuse, weaker return flow.
The exception to this occurs during fierce storms, when pounding surf sets up powerful longshore currents that shed turbulent eddies. The seaward-flowing arms of these swirling currents may look and feel like “rips,” but they are not part of a circulation cell that will slowly carry you toward shore. Instead you’ll be deposited outside of the surf-zone, sometimes a distance of multiple widths of it. When the surf is big, most people should stay out of the water.
From Dalrymple’s comments, it seems that the above photos show longshore currents distorting the rip current circulation. If you were lucky enough to be able to float with those currents until they dissipate, you would indeed be left far from the surf zone.
As Dalrymple said, when the surf is big, most people should stay out of the water. But frankly, based on recent beach history, that is a gross understatement. Most emphatically, STAY OUT OF THE WATER when double red flags are flying. Those flags mean the beach is formally and legally closed.
The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought clarity to many things we have long taken for granted. One of those is the ritual of putting children to bed at night. For most of a century, parents have had the security of knowing their children were likely to survive the night.
Now, as before, that is no longer a sure thing.
World War II
I was born two months after World War II ended. Throughout my early years, echoes of the war still reverberated. Although knowing no violence first hand, I grew up with a book of poetry and prayers for children. One page featured a graphic of orphaned children saying night prayers during the London Blitz of 1940. The photo below is not exactly what was in my book, but it is similar.
On that page of wartime horror were the words I had been taught as a nighttime prayer.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
During my wife’s childhood, she recited that same prayer. Mirroring our own bedtime ritual, we taught our children the same words.
According to this source, this children’s prayer originated in the 1700s, inspired by Psalm 4:8. “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, LORD, only make me dwell in safety.”
1700s to 1900s
When that childhood prayer was still new to the world, high infant mortality was a fact of life. During the first months of the Covid 19 pandemic, I received a stark reminder of that statistic as I walked through the North Cemetery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
I came across a tombstone marking the deaths of all three of the children of Seth and Temperance Walker in a matter of four days in 1798.
According to the marker, Nancy, Temperance, and Samuel Walker were “promising children … who were lovely and pleasant in life and in their deaths were not divided.” The children were 12, 6, and 4 years old. Presumably, a contagion of some sort took those young lives in quick succession.
War brings its own contagion of horror and uncertainty to parents and children alike.
A Brighter View
When our youngest was five or six years of age, she was invited to a sleepover with my wife’s aunt. When her aunt heard our daughter’s prayer, she thought the words were anything but comforting for a child. So, she taught her a new version of the nighttime prayer, the same one she had taught her child.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guard me Jesus through the night, And wake me with the morning light.
Our little one taught that version to us parents, and we adopted it henceforth as an improved nighttime prayer for both our children.
A Darker Reality
However, over the past seventy years, humans have not evolved as much as we had thought. We had been deluded by a long period of relative peace into believing that over time, mankind had become more spiritual, more humane.
Clearly, that is not the case. The dark side of humanity, inhumanity, has risen its loathsome head once again.
As always, innocent children are being devastated, either bodily or emotionally. So, I expect that to the childhood victims of war, the blander version of the nighttime prayer that our daughter taught us seems out of touch with reality.
Whereas my family, historical and present, never put much thought into the last two lines of this 300-year-old prayer, Ukrainian children probably do.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
According to Google translate, the prayer I recited as a young child looks like this in Ukrainian.
Тепер я лягаю спати, Молю Господа, щоб моя душа збереглася. Якби я померла, не прокинувшись, Молю Господа душу мою взяти.
Teper ya lyahayu spaty, Molyu Hospoda, shchob moya dusha zberehlasya. Yakby ya pomerla, ne prokynuvshysʹ,
Translated back to English, we get the following.
Now I go to bed, I pray to the Lord that my soul will be preserved. If I died without waking up, I ask the Lord to take my soul.
Arguably, prayers can’t stop bombs and missiles from destroying human lives. However, bombs and missiles can’t destroy souls, especially those of the most precious human beings, children.
The first impression from the Fire Chief was that my childhood home had been firebombed.
As my Father headed home one afternoon in 1958, he had left behind the hectic traffic of Kansas City, Kansas. He was approaching the bedroom community of Prairie Village, Kansas, when he had to stop as a procession of fire trucks, sirens wailing, pulled into the road ahead of him.
Once traffic was moving again, he remained behind the fire engines. They happened to be headed his way. A few minutes later, the speeding trucks made a quick turn to the right as they entered a community of neatly shuttered Cape Cod homes less than ten years old. Coincidentally, that was where he needed to turn.
The vehicles slowed only slightly as they entered quiet residential streets. Young children leaving a nearby elementary school stared at the noisy procession. But oddly, the firemen were still heading in the same direction my Father needed to go.
He could now see smoke in the air as he approached within a quarter-mile of our home. And then, he shuddered as he watched the trucks turn up our street. Seconds later, he watched the trucks stop in front of our house, the Cape Cod house with a dense gray cloud of smoke billowing from it.
As he parked as close as the fire trucks allowed, he saw far more smoke than flames. Some would think that was a good sign, but he knew from painful experience just how deadly smoke can be.
When he was a teenager, he lost his Father to smoke inhalation in a hotel fire. So now, he was close to panic. His wife, my mother, had been alone in the burning house.
At first, all he could focus on was firemen dragging hoses through the open front door and smoke pouring out the door into the front yard. Then with great relief, he saw Mom standing on the opposite side of the street, surrounded by handfuls of neighbors. She ran towards him, seemingly safe, but of course, shaken.
Fortunately, she had been in a front bedroom when the stove exploded. She managed to escape out the nearby front door.
Something had detained me that day, either my safety patrol duties or the principal. I don’t remember which. As I turned up my street, an excited boy about my age, twelve, announced that I had missed a “cool” fire. But as I walked up the road, I saw that I was about to witness the fire’s aftermath, up close and personal.
The dining room was a mixture of charred furnishings and wet soot dripping down the walls. The glass in a window facing the back of the house had been shattered, leading to the initial assessment that an incendiary device had been tossed into the house.
The adjoining kitchen also had some fire damage, which was strangely limited. A charred path rose up to the ceiling from behind the stove and then angled over to the back door. Reaching the back wall, the path turned downward. One side of a curtain framing the glass in the back door was incinerated, a few blackened strands of cloth left dangling. Only a foot away, the right-side curtain panel was untouched.
A plastic wastebasket sat at the back door just underneath the left curtain panel. Oddly, the half of it closest to the door had been melted into a dark puddle. But the other half of the wastebasket was undamaged. The degree to which the heat had exacted its cautery was almost surgical.
Only two feet away from the strangely cleaved wastebasket was the open door that separated the kitchen from the dining room. Although the dining room was blackened by fire and smoke, the kitchen was largely unaffected, except for that curiously defined path of charred paint.
On top of the stove was a squat cylinder that filtered and stored bacon grease. Although the fire chief was suspicious that the bacon grease container might have been the source of the fire, its contents were untouched.
The grease can was topped by a handle made of black Bakelite plastic, somewhat like the one pictured below.
Strangely, exactly half of that knob was charred, the side facing the back of the stove. However, the side facing the room was untouched. One side of the knob was briefly exposed to intense heat, while the other was not.
When the fire investigator pulled the stove away from the wall, they saw that the 220-volt wires had shorted out. He suggested that imperceptible vibrations coming from the ground, or the effect on the house’s wooden framing of sometimes-violent Kansas winds, had caused the two large loops of high amperage copper wire to rub together.
That rubbing slowly chafed through the asbestos insulation separating them. The investigator guessed that the wear was imperceptibly slow until, at last, the power lines arced. Violently.
When 220-volt lines arc to ground, there can be an instantaneous current of several thousand amperes surging through the wires until the screw-in fuses of the era blew, robbing the circuit of power. But the damage had already been done.
In the intervening moment before the loss of power, the arc generated enough heat to cause a plasma of ionized copper atoms and suddenly freed electrons. The copper wires were not just melted; they were vaporized and turned into a chaotic ball of superheated positively charged atomic nuclei and negatively charged electrons.
Enriching the copper plasma was plasma from the air itself, nitrogen, and oxygen. You see, at plasma temperatures of thousands of degrees, electrons are ripped off molecules. Vaporized insulation would also have joined the ball of plasma.
The 4th State of Matter
Plasma is said to be the fourth state of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Arguably, it’s the most common state of matter in the universe. You can buy your own “plasma ball” as an object of curiosity for your home, like in the photo below. However, an unconstrained ball of plasma is altogether different. It’s not a good thing to have running loose inside your home.
Due to its incredibly high heat, plasma becomes buoyant, rising in the air. As the fire investigator noted, the approximately 8-inch-wide path of charred paint in our kitchen made it easy to follow the plasma’s path as it rose up the wall behind the stove.
Upon reaching the ceiling, the upward momentum of the seething ionic mass was diverted across the kitchen ceiling, angling towards the back door. Like a billiard ball ricocheting off the edge of a pool table, the sun-like ball then careened downward, incinerating the left-most curtain on the door and consuming half of the plastic wastebasket lying directly below.
Upon encountering the tile floor, the ball’s momentum carried it at a right angle through the open door and into the dining room.
Once there, the plasma ball exploded.
The entire house would have burned down were it not for the fast response of the firefighters. If the house had been fully involved in the fire, the charred trail in the kitchen would have been destroyed. That trace is what provided evidence of the passage of a buoyant ball of sun-hot plasma.
The next two frames from the video involved crossing wires attached to 110-volt wiring and a circuit breaker.
A high-speed camera was used to capture the time course of plasma generated by short-circuiting the copper wires. Shown below, the initial vaporization of the short-circuited copper wires produced the greenish-blue coloration expected for copper plasma. The contacts in the circuit breaker (inside the white circle on the lower left of the image) had not yet separated.
In the next frame, within a few milliseconds of plasma initiation, the circuit breaker contacts had opened, and the plasma started interacting with the surrounding air, creating a yellowish-white light. With the circuit broken, the current source had been removed. However, the plasma continued to grow, changing color as air and other things became ionized due to the extreme but highly localized heat.
Because of the relatively low 110-volts, the resulting plasmas were slight in comparison to the amount of thermal, electrical, and magnetic energy that must have been created in our stove’s 220-volt short-circuit. So, imagine an instantaneous current of several thousand amperes creating a ball of plasma almost a foot wide, shooting with a large bang out of the back of the stove.
In the following sequence of illustrations depicting the kitchen and dining room of the house, the path of the plasma ball is marked by a trail of soot.
The damage in the kitchen was limited to a small fraction of the room. Once the ball of plasma rolled along the floor into the dining room, fiery chaos ensued.
Plasmas caused by either electrical shorts or other energy sources such as microwave ovens can generate temperatures over 6000 K. However, typically those hot plasmas disappear rapidly once power has been removed. Such plasmas do not form a ball that travels across a room. Yet, if we were to believe the experienced fire investigator and our own eyes, that is precisely what happened in our house. It was undeniable that the kitchen range had exploded, but the most significant fire damage occurred in an adjoining room. The kitchen was scarcely touched.
There is one type of glowing sphere that can travel some distance while maintaining its luminescence and destructive ability. It’s called ball lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that many scientists still doubt exists. However, within the past decade, hard evidence of ball lightning has been revealed by happenstance.
One of the first descriptions of the above article in the easily accessible lay press was by the science writer Brian Dodson. His introduction of ball lightning is not only informative but relevant to the incident in our home. He is quoted below.
The reported size (of ball lightning) is usually between 1 and 100 cm (0.4-40 in), with the most common size being 10-20 cm. They do not tend to be extremely bright, usually appearing rather like an incandescent lamp in surface brightness. Colors include red, orange, and yellow.
The balls persist for times between about a second and a minute, and tend to move at a few meters per second, often, but not always, horizontally. They seem to be able to pass through closed doors and windows, and even penetrate areas which are usually proofed against lightning. Their final decay is usually rapid, and can range from benign to rather large explosions.
After that introduction, Dodson described what the Chinese scientists had observed.
Physicist Ping Yuan and his team from Northwest Normal University in Gansu Province, China, had positioned spectrographs to investigate lightning on northwest China’s Tibetan Plateau. They recorded both a spectrum and a high-speed video of a ball lightning that appeared following a cloud-to-ground lightning strike which struck about 900 meters (3,000 ft) from their spectrographs.
While the apparent size of the glow on the spectrograph was about five meters (16 ft), the physicists report that the actual size of the ball was “much smaller,” bringing the observation into accord with historic reports. The color of the ball changed from its initial white to a reddish glow during its persistence of just over a second. It was observed to drift horizontally about 10 meters and ascend perhaps 3 meters during its life.
Sand is primarily silicon dioxide, with two oxygen atoms bound to a single silicon atom. According to at least one source, a self-sustaining plasma can form when a high-voltage spark and the heat from copper plasma (from the shorted wires), drives oxygen ions away from the silicon atoms. The plasma ball can somehow be sustained and even grow when oxygen from the air reenters the plasma during the short lifetime of the plasma ball.
The Asbestos Connection
For many years, asbestos was used as insulation on wires due to its strong thermal and electrical insulating properties. Without a doubt, an electric range manufactured in 1950 would have had asbestos-based insulation on the 220-volt wiring. The use of asbestos in stoves was essentially banned in 1977, twenty years after the fire.
The most common and useful form of asbestos, Chrysotile or white asbestos, is a hydrated magnesium silicate with the chemical formula 3MgO·2SiO2·2H2O. From the known atomic ionization energies, we know that if there is enough spark-energy to ionize oxygen, then there is more than enough energy to ionize both magnesium and silicon atoms.
Since J. Cen et al. discovered the spectra of silicon in ball lightning, it is reasonable to assume that both magnesium and silicon were in abundance in our plasma generated from asbestos-insulated copper wiring.
The facts of the plasma ball’s track and the eventual explosion were readily apparent to the trained eye of the fire investigator back in 1958. However, it seems that the knowledge of how such a fireball could travel from one room to the next and eventually explode could not have been known until recently. Thus, it has taken most of a human lifetime to perhaps explain the bizarre events of that day.
I am curious about an overly simplistic nexus combining the known features of high-temperature plasmas and ball lightning. We now know that naturally occurring ball lightning generated from ground strikes emits the light spectra of vaporized silica. The most common form of asbestos insulation contains equal parts of silicon and magnesium. I wonder, could vaporized asbestos have been partially responsible for creating a long-lasting but contained ball of plasma—in my house?
Of course, before being taken seriously, this guess about the potential role of asbestos insulation in short-circuited 220-volt wiring really should be tested in a laboratory. While I would love to see a demonstration of that potentially naïve hypothesis, let me state the obvious. This would be an inherently dangerous experiment.
It would have to be conducted under carefully controlled conditions by fire and electrical hazard-wise professionals. It might also be prudent to have firemen and EMTs standing by, just in case.
Smoke inhalation is a rapid and ruthless killer. It is the number one cause of death from fires.
I learned that lesson the hard way. Long before I was born, my Grandfather Clarke died of smoke inhalation during a fire at the Hotel Kilgore in Fordyce, Arkansas.
You don’t have to be in a burning building to be exposed to large quantities of smoke. During every fire season along the Pacific Coast, vast areas come under threat of predicted hazardous smoke conditions.
The following graphic illustrates the most important factor of wildfire smoke inhalation; the size of the smoke particles. The smallest particles are inhaled deep into the lungs and cause the most lung and circulatory damage.
An Air Quality Index (AQI) and associated warnings are updated online every few hours from an EPA website. The AQI can be found for any geographical location in the U.S. based on data from air monitoring stations.
Cloth masks will not protect you from wildfire smoke.
According to the CDC, cloth masks that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 by blocking respiratory droplets offer little protection against wildfire smoke. “They do not catch small, harmful particles in smoke that can harm your health.”
The protective capabilities offered by N95 masks are largely attributed to the masks’ certification to remove at least 95% of all particles with an average diameter of 300 nm (0.3 micrometers, or microns).
A smoke particle 2.5 microns in diameter is equal to 2,500 nm. So, in principle, the majority of smoke particles should be excluded by the 300 nm wide pores of a non-leaking N95 mask.
But the secret to success is in eliminating leaks. Inexpensive N95 masks are rarely properly worn, removing leaks around the mask. The N95 mask below, however, is specifically designed to prevent leaks on inhalation. It uses a gel seal around the face.
This particular mask has an exhalation port, thus easing exhalation breathing resistance, as do many N95 masks for the construction industry. Obviously, medical workers won’t allow patients to wear them because the patient exhales their viruses into the clinician’s face.
However, for those trying to preserve their lungs during a high smoke alert like those shown here, the masks should be ideal, though pricey.
The white filter inserts are disposable and are meant to be replaced on a regular basis once they are soiled by foreign particles.
[This writer has no tie to the manufacturer of the above masks. I was given one by a company CEO when I was working for them during the beginning of the COVID crisis. I liked it so much, I bought one for my wife.]
Above is the EPA AQI graphic for Panama City, Florida in September 2020. All of the following graphics were obtained contemporaneously from government websites. (I delayed publishing this post until the science article referenced at the bottom was published.)
Western Air Quality in September 2020
September 2020 was a really bad month for breathing out west, due to a multitude of wilderness wildfires. For instance, in Portland, Oregon on the morning of September 12, the AQI was near the top of the very unhealthy range.
At the same time, the AQI was near the top of the Hazardous range in Eugene, Oregon.
As seen from the data from a permanent monitor in Eugene, the air quality went from good to bad very abruptly as the smoke from forest fires spread.
The Santium Fire
As forwarned by images like that taken on September 8, 2020, Salem, Oregon was soon to come into harm’s way. The smoke from the large Santium fire had reddened the sky.
Four days later on the 12th, the AQI in Salem was literally “Beyond” bad.
The EPA warmed Everyone to stay indoors and reduce activity levels.
On August 29, 2020, the web camera onboard the R/V Oceanus based in Newport, Oregon, recorded the following image facing forward over the ship’s bow.
By noon, September 12, the AQI had increased dramatically. The AQI was 280, very unhealthy.
Visibility was nil; not from fog, but from wildfire smoke.
The researchers expressed smoke concentration in scientific terms, micrograms of smoke particles for each cubic meter of air. To convert that concentration into EPA terms, AQI, we can use the table below, the 2012 update to the EPA’s Air Quality Index standards. It translates the conversion from AQI (second column from the left) to the concentration of woodsmoke for a 24-hour average, on the far right.
The above University of Montana researchers exposed young, active volunteers to 250 micrograms of smoke particles per cubic meter of air. If that exposure had lasted for 24-hours, it would have been at the border of the EPA’s Very Unhealthy and Hazardous AQI. But for a 45-minute exposure, no discernable physiological effects were noted.
Although exposure to heavy smoke and toxic vapors from fires can be immediately lethal, such exposures are relatively rare. On the other hand, multitudes of people can be exposed to woodsmoke during a particularly bad fire season, like that on the west coast from time to time.
The important takeaway from the above research is that when needed to escape from a fire area, short exposures to even Hazardous levels of woodsmoke can be tolerated. However, the emphasis is on short timeframes.
For longer exposures, tightly fitting masks like that pictured above will provide the best respiratory protection.
My body has a few unusual traits, or anomalies if you will. For most of those anomalies, science has attached a name. But those traits are still strange enough to make them worth describing.
And a couple of them are, well, just plain weird.
Let’s start with an easy one. The so-called photic sneeze reflex used to be most noticeable when my brother and I would leave a dark movie theater after a matinee and open the doors to bright sunshine. Instantly, I’d feel a slight tickle in my nose, which would be immediately followed by a sneeze.
What the heck! Sunlight makes me sneeze?
Well, I can assure you that as a Sunshine State resident, not all sun exposure makes me sneeze. It’s only an abrupt transition from dark to full brightness. It comes on faster than a transition lens can transition.
While most bodily adaptations and reflexes have conveyed to humans some survival value, I can’t see that this one does. Let’s suppose that a distant ancestor of mine might have been stalked by a Sabre-tooth tiger. To elude it, my hominid homey disappears into a dark cave waiting for the tiger to pass by. He tries hard to make no sound that would alert the big cat to his presence. Then, when he thinks the coast is clear, my ancestor sticks his head out into the sun outside the cave, and promptly sneezes.
So, I see absolutely no adaptive benefit to the so-called sun sneeze.
Just to show that scientists do have a sense of humor, according to Wikipedia, the photic sneeze reflex is also known as Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst(ACHOO) syndrome, or photosneezia.
This is a joke, right?
Well, apparently not. Google it if you’re in doubt.
“Outburst (ACHOO) syndrome or photosneezia…colloquially called sun sneezing, is a reflex condition that causes sneezing in response to numerous stimuli, such as looking at bright lights…the condition affects 18–35% of the world’s population.”
So, statistically, quite a few readers should have the same response.
Quoting further, “The condition often occurs within families, and it has been suggested that light-induced sneezing is a heritable, autosomal-dominant trait. A 2010 study demonstrated a correlation between photic sneezing and a single-nucleotide polymorphism on chromosome 2.”
Which is science talk meaning I picked it up from one of my parents. Oddly, I don’t remember my parents ever sneezing. But then, that’s not the type of thing one remembers.
Speaking of useless human reactions, my mouth is an extremely sensitive salt detector. Although I do love salt and have occasionally been caught snacking on a few unhealthy potato chips for their salt content, they do make me cough.
Which, of course, means my wife catches me every time. My cough betrays me.
As for the cause of a salt cough, my Googling has returned essentially nothing. For instance, someone responded to a Quora inquiry by stating, “You must be sensitive to salt.”
Well, duh. Brilliant non-answer.
Now, for more weirdness that lacks a good explanation.
My dermatologist explained that the proper medical term for an itchy spot in a well-defined area below my left scapula is Notalgia paresthetica. The cause and explanation for it are not clear. Still, once again, roughly 20% of the adult population might be similarly affected at one time or another.
Not surprisingly, my dermatologist gave me a Botox injection to deaden the spot. Well, I appreciate the effort, Doctor, but it didn’t work. In fact, “some research from 2014 has found limited or no improvement from using Botox.”
It’s important to note that the study only included 5 participants. So, I’m thinking about writing the authors of that study to ask them to add me to their list.
I know my brother was so affected because I remember him rubbing his back against the edge of a door frame. From my own experimentation, that helps a little but is short-lived.
For me, after a shower, when my back is exposed to drafts, the itch becomes acute enough that I reach for the best back scratcher I’ve ever found. It’s called a Cactus Scratcher.
A couple of seconds of gentle scratching relieves the itch.
(Caution: although it may feel good at the time, excess scratching damages the skin and will do more harm than good.)
(Note: I have no association with the creators of the Cactus Scratcher. I simply love their product.)
The Marvels of Near Sightedness
For those who temporarily remove their glasses and descend into the poor-vision world, some optical marvels await you. You can see things normal-sighted people can’t.
I discovered this in my youth in Kansas when I would make long runs during the cool of a summer’s night. Stopping to wipe sweat from my brow, I removed my glasses and noticed the most intricate patterns in the distorted light of street lamps.
In the absence of my eye correction (my vision was measured as 20/400+), I would have expected the light from the tall lamp to be little more than a fuzzy halo, like everything else I saw. But instead, I saw intricate patterns in the light. There was amazing geometrical complexity and symmetry in what I saw, something that, to my knowledge, had never been reported. The patterns were beautiful.
So how could that occur, when in fact, the definition of myopia is that light focuses too far in front of the fovea? Beyond the focal point of the lens, the light expands into a fuzzy spot. How could a fuzzy beam of light from a street light reveal a beautifully detailed and symmetrical image?
Photographers are aware of symmetrical and surprisingly sharp images that appear in out-of-focus images of sources of light. That optical phenomenon, called Bokeh, is often altered by the properties of both the camera lens and the geometry of the aperture or iris. It can be “good” Bokeh, enhancing the aesthetic of the image, or “bad” Bokeh, detracting from the appeal of the image.
Reasonably, the human lens and iris might contribute to a similar phenomenon, in nature, not artificially in a camera.
However, that does not explain the geometrical patterns I saw in the street lights. Fortuitously, but decades later, the research group at the MIT Media Lab discovered that very small patterns can be used to transmit information. But unlike the microdots so famously used by spies, these patterns can be made visible by setting a camera lens to an infinity focus. Ironically, the out-of-focus view of the dot reveals the embedded pattern.
Such a method of data encryption and revelation is called a Bokode, an invented word being a portmanteau of the Japanese word bokeh and the English word bar code.
Similarly, I wonder if a pattern embedded in the lens of a vintage street light would be revealed by the out-of-focus image captured by the retina of a myopic young man.
If so, that might explain the intricate detail I saw when looking at the fuzzy image of a street light thirty or so feet away.
Of all my physical anomalies, this was the spooky one. Like that famous line in The Sixth Sense, I can “see things” normal people can’t.
A Non-Microscope Microscope
While the previous bodily trait was a little spooky, the next one is just weird.
A year or so after the street light discovery, I was sitting at my desk in a dorm room at Georgia Tech. My parents had bought me a Tensor lamp to study by. The bulb was small but put out a high-intensity light, unexpected for the bulb’s size.
At the time, the Tensor lamp was the newest thing in lighting. The light had been designed for medical and dental applications. Still, a year before I started college, it was being sold to the public as a sleek, modern-looking, compact desk lamp.
I appreciated that lamp because, in a shared dorm room, size does matter. Smaller is better.
One night during my studies, and being as easily distracted as a cat by a laser pointer, I noticed that the intense spot of light from the Tensor lamp was reflecting off the convex surface of the cap of a Bic pen.
Mindful of discovering the intricate patterns in the street lamp in Kansas, and most importantly being alone in the room, curiosity overcame me. I set my glasses on my desk and looked at the reflected light.
I saw nothing but the reflected light. Undeterred, I moved the pen cap closer to my eye, thus expanding the relative size of the reflected spot of light. I could then see something, but it wasn’t a clear image like the street light aberration. So, I moved the cap still nearer, until the cap was a few millimeters from my cornea. I should not have been able to focus on anything that perilously close to my eye.
But as they say in France, Voila! Now I could clearly see a microscopic view of the surface of the curved cap. From a normal distance, the plastic cap was smooth, but in my new microscopic vision, the surface was slightly irregular.
To confirm that what I saw was not an illusion, I scratched the plastic cap with a straight pin. After viewing the cap again as I had before, I could clearly see a plastic canyon where I had just gouged the surface.
I had inadvertently discovered a nonmechanical inspection microscope!
About that time, my roommate opened the door and froze. “Are you trying to put your eye out?”
Not surprisingly, roomie did not share my excitement in this new discovery in optical physics. Nor did a physics professor I later queried about the observation. He had no clue about what I had seen, and probably thought I was a little reckless to have tried that experiment.
Of course, I wondered about the commercialization and patenting potential of my discovery. But I never found an explanation for the physics, a requirement for a patent. And besides, there was no hardware I could sell. It was simply yet another “feature” of myopia. All I needed to conjure the effect was to be very nearsighted, own a Tensor lamp, have a supply of BIC pens, and be willing to open myself up to ridicule.
I suspect that combination is somewhat rare.
I am tempted to think that what I was seeing on that BIC cap was somehow related to MIT’s Bokodes. The reflected light was intense, and there was a pattern of sorts on the cap. And certainly, my view of that reflected light spot was way out of focus.
But without a fair amount of experimentation in an optics laboratory (which I don’t have access to), I can neither support nor dismiss the Bokode hypothesis.
In other words, I’m not sure how it happens. If any of you readers figure out how that phenomenon worked, please let me know. I will be grateful, and you will have proven yourself smarter than at least one Georgia Tech physics professor.
Some lines are risky to cross. The line separating fact from fantasy is one such line.
What is remarkable to me about the U.S. government’s recent disclosure of the reality of UFOs, or UAPs, is that even those skeptics who have a reputation for rolling their eyes and bursting forth with ridicule have had to face the truth. Too many people are righteously aware, and claiming they aren’t, doesn’t work anymore. What many smart people have long considered fantasy, is now known to be fact. Confusing fact, perhaps, but fact nevertheless.
This scientist-writer believes that closing your mind to possibilities does nothing more than handicap your consciousness. If you refuse to peer over the boundary of your perceived reality, you’ll limit your awareness. And oh, what interesting things you’ll miss.
Recently I was surprised to read an open apology from a renowned skeptic of the UFO phenomena, a Harvard-trained mathematical physicist and cultural commentator, Eric Weinstein.
Recently, David Bates gave the tweets from Eric Weinstein room on his pages. Not only was Weinstein brutally honest, but I found his challenge to closed-minded scientists especially refreshing.
From Weinstein’s own tweets, Bates quoted the following.
To all the UFO people who were getting it right: I blew it. I thought you were bored, easily convinced, read too much sci-fi as kids, were easily taken in. I thought there was no way this could ambiguously exist in a world flooded with sensors. I thought you were not getting it.
I am very late to your party and even having gotten the report mostly right, it has been exceptionally unpleasant to get in front of it by even a few months. I can only imagine how it feels after the many years the US has gaslight you all while knowing you were not wrong.
A lot of UFO people are nutty. But you the careful community that called balls and strikes as best you could with limited information deserve not only rehabilitation in the minds of the public, but some official recognition that you are to be listened to in the future. Thank you.
I believe you now when you say that there is even much more high quality data available but that it has not been released. At a personal level: You were right, I was wrong. Thanks for letting me join you at the ‘last minute’ in the few months before the report. I’ll listen more.
I also wanted to say to the non-ufo community that whatever I got right largely didn’t come from me. It came from patriots, fellow scientists & others who were not taken in the way I was. All I did was a bit of filtering and after-market analysis given the gravity of the issue.
According to Bates, Weinstein followed up a few hours later.
It’s totally irresponsible for any scientist to refuse to investigate UAP after this report with a full and unpruned decision tree at her side. That includes considering the total incompetence of the defense department, *aliens*, spoofing by enemies and UFO political economy.
And US scientists who refuse to take this seriously as per the above tweet are neglecting and/or turning their back on our national and international security responsibilities given this report. That is my belief. Full stop.
Thank you, David Bates, for making these tweets accessible.
Seeking an exhaustively compiled account of a particular class of large UFOs, the Triangles? Look no further than the investigative writings of David Marler. In my opinion, as current UFO investigators go, he is the most careful and detailed of them all.
Large scale nuclear accidents like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima are environmental disasters which grab the headlines. But lesser accidents do occur, just as in any industrial facility. I was involved in one such incident.
From the mid-sixties to the mid-nineties, Georgia Tech had a research reactor which served a multitude of research purposes. It also gave Nuclear Engineering students a hands-on experience with a working nuclear reactor.
The Frank H. Neely Nuclear Research Center, contained a 5-megawatt heavy-water (D2O) cooled reactor located on the Georgia Tech campus.
In the late 60s, I was a graduate student in the Georgia Tech Department of Biology. I was working for a professor who had an interest in manganese and bacteria. One of his projects was using neutron activation of the manganese ions found in Atlanta’s drinking water supply, Lake Lanier. Elevated manganese levels in water is an indicator of pollution.
After driving to Lake Lanier and launching a small boat, another graduate student and I would pump lake water from 100-feet down up into water sampling jugs on the boat. Our most important sampling site was just offshore a water treatment plant, the currently named Shoal Creek Filter Plant. That plant was less than two miles from the Buford Dam, so the water was reliably deep.
One day, the 100-foot-long sampling line disconnected from its reel and disappeared overboard. Without thinking, I dived over the side of the boat with my glasses and billfold, and swam down after the disappearing line. The yellow-green light was getting dimmer every foot I descended.
I was probably twenty feet down when I caught a blurry sight of the barely visible line sinking rapidly through the water.
As I rose back to the boat with the line in my grasp, my crewmate gave me a look of “What the (expletive deleted) just happened?” He had been looking away when I dived overboard, severely rocking the boat. One second, I was there, and the next second I was gone, almost throwing him into the lake in the process.
That was not the last time he would be surprised, as you will read shortly.
Miraculously, I did not lose my glasses, but all my billfold photos were a total loss. But I had saved the research equipment!
Back at the Frank H. Neely Nuclear Research Center, my crewmate and I would send aliquots of the water into the core of the reactor using an air-driven pneumatic system called a “rabbit.” Once in the reactor core, the water sample was bombarded by a dense neutron flux, for a predetermined amount of time.
Once the rabbit system pulled the sample out of the core, the sample was measured by Geiger counter to determine if it was safe to approach.
Neutron bombardment produced radioactive isotopes of manganese, converting Mn55 into Mn56. Mn56 has an ideal half-life of 2.6 hours and emits gamma rays at 846.8 keV. Manganese is easy to detect with gamma spectroscopy.
Due to the low level of manganese in the fresh water samples, the Geiger counter never indicated the sample was “hot” after its trip to nuclear hell.
We prepared the lake water samples in a clean room environment. That is also where we returned the newly radioactive sample, transferring it to a sample cell placed in the lead-lined spectrometer. Of course, we always wore full isotope protection (disposable gloves, gowns and masks.)
After gamma ray measurements were taken, the radioactive samples were placed in lead-lined cavities for disposal by reactor staff.
Our work progressed without incident until the professor asked us to activate a sample of saltwater. Neutron activation of Cl35, the natural form of chlorine, produces Cl36, with a half-life of 301,000 years.
We noted that as the rabbit returned with its sample of saltwater from its trip into the reactor core, the sample was extremely hot (radioactive), due no doubt to the high concentration of chlorine in salt water. After letting it cool a bit (some chlorine isotopes decay quickly), we performed our usual sample transfer and measurements.
Cl36 is a weak gamma emitter, but we had a hot enough dose to pick it up on the gamma spectrometer. The primary decay mechanism for Cl36 is through low-energy beta particles.
The radiation doses and half-lives had always been low and short for the manganese fresh water samples, and thus we were not in the habit of placing our hands and feet through a radiation detector prior to leaving the reactor research building. That dosimeter was intended for “hot” work.
As usual, it was late in the day when we finished our work, and few people remained in the building. Before exiting the building after our seawater work, we passed by the usually ignored detector.
But that day, I turned around and said, “Let’s check ourselves, just to be sure.”
I was clean, as I had expected. But as my colleague put his hands and feet into the device, screeching alarms and flashing red lights stunned us. As we southerners say, it caused a commotion.
I had heard that nuclear danger alarm only once before, without knowing the cause of it. But now, we were the center of attention. The few people remaining in the building surrounded us within seconds, or so it seemed. Apparently, running towards danger is for all kinds of first responders.
After the staff carefully examined our discarded gloves, masks and garments, they discovered that one of the gloves had a small tear in the right-hand thumb. That small tear was all it took to contaminate my friend.
It was late at night before we were cleared to leave, and then only with extensive washing of my colleague’s right hand. The radiation safety officer wrapped a thick layer of gauze around the offending thumb, and securely taped it. And then he got to work on a lot of paperwork.
Unlike the Mn isotopes we normally worked with, the Cl36 isotope would not decay for many human lifetimes. So, scrubbing and dilution was the only solution.
The thumb was heavily bandaged because the only risk was to the student’s new baby. Beta particles, essentially electrons, cannot penetrate deeply to vital organs, so Cl36 residue was not as much of a concern as would be gamma emitters. However, if the baby had sucked on the father’s thumb, the way teething babies do, the Cl36 isotope would have been ingested. And beta radiation occurring internally can be a health risk.
And to think, we almost let my friend go straight home to take over baby duty.
My fellow student was warned to keep his distance from his baby, and wash his hands thoroughly several times a day, rewrapping his thumb with fresh gauze after every wash. After a week of that repetitive washing routine, it would likely be safe for him to cuddle his baby girl once again, after one last Geiger Counter check.
In the meantime, he was excused from diaper duty!
This type of contamination incident may be more common than you think. Fortunately, it did not equate to a calamity. But it could have been a calamity for that little girl and her family had she ingested radioactive chlorine atoms.
Those dealing with radioactive materials, high pressure, dangerous chemicals, fires, and carrier flight decks, to name just a few hazards, know that personal disaster is only a misstep away. In spite of training, humans do make mistakes. But fortunately, this mistake was caught in the nick of time.
A dead forest bleeds for years, its decomposition products flowing slowly into the soil, leached out by rains to turn tributaries as black as night. Those dark tributaries join forces, darkening streams heading inexorably to the sea. At last, the blood of the forest flows out into the surf zones, spreading a dark brown stain hundreds of yards wide, carried down shore by persistent currents.
I had been thinking about this topic for a couple of years, but was motivated to finally publish it after seeing a recent (February 10, 2021) article in Hakai Magazine, an ePub devoted to coastal environmental subjects. The title was “The Environmental Threat You’ve Never Heard Of.” The lead sentence is, “It’s called Coastal Darkening, and scientists are just beginning to explore.
To quote from that article, “Coastal waters around the world are steadily growing darker. This darkening—a change in the color and clarity of the water—has the potential to cause huge problems for the ocean and its inhabitants.
“Some of the causes behind ocean darkening are well understood… During heavy rains, for instance, organic matter—primarily from decaying plants and loose soil—can enter the ocean as a brown, light-blocking slurry. This process is well documented in rivers and lakes, but has largely been overlooked in coastal areas.”
In the coastal city of Panama City, Florida, entire patches of cypress forests were destroyed a few years ago, thus producing lots of decaying plant matter.
What can destroy a forest? The unstoppable force of a category 5 hurricane. In this instance, it was Hurricane Michael striking Panama City and the surrounding Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018.
Ironically, although I had retired just days before, I attended an Office of Naval Research Workshop on diving, and had bragged to one of the attendees that Panama City was in a very lucky geographical location. We had not been hit by a hurricane since Hurricane Opal in 1995. And that was only a Category 4 hurricane.
Only a few days later, Panama City’s luck changed, horribly. Category 5 Hurricane Michael made a bee-line for Panama City, pushing a wave of water that swept away much of the community of Mexico Beach, just twelve miles east of the first landfall of Michael’s eye at Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City.
The above radar imagery was captured on my iPad, using Foreflight aviation software while we safely sat in a hotel room in Birmingham, AL. The redder the color, the stronger the rainfall. Green represented low rainfall intensity near the eyewall.
After returning from our hurricane safe haven in Birmingham, AL to our damaged home on Panama City Beach, and as soon as the airspace opened up again, I surveyed some of the damage from the air. A month after the storm, areas along the Gulf Coast were closed to normal aircraft due to drones surveying the damage along Mexico Beach, and providing assistance to personnel looking for human remains.
However, there were no restrictions to flying along the path of the hurricane, northeast of Panama City. So, on November 4th I launched in that direction and discovered that a huge swath of cypress trees had been flattened about 40 miles north of Mexico Beach. Since cypress trees love water, there were of course creeks running through the midst of them. The Florida Panhandle watershed runs inexorably south towards the Gulf of Mexico (GOM).
Fourmile Creek ran through the area I photographed. It is a tributary feeding the Chipola River. The Chipola in turn dumps into the Apalachicola River, the primary flow into Apalachicola Bay, home of the famous Apalachicola oysters.
A year or so later, as seen on Google Earth imagery of the affected area in Florida, some of the low-lying greenery began to return to the Fourmile Creek area. However, the skeletal remains of the flattened Cypress forest were still clearly evident.
My next flight was on December 18, 2018, after the coastal airspace had been opened back up to general aviation traffic. That was over two months after the hurricane hit shore.
On Sept 2, 2020, almost two years after the hurricane, I was flying from east to west along the coast, back towards Panama City. As I approached Mexico Beach, I saw a clearly defined dark area in the otherwise clear sea water. I snapped several photos as I got closer to the still struggling town. They are shown in sequence below, starting from furthest west, approaching town center.
The largest area of devastation of cypress forests surrounded Fourmile Creek which runs southeast before emptying into the Chipola River.
Due east of Panama City, the appropriately named Cypress Creek also empties into the Chipola River as the river feeds the Dead Lakes. In turn, the Chipola empties into the Apalachicola River southeast of Wewahitchka.
Nearer to Mexico Beach, there is yet another Cypress Creek which drains into both the Intracoastal Waterway at its northern end, and the GOM at its southern end. In the next aerial photo of Mexico Beach, Cypress Creek can be seen pouring its darkness into the ocean. Cypress Creek also drains a large swampy area of destroyed cypress trees.
Remarkably, the greatest dark water offender on the September 2020 flyover was Salt Creek, with its outfall that lay two miles to the northwest of Cypress Creek.
Cypress trees have been in Florida for at least 6,500 years. During that time, their populations must have weathered tens of thousands of hurricanes. In spite of being knocked down due to being rooted in wet, soggy soil, and frequently rotting as a result, the overall population is well adapted to black water. Their blood, or rot if you will, produces more of the black water habitat that the cypress trees favor. Throughout the southeastern United States, Cypress forests (with isolated communities often called “domes”) remain ideal habitat for many species of fish, birds and mammals.
Tourists flock to the Gulf Coast’s so-called “Miracle Strip” of clean water and white sand that stretches from Pensacola Beach to Mexico Beach and slightly beyond. On a macro scale, the water and beaches are kept clear by the effects of the Loop Current, and its eddies, bringing clear Gulf water up towards the Gulf shores.
While the dark water periodically spilling into the normally clear Gulf of Mexico beaches may be repulsive to tourists, an experimental study described in the Haikai article notes that black water outfalls may favor certain zooplankton, providing a new food species for local fishes.
So, to this scientist at least, it may that in the Gulf of Mexico, periodic outpourings of dark water caused by heavy rains, tropical storms and hurricanes may be what is required to balance the estuary and marine ecosystem.
In other words, the concerns stated in the Haikai article may not apply to the west coast of Florida. Of course, to know for sure, further study is required.
In retrospect, when looking down upon flattened forests of trees, it seems nature is harsh. But nature works for the end game; survival of the environment. In Florida, the environment has survived hurricanes, and their effects on forests and water, for millennia.
Of greater concern to Florida might be the permanent destruction of the cypress forests by man, rather than hurricanes. Nature can recover from hurricanes, but cannot recover from man’s misguided intentions. After all, forests buffer the effects of hurricanes. Without them, Florida would lay flat and naked before every onslaught of a sometimes violent Nature.
In the preceding blog post, I reminded the reader that the Earth’s supply of helium is limited. It is not a renewable resource.
Being a diving professional, I am not concerned about the consequence of a helium shortage on party balloons. But I am thinking about the potential consequences on diving.
So, knowing that hydrogen has both good and bad traits, it would be prudent to begin thinking about whether or not there is a way to safely substitute hydrogen for helium in technical, scientific, commercial and military diving.
Perhaps the word “bad” is too much of an understatement. Perhaps “horrible” would be a better descriptor for something like the Hindenburg disaster.
With that sobering reminder of what can happen, we now cautiously move on to the science.
First, we begin with the explosion hazard of hydrogen in binary mixtures of hydrogen and oxygen.
For diving in the 10 to 20 bar range, 326 to 653 fsw range, the upper explosion limit is 94.2 molar percent. So that means that if a binary gas mixture contains 96% hydrogen and 4% oxygen, it should not explode when ignited.
Those underlined words are important. An explosive mixture of hydrogen and oxygen will not explode without an ignition source. Proof of that is exhibited in many college introductory chemistry lectures, and documented in the following YouTube video.
As a forecast of our potential future, during World War II, Sweden was deprived of a ready source of helium coming from the U.S. and elsewhere. So, the clever and industrious Arne Zetterström conducted a series of experimental deep, hard hat dives from 1943 to 1945 using a mixture of 96% hydrogen and 4% oxygen on dives ranging from 12 to 17 bar.
Once at depth, Zetterström switched from a non-hydrox gas mixture to the “hydrox” gas mixture. His initial test dive was to 111 msw (362 fsw, 12 bar), progressing through six dives to a maximum depth of 160 msw (522 fsw, 17 bar).
That dive series was successful. Unfortunately, on the last dive on 7 August 1945, Zetterström died tragically when his dive tenders mistakenly pulled him directly to the surface from the bottom depth of 522 fsw. He died from fulminant decompression sickness.
From the above table we see that modern measurements confirm that Zetterström chose his gas mixes wisely. At a 96 mol% of hydrogen, he was above the upper explosion limit. If there had been an unexpected ignition event, his breathing gas mixture would not have exploded.
I have confirmed the oxygen partial pressure for Zetterström’s dives using PTC Mathcad Express 3.1 and will share the process.
First, I show pressure conversions familiar to Navy divers and diving scientists, but not known to most others.
For Zetterström’s 111 msw (362 fsw) dive, the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) would have been 0.478 atm, at the top end of the target range (0.4 to 0.48) for U.S. Navy chamber oxygen atmosphere during saturation diving. A PO2 of 0.48 is believed to be the highest PO2 tolerated for extended periods. Saturation dives sometimes last over a month.
For Zetterström’s 6th and last dive, to 160 msw (522 fsw), the oxygen partial pressure was 0.7 ata, about half of what it normally is in modern electronic rebreathers with fixed PO2.
A far more detailed story of the Zetterström Hydrox dive series can be found in this book.
Arne Zetterström Memorial Dive
In 2012, the Swedish Historical Diving Society and the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) Diving Club, Stockholm, conducted an Arne Zetterström Memorial dive to a relatively shallow depth of 40 msw or 131 fsw. The original 96% – 4% ratio of hydrogen and oxygen was maintained, resulting in a gas mixture with a PO2 of 0.20 atm.
As reported in the KTH Dive Club’s Dykloggen (dive log) report of July 2012, the team lead was Ola Lindh, Project Leader and Diver. Åke Larsson, another diver, contributed the following information about that dive.
The Hydrox divers used open circuit scuba, with back mounted air, and for decompression, bottles of hydrox and oxygen.
The Swedish divers did not go deeper than 131 feet because they were just above the mud at that depth in a quarry. Plus, they did not yet have details of Zetterström’s decompression plan for deeper diving.
Today, they do possess the wartime hydrogen decompression plan, so deeper hydrogen dives may be forthcoming.
Three gas mixtures – hydrogen, and air (nitrogen and oxygen)
When you mix an inert gas like nitrogen (or perhaps helium?) with hydrogen and oxygen mixtures, that greatly reduces the explosion hazard. But as this video shows, sooner or later the ratios might change enough to become explosive.
Naval Medical Research Institute
I spent 12 years working as a diving biomedical researcher at the Naval Medical Research Institute (NMRI) in Bethesda, MD.
My laboratory was in the Behnke Diving Medicine Research Center building, but the hyperbaric hydrogen facility was situated a safe distance behind the main building. In the unlikely event of an explosion, the main Behnke facility and its hyperbaric chamber complex would be preserved.
The hyperbaric hydrogen facility was used to test the effects of high-pressure hydrogen and biochemical decompression on pigs, rather than risk human divers. And all of that was done safely, thanks to the professionalism of Navy divers and scientists.
Kayar, a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame, used at 230 msw (751 fsw) a gas mixture of 88% hydrogen, 2% oxygen, balance helium with a slight amount of nitrogen. That 88% hydrogen mixture put the gas mixture well above the 71.3% upper explosion limit for three gas components at 24 bar pressure. The resulting PO2 was 0.5 ata.
Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX)
COMEX and their human-rated hyperbaric chambers are located in Marseilles, France.
When it came to manned hydrogen diving, the effect of hydrogen narcosis forced COMEX to operate below the upper explosion limit during its long series of experimental hydrogen dives.
In 1985, COMEX’s Hydra V was the first manned hydrogen dive to 450 msw. Hydrogen fraction was 54%, helium fraction was 45%, and oxygen fraction 1%. PO2 was a nominal 0.45 atm, the same partial pressure used by the U.S. Navy for saturation dives.
In 1988 during Hydra VIII, the first open water hydrogen dive, the depth was 534 msw, or 1752 fsw. Hydrogen fraction was 49%, helium fraction was 50%, and oxygen fraction 1%. The resulting oxygen partial pressure was 0.54 atmospheres.
The following video documents the record-breaking Hydra VIII dive.
The 534 msw Hydra VIII depth record was broken by Hydra X, a 701 msw, 2300 fsw chamber dive. The gas mixture was the same as in Hydra VIII, hydrogen fraction 49%, helium 50%, and oxygen percentage 1%. Due to the increase in depth, PO2 rose to 0.7 atm, an oxygen partial pressure frequently used in older U.S. Navy rebreathers.
The head of the Diving Medicine Department at NMRI, CAPT Ed Flynn, M.D. (glasses and grey hair sitting on the right side of the console), was performing physiological studies on both Hydra VI and VIII. In essence he was the Patron Saint of the NMRI Hydrogen Research Facility.
Shallow Hydrogen Diving
What have the previous studies taught us? Well, for one thing, the Swedes showed in their Arne Zetterström Memorial dive that you can get away with oxygen concentrations close to normoxia, PO2~0.21 ata. The disadvantage of normal atmospheric partial pressures of oxygen, compared to higher pressures, is related to decompression time. There is a decompression advantage when breathing oxygen pressures of 1.3 to 1.45 ata. Virtually all modern electronic rebreathers use those oxygen pressures for that reason. But as the KTH Dive Club showed, hydrogen decompression can be safely handled at relatively shallow depths.
For recreational divers, there is an economic advantage for reducing helium usage by substituting nitrogen. We don’t yet know what the economic and safety comparison would be when using helium diluted hydrogen versus pure hydrogen.
Hydrogen, helium, and oxygen were the standard gases used by COMEX. But they were likely chosen to lessen hydrogen toxicity. Hydrogen toxicity would not be a problem at shallow depth. And in fact, the KTH Dive Club reported no toxicity problems.
As proud as I have been of the record-breaking COMEX hydrogen research program, and of the highly imaginative U.S. Navy hydrogen research program, it has not been lost on me that the first deep human hydrogen dives were conducted by an undoubtedly low-cost program led by a single Swedish Naval Officer, Arne Zetterström.
Now, I find it remarkable that the people testing hydrogen diving at relatively shallow depths, would also be Swedish. Unlike the COMEX and NMRI projects described above, I suspect the KTH Dive club was not sponsored by multimillion dollar programs.
You have to admire the Swedish chutzpah.
Disclaimer: The author is no longer employed by the Navy or Department of Defense. All opinions are my own, and not those of any government agency. This document is posted purely for historical and educational interest. At risk of violent death, under no circumstances should the reader be tempted to explore the production, storage, or use of hydrogen without thorough and certified safety training.
That phrase is common in the Southern United States, often shouted in surprise when you’re vainly looking for something, and eventually discover it right in front of you.
Well, here’s an example of when the snake did bite, figuratively, and ended up sinking a ship.
In 1962, the one-year-old, 5,000 ton displacement, 444-foot-long British freighter, the M/V Montrose, entered the Great Lakes after its fifth transatlantic voyage from its homeport of London, England.
On June 30, 1962, it was docked at the Detroit Harbor Terminal taking on 200 tons of aluminum. Once the ship was fully loaded, a Canadian Great Lakes pilot boarded the ship at night to guide the vessel through the Detroit River, north towards Lake St. Clair and the other Great Lakes.
The Detroit River connects Lake Erie at its southern end and runs generally northeast approximately 28 miles to Lake St. Clair at the north. It is bordered by Canada’s Ontario Province on the eastern side and Michigan in the United States on the opposite bank. The river’s strong current runs to the south towards Lake Erie.
Now, imagine the chagrin of the Canadian pilot as he guided the vessel across the downside shipping lane to reach the upside lane on the Canadian side of the river. That course took it directly into the path of a heavily loaded barge on the American side, heading down the Detroit River. The resulting collision ripped a 48-foot long and as much as 24-feet wide gash in the ship’s port side bow.
The freighter immediately started flooding at the bow, soon raising the rudder and propellers out of the water. With no way to control the sinking ship, the crew and ship drifted in the strong Detroit River current, before running aground beneath the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit with the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.
This expensive mistake occurred in July, 1962, and I was there to record the aftermath, as were thousands of other onlookers. The links to other photos and videos are found below.
Sharper photos were taken by various civilians and published in the following link.
I imagine that salvage or other commercial divers were required to inspect the hull and attach lifting cables at the appropriate points. Typically, they might have wanted to weld patching plates over the huge gash in the hull. But the ship lay on its damaged side, so no patches could be applied until the ship was righted.
I wish I had those divers’ stories, but so far, I haven’t found any. Salvage divers tend not to talk about their arduous, risky, and sometimes horrifying work. Fortunately, this time there were no casualties. Every crew member on both vessels was rescued, having suffered minimal injuries.
The salvage plan involved righting and raising the vessel using large floating cranes on barges. Frankly, I cannot imagine the load on those lifting cables. But as you can see in following photo, there were many cables attached to the bow preventing the ship from drifting further down current. They likely helped stabilize the craft once the bow was partially above water.
No doubt a great deal of engineering calculations (and maybe educated guesses?) went into determining the number and placement of those cables. Salvage engineering is a torturous task, with calculations at that time being done by hand or using a slip stick (slide rule).
Below is a National Museum of American History slide rule identical to my personal Pickett slide rule, Model N1010-ES Trig. A similar slide rule accompanied the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
Digital calculators and computers were not readily available in 1962.
So, how could highly experienced and qualified seamen drive their ship at full speed directly into the path of a well-lighted barge, as was reported by the ensuing investigation?
The Lakeshore Guardian report does not give it a name, but I will: “cognitive blindness.” Cognitive blindness in trained and alert individuals often occurs when people are distracted. In this case, that distraction was another freighter pulling into the same berth the Montrose was attempting to vacate. The Montrose pilot made all ahead full to keep a safe separation from the ship coming in close behind it.
In their distracted state, they did not see the navigation lights from the oncoming barge, did not hear the barge’s warning whistles and horn blasts, and never responded with their own emergency signal until the last second. By then, it was too late to slow their ship, or dodge the barge.
Cognitive blindness caused by distraction has caused old and experienced automobile drivers to pull directly in front of oncoming vehicles. One such fatal accident occurred at an intersection my wife and I frequently traverse. The driver was physically capable of seeing the oncoming traffic, but in that and similar cases, their brain must not have recognized the danger.
In the link below, the U.S. radio program NPR interviewed Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons about their book, named after the psychologist’s invisible gorilla test.
The two psychologists had subjects watch a basketball game. Subjects were instructed to keep track of the number of ball passes between players. However, that objective was a distraction. The researchers really wanted to know if their research subjects noticed a man in a gorilla suit walking across the court. Remarkably, more than 50% of the test subjects never saw the gorilla.
A distraction while watching a video may be harmless, but a distraction while piloting a 5,000 ton vessel can, and was, disastrous. Luckily, no lives were lost, that time.
Among the multitude of other writings about the potential effect of distractions, is a new book on human factors.
While the work of Gareth Lock is focused on diving, the psychological factors it discusses apply across all disciplines, including seamanship. Chapter 7, Situational Awareness, has an interesting and relevant sub title: “Just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean you’ve recognized its significance.”
In summary, the deleterious effect of cognitive blindness can be found in all disciplines, including combat, aviation, diving, driving, space and seafaring.
As they say in combat, “The enemy you don’t see is the one that will kill you.”
“Capt. Ralph Eyre-Walker stands on the side of his wrecked British freighter, ‘The Montrose’. The freighter collided with a cement barge and sank in the Detroit River just downstream of the Ambassador Bridge, Detroit, Michigan.”
Photographer’s (Tony Spina) note: “I rode out with the captain the next day so he could get some of his belongings and captured this shot.”