Monster tornado devastates Moore, Oklahoma

A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School
Click to enlargeAP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

A huge tornado with winds of up to 200 miles per hour tore through the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore on Monday, ripping up at least two schools and leaving a wake of tangled wreckage as a dangerous storm system threatened as many as 10 U.S. states.

Television video showed tracts of homes destroyed, cars tossed about and piled atop one another, and at least one building on fire. Rescue workers were pulling third-graders from a severely damaged elementary school in Moore, a KFOR television reporter said from the scene, and aerial video showed first responders sifting through the rubble left behind…

The National Weather Service assigned the twister a preliminary ranking of EF4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, meaning the second most powerful category of tornado with winds up to 200 mph.

The massive twister struck at the height of tornado season, and more were forecast. On Sunday, tornadoes killed two people and injured 39 in Oklahoma.

The number of deaths continues to climb. I had to stop watching the TV reporting. Firemen at the elementary school say their work is now “search and recovery” – no longer search and rescue.

Witnesses said Monday’s tornado appeared more fierce than the giant twister that was among the dozens that tore up the region on May 3, 1999, killing more than 40 people and destroying thousands of homes. That tornado ranked as an EF5, meaning it had winds over 200 mph…

The 1999 event ranks as the third-costliest tornado in U.S. history, having caused more than $1 billion in damage at the time, or more than $1.3 billion in today’s dollars. Only the devastating Joplin and Tuscaloosa tornadoes in 2011 were more costly…

Estimates at the scene from those who experienced that 1999 tornado say the affected area was 2 or 3 times larger today. Probably 30 square miles of nothing left in one piece.

I’d like to offer a special note aside from the immediacy of this disaster. Americans who retain a traditional open heart to people in trouble always offer a helping hand. The modern exception being the cruel, heartless fools, the rightwingers in the various Tea Party cells around the country – and in Congress. You know who I mean. The kind of lowlifes who fought against providing aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy unless it was “balanced” by cutting Social Security and Medicare.

That despicable attempt was thwarted in Congress – eventually – by joint resistance from Democrats and a few traditional Republicans who haven’t forgotten how to be Americans. I’d like to note that Tom Cole is the Congressional Republican who represents the people of Moore, Oklahoma – and he was one of the few who joined with Democrats to send federal aid to survivors of that terrible superstorm.

They ain’t all sonsabitches in Washington, DC.

High Plains aquifer shrinks, profits dwindle for irrigating farmers

Forty-nine years ago, Ashley Yost’s grandfather sank a well deep into a half-mile square of rich Kansas farmland. He struck an artery of water so prodigious that he could pump 1,600 gallons to the surface every minute.

Last year, Mr. Yost was coaxing just 300 gallons from the earth, and pumping up sand in order to do it. By harvest time, the grit had robbed him of $20,000 worth of pumps and any hope of returning to the bumper harvests of years past…

The land, known as Section 35, sits atop the High Plains Aquifer, a waterlogged jumble of sand, clay and gravel that begins beneath Wyoming and South Dakota and stretches clear to the Texas Panhandle. The aquifer’s northern reaches still hold enough water in many places to last hundreds of years. But as one heads south, it is increasingly tapped out, drained by ever more intensive farming and, lately, by drought.

Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation. In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers.

And when the groundwater runs out, it is gone for good. Refilling the aquifer would require hundreds, if not thousands, of years of rains…

Kansas agriculture will survive the slow draining of the aquifer — even now, less than a fifth of the state’s farmland is irrigated in any given year — but the economic impact nevertheless will be outsized. In the last federal agriculture census of Kansas, in 2007, an average acre of irrigated land produced nearly twice as many bushels of corn, two-thirds more soybeans and three-fifths more wheat than did dry land.

Farmers will take a hit as well. Raising crops without irrigation is far cheaper, but yields are far lower. Drought is a constant threat: the last two dry-land harvests were all but wiped out by poor rains.

In the end, most farmers will adapt to farming without water, said Bill Golden, an agriculture economist at Kansas State University…Some already are. A few miles west of Mr. Yost’s farm, Nathan Kells cut back on irrigation when his wells began faltering in the last decade, and shifted his focus to raising dairy heifers — 9,000 on that farm, and thousands more elsewhere. At about 12 gallons a day for a single cow, Mr. Kells can sustain his herd with less water than it takes to grow a single circle of corn.

…And while the big pivots have become much more efficient, a University of California study earlier this year concluded that Kansas farmers were using some of their water savings to expand irrigation or grow thirstier crops, not to reduce consumption.

A shift to growing corn, a much thirstier crop than most, has only worsened matters. Driven by demand, speculation and a government mandate to produce biofuels, the price of corn has tripled since 2002, and Kansas farmers have responded by increasing the acreage of irrigated cornfields by nearly a fifth.

Economics still rules. Enforced ethanol demand inflated the price of corn. Farmers aren’t in business to refuse higher profits. They plant more corn. They have federal crop insurance and hedge funds to help cover unanswered questions.

And if you have a six-figure investment in the hardware and plumbing to make pivot-irrigation work, you ain’t especially interested in switching over to crop systems using less water.

Physics prediction finally confirmed

City College of New York Assistant Professor of Physics Cory Dean, who recently arrived from Columbia University where he was a post-doctoral researcher, and research teams from Columbia and three other institutions have definitively proven the existence of an effect known as Hofstadter’s Butterfly.

The phenomenon, a complex pattern of the energy states of electrons that resembles a butterfly, has appeared in physics textbooks as a theoretical concept of quantum mechanics for nearly 40 years. However, it had never been directly observed until now. Confirming its existence may open the door for researchers to uncover completely unknown electrical properties of materials…

Douglas Hofstadter, a physicist and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, first predicted the existence of the butterfly in 1976, when he imagined what would happen to electrons subjected to two forces simultaneously: a magnetic field and the periodic electric field.

The energy spectrum, or pattern of energy levels, that these dueling forces create is said to be “fractal,” that is, infinitely smaller versions of the pattern appear within the main one. This effect is common in classical physics, but rare in the quantum world.

“When you plot the spectrum, it takes on the form of a butterfly. Zoom in on the spectrum and you see the butterfly again, zoom in and see butterfly again,” said Professor Dean. The light and dark sections of the pattern, respectively, correspond to light “gaps” in energy level that electrons cannot cross and dark areas where they can move freely.

“The existence of gaps changes the way electrons move through a material. Copper for example, has no gaps, whereas an insulator, like glass, has very large gaps,” explained Professor Dean. “The relationship between energy and how dense the electrons are in a material – energy density – determines all electrical properties. That’s why copper conducts, glass or ceramic doesn’t, and other materials weakly conduct, like semiconductors.”

“What you see in a Hofstadter spectrum is a very complicated structure of gaps arranged in a fractal pattern,” he continued, which suggests as yet unknown electrical properties.

The team produced the effect by sandwiching together flat sheets of graphene – a single-atom-thickness of carbon – and another material, called boron nitride, and twisting them against each other to create what is called a superlattice. “Graphene has hexagonal chicken wire structure and boron nitride does too,” he said. “It is as if you take screen door material and put one sheet on top of other. As you rotate it you see a periodic pattern appear. You get an interference effect – a ‘moiré’ pattern.” In the case of the chicken-wire structure of graphene and boron nitride, the pattern forms a fractal butterfly of energy states.

Moire patterns drive me nuts. Sometimes I think there must be some pre-industrial part of my brain stuck into dizziness by the phenomenon.

Immigration takes its toll on the immigrants

Becoming an American can be bad for your health.

A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. And while their American-born children may have more money, they tend to live shorter lives than the parents.

The pattern goes against any notion that moving to America improves every aspect of life. It also demonstrates that at least in terms of health, worries about assimilation for the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants are mistaken. In fact, it is happening all too quickly.

“There’s something about life in the United States that is not conducive to good health across generations,” said Robert A. Hummer, a social demographer at the University of Texas at Austin.

For Hispanics, now the nation’s largest immigrant group, the foreign-born live about three years longer than their American-born counterparts, several studies have found.

RTFA and discover exactly the details you might expect: smoking, drinking, high-calorie diets and sedentary lifestyles.

Oh, and the second generation does even worse.