Disaster polling, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced you to the 43 respondents who answered some questions about their perceptions of natural disasters around the world. Let’s see how well they did on some questions about natural hazards in the US, and beyond.

I asked, True or False: There are volcanoes in the lower 48 states of the US.

93% answered True. They’re right! Look at all the triangles on this map. The west coast is an especially busy place.

I asked, True or False: There are volcanoes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

88% answered True. They’re right! Here, let David Attenborough tell you about them.

I asked, True of False: Every time an earthquake happens, a tsunami is generated.

5% answered True. They’re wrong, not every earthquake causes a tsunami. In fact, the percentage of tsunamigenic earthquakes out of all the earthquakes that happen in a given year is pretty tiny (and not all tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes – submarine landslides can cause them as well).

Do our respondents think earthquakes are preventable? 100% said no (and they are correct). Do our respondents think earthquakes are predictable? 28% said yes. This is a hotly debated topic, about which I have a personal opinion, but it would be inappropriate for me to share that here. I can say that there is a range of predictive timescales. There are those who think animal behavior, minutes or seconds before an earthquake, can be used as a predictor (though the USGS tells us these are warnings, not predictors – they may just feel P waves before we can). Some agencies, including the Japan Meteorological Agency (among others) have a system for early warning, based again on early detection (not prediction). Other scientists are using reverse tracing of earthquake precursors to model past events, in an attempt to predict future events that have similar precursors.

Then there are the researchers who think they can identify places where an earthquake is likely to happen within some number of years: They wait for Supermoons, or monitor gas release or groundwater movement, or more commonly look at large-scale strain buildup in the crust and regional seismicity over time. But even these data don’t tell a predictable story. For instance, for years in Japan, researchers thought they knew exactly what part of the plate boundary would rupture next. Then the Tohoku earthquake happened, surprisingly to many, in a very different place.

Like I said, this is hotly debated, and admittedly not my field of expertise. So let’s get back to the polling. Earthquakes and tsunamis are just two of many possible disasters in the world. Which have our respondents actually experienced?

Of the 43 people who answered, 1 person has experienced an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, AND a tsunami (and s/he is the only person to have experienced that last one). 67% of the respondents have experienced an earthquake, and of those, most also have experienced a hurricane (the most commonly-experienced disaster, at 77%), tornado (19%), or both. Only 14% of respondents have experienced a volcanic eruption.

When asked which volcano produced the biggest eruption in recorded human history, 53% answered Krakatau (nope), 9% Pinatubo (nope) and 37% Tambora (yep). Tambora’s 1815 eruption actually released 4x the energy of Krakatau, killed tens of thousands of people, and caused it to snow in New York in June. All in all, pretty scary.

But are volcanoes the thing that scare our respondents the most?

I listed a series of disasters, both natural and human-induced, and asked people to rate their fear on a scale of 1-5, where 1 = “I am most afraid of this horrible thing” and 5 = “I am either not afraid of this, or it’s not my priority to freak out about it.”

The results: Health-related disasters, like a biological terrorist attack, rampant disease, or famine ranked highest, with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown close behind. Volcanic eruptions are way down the list, scarier than zombies, but not as scary as a wildfire. This was interesting to me – we hear a lot in the news about terrorism, air safety, nuclear plant safety, and even earthquakes and eruptions. But I rarely hear more than a passing mention of famine and disease, while in some parts of the world millions are experiencing one or both, and it clearly ranks at the very high end of fears. These are the same respondents who say we’re hearing about more storms and earthquakes because they’re simply being reported on more often.

This makes me wonder if I listed “global climate change,” where it might fall. Are these slower-burning, less cataclysmic disasters lower on the priority list for news organizations, while more frightening to those who take a minute to rank what they fear in the world? These questions make me wish we got more than 43 respondents. These are the statistics of small numbers, and I would love to see how these results change with a broader sampling. Clearly a lot of scientists (especially earth scientists) answered, but what if we had more non-scientists in the mix? Would concerns change?

The results also made me wish we’d asked for respondents’ locations – do they live in a city, a farm town, on a coast, next to a power plant? That’s a lesson learned. I crave context to these data. We did ask, at one point, for people to rank their fears specifically about they place they live, and terrorist attacks and zombies ranked #1 (possibly in part because I know a lot of people in DC, where these two things are oft discussed).

My own fears rank very differently, and I’m sure that’s in part due to the things I encounter quite often (airplanes, known prior terrorist targets, the coastline). And maybe this speaks to my nature, but I realize in looking at this list that some things that I love, like volcanoes, are beautiful from afar, but quite terrifying if you’re on the wrong flank at the wrong time, which I have been.

What about your fears? Is there something we should be worried about that I missed?


Disaster polling, Part 1

In September of 2011, following a conversation at work about the relative roles of scientists and the media in the public’s perception of natural disasters, I sent a short poll out on Twitter and Facebook. I was interested in what kinds of disasters people fear the most (earthquakes? volcanic eruptions? terrorist attacks?) as well as how the media has shaped people’s views of disasters, and the frequency of their occurrence.

I’ve finally taken a few hours to stare at the poll results, so I’ll summarize them over the next few posts.

First, let’s get to know the people that responded. There were 43 of them, and their education level broke down thusly:

… and those respondents, when asked to “summarize your current job category in 5 words or less” identified themselves as:

When asked how many times a week they read or watch something relating to science, they answered:

… and then I asked, “When a disaster is happening, to whom do you turn for information?”

Now that we’ve got a feel for who responded, and what their news sources are, let’s dig into what they think about the world around them.

When asked, “Do you believe that human activity on Earth has impacted the climate?” 100% answered Yes (this made me happy).

When asked, “Why are we hearing about more earthquakes in the world lately?” 90% said that social media and major media report on things more than in the past, while 10% said more earthquakes are occurring than in the past.

When asked the same question about severe storms, 74% said that social media and major media report on things more, while 26% said more storms are occurring than in the past.

I won’t dive too deeply into this right now, but it’s an interesting difference. Scientists, including those at the USGS, tell us that earthquakes aren’t on the rise – we’re just doing a better and more comprehensive job of monitoring, detecting, locating, and reporting on earthquakes around the world. When it comes to storms: Several scientists would argue that yes, we are experiencing more severe storms than, say, a few decades earlier (and this of course depends on where you are in the world, and this of course is better discussed elsewhere).

I asked our respondents, “Which natural disasters do you think have been the most deadly, worldwide, over the last 200 years?”


I realize that floods and tsunamis could, at times, be considered to overlap, but if we look at death tolls by natural disaster either on this older NOAA compilation [PDF] or this Wikipedia list (which is in need of verification), river-based floods are terrible, especially in China, and are unrelated to tsunami floodwaters. It’s clear that earthquakes, storms, and tsunamis also take their toll. Volcanic eruptions are pretty low on the list, in terms of human casualties, though if one considers long-term effects of all that ash in the air, the numbers might go up. Similarly, if one considers long-term health and infrastructure effects of combined earthquake and tsunami disasters, like in Haiti, the numbers get more complicated. But this is a series about perception, let’s save that conversation for another day.

In the next post, we’ll talk about earthquake prediction, and our respondents’ fears of everything from volcanoes to zombies.

This week in baking: Everything Bagels

The DC metro area is an amazing place to eat. There are incredible restaurants, street vendors, and markets in dozens of great neighborhoods throughout DC, VA, and maybe MD. However, it is nearly impossible to find a good bagel in this town. You’d think, with our proximity to New York and the sheer number of northern ex-pats living here, that someone would make a killing with NY-style bagels. But aside from one little shop in upper NW that takes me 30 minutes to drive to (and at least an hour on Metro)… there’s nothing. So I decided this weekend to try my hand at the very delicious Everything Bagel.

This recipe is sort of based on Peter Reinhart’s, with a few improvisations. It’s very important to note that this recipe takes two days! I waited until Sunday to start, and in my excitement, plowed ahead without really reading. Oops. Luckily this was a three-day weekend.

This recipe makes 6 bagels (maybe 8, if you make them a bit smaller).

What you’ll need…

…for the dough:

  • 1 tablespoon barley malt syrup (I’m told you can substitute honey)
  • 1 teaspoon active instant yeast
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons fine-grained salt, or 2 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons lukewarm water
  • 3 1/2 cups unbleached bread flour

…for the poaching liquid

  • 2 – 3 quarts water
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons barley malt syrup (or honey)
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon fine-grained salt, or 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse kosher salt

…for the delicious outside flavoring:

  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup poppy seeds
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup minced garlic (if dried, rehydrated)
  • 1/4 cup dried minced onions (rehydrated)
  • 1 egg white and a bit of water, for an optional egg wash

Note: I just tossed in the things that I personally like on my everything bagel – make whatever you’d like! But know you’ll need at least a cup of material to coat both sides of 6 bagels.

 Tools for the job:

  • one medium-sized mixing bowl
  • one larger, deep bowl (or pot)
  • a baking sheet
  • parchment paper
  • a large pot for poaching
  • a bit of oil for the sheet surface
  • a brush for the oil (and the optional egg wash)
  • a big slotted spoon (or other bagel-conveying device)
  • tools to stir and measure with, of course

What do to on Day 1:

First, you need to make the dough. Pour the warm water into a biggish bowl (saving your biggest bowl for the rising, which will happen in about 10 minutes). To the warm water, add the malt syrup, yeast, and salt. Stir it up until everything’s dissolved. Add the bread flour, and mix (I did this by hand, and it took 2-3 minutes with a big spoon. Those of you with fancy mixers and dough hooks can adjust accordingly).

The dough should form a stiff ball, and the flour should be totally hydrated (so, no powder should be left). If it isn’t, stir in a little more water. Once you’ve got a ball, let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

Come back, and move the dough to a very lightly floured surface, and knead it for about 3 minutes. The dough should be stiff, but bounce a bit when you stick your thumb into it, and it should not stick to your thumb when you do that. If it’s too sticky, knead in a little more flour.

Place the dough in a deep, clean, lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with a tight layer of plastic wrap, and set it aside to rise at room temperature for 1 hour. I admit that my kitchen was freezing when I did this, so I turned the “warmer” part of my stovetop on Low, and put it on top of that to help it along.

— — — Go do something awesome for an hour — — —

Get a baking sheet ready to take the bagels: Line a sheet with parchment paper, and very lightly oil it. Now you’re ready to shape your bagels! Divide the dough into 6 equal pieces (remember, you can make 8 smaller bagels if you want, but you might need an extra baking sheet). Roll each piece between your hands until you have a thick rope (much like when making pretzels, only these are fatter). Dip your fingers in some water and use it to blend the ends of the rope together into a circle. The hole in the middle should be about 2 inches wide.

Put these nicely-formed proto-bagels onto the lightly oiled parchment paper, and give their tops a light brushing of oil as well. Wrap the whole sheet in plastic wrap, and stick them in the fridge to proof overnight.

— — — Go do something awesome, and then get a good night’s sleep — — — 

Good morning! It’s Day 2! Are you ready for bagels? Well, first you need to pull the sheet out of the fridge, unwrap them, and let them hang out for an hour. This would be a good time to make some Bloody Marys, and to make sure you’ve got cream cheese on hand.

You could also get your outside flavorings together, if you’re not making plain bagels. Just add all that stuff I listed (or from your own list) to a low, shallow bowl, and mix with a spoon. If you’re using dried minced garlic or onion, you’ll noticed I said to rehydrate them – just soak the 1/4 cup of dried stuff in water, covered with plastic wrap, for at least a half hour. Then squeeze out excess water with a paper towel before you add it to your flavoring mix.

If you’re making non-vegan bagels, and/or you want your seeds to stick on a little bit better, now’s the time to prepare an quick egg white wash – just whisk and egg white and a tablespoon of water together, and set aside.

You should also get a fresh baking sheet ready. Line a sheet with parchment paper, and lightly oil it (just as you did yesterday). Remember, if you’re making 8 bagels, you’ll likely need two sheets.

Once a full hour has passed, preheat your oven to 500F, and get your poaching liquid together. Take a large pot and fill it with 2-3 quarts of water (basically enough to give you 4 inches depth of water). Bring it to a boil, then add the malt syrup, baking soda (this causes a fun reaction!), and salt. Stir them a bit, then bring the liquid down to a simmer.

Place the bagels (I did 3 at a time) into the poaching liquid. After 10-15 seconds, they should float to the top! Once floating, let them kick it for a minute, then using a slotted spoon, flip them over and let them kick it for another minute. Take them out (with the spoon) and set them down.

Now, if you’re making the JW-Favorite Everything Bagel, this is when you want to get your seed mixture onto the bagel. Brush your egg wash onto both sides of the bagel (if you want – you could just use the water-based poaching liquid to stick the seeds on, like H&H does). Swish your bagel around in the low bowl of seedy flavoring, flipping to get them on both sides. Once your happy with your flavor-level, place the bagel onto the lightly oiled parchment-lined baking sheet.

When all your bagels are on the sheet and ready to go, place them in the oven and turn the heat down to 450F. Bake for 15-18 minutes, depending on your oven. They’re done when they have a nice golden-brown crust. Note: If you have an extra baking sheet, I highly recommend baking these with that second sheet underneath your bagel sheet – this sort of buffers the heat, and helps the bottoms cook more evenly. 

Pull the bagels out when they’re done, and give them about 10 minutes on a cooling rack before you cut into them (they’ll be steamy!) Serve with your favorite accoutrements, and ENJOY.

Geology books for kids

This week, a friend tweeted this at me: Any recommendations on a good geology book for a second grader? I heard, “Dad, I want to be a geologist,” today. #proudpapa

Once I finished cheering, I sat down in front of my geology bookcase to take stock. For years, my mother has picked up random children’s books about geology for me. I don’t have any kids, but it’s sort of interesting, sometimes fun, and often painful, to see how geology is addressed in books meant for the younger crowd. Here’s my current stash, all donated from mom, and with an obvious volcano-bias (given my own research interests):

Some books do a great job of explaining processes, and give some activities to help them understand (like making a core sample with clay), while others distill things down to be so over-simplified that I want to write letters of correction, and still others tell stories about big geologic events. There are a LOT of Pompeii books out there, and according to my teacher-friend, these are a big hit in the classroom (explosions! death! people running from clouds of ash!)

But when it comes down to which I would recommend for my friend’s second grader, I choose carefully from my stash and add a few that I would seek out, were I to raise my own team of mini-volcanologists.

1. Every kid should have a basic rock and mineral ID book. The DK Pockets are pretty great – full of actual photographs, these have an interesting layout, and are small enough for your kid to carry around while on a hike or just wandering the neighborhood. They’re releasing a new one that looks cool in May, 2012. The Smithsonian Handbook version is a little bigger, and less portable, but really awesome.

2. This thin Smithsonian paperback has some nice summaries and photographs of actual volcanoes and their recent eruptions – cheap, and a nice way to relate to the world around you.

3. I like this general Volcanoes and Earthquakes book by Eldridge Moores at UC Davis (large, with red border in my stash photo) which is part of the TimeLife series, of all things – it’s hard to find (I’m glad I have one!) though Powell’s has a few. It’s possible Ken Rubin’s book is similar and quite good (he’s a respected scientist), though I’ve never seen it in person. This DK Eyewitness is similar, too – lots of photos, stories about earth-related myths, as well as actual science.

4. To learn about the region in which you’re raising your kiddo, you could try the “Geology of…” series. The text is a little advanced, and there are a lot of cartoony drawings, but they have some nice activities that, as a parent, you could use to teach some things about the geology around you.

5. The Step into Reading Series has a fairly well-done Pompeii story for grades 2-3, among other earth-science related titles.

There are some nice online introductions too, like the Smithsonian’s interactive Dynamic Earth site, but I’m a big fan of starting with paper. This is by no means a comprehensive list – I’m sure there are great books out there more focused on rivers, or dinosaurs, or glacial till. Do you have favorite earth science books for kids? Let us know in the comments!

Bonus baking mini-post

I was asked by the wonderful people at (where else?) The Meat Blog to write up the Dark Chocolate Bacon Cookie recipe. Go, read, bake, eat.



This week in baking: Soft Pretzels

This past Sunday, I invited a few people over to watch Tom Brady run around a football field (and then walk off said field with a sad, sad face). Normally, I would greet my guests with a pile of cookies, but I wanted to try something I’ve never before made: soft pretzels.

I did some recipe-hunting, trying to find something that combined a little bit of the sweetness of Auntie Anne’s with the crunchy-outside, soft-as-a-couch inside styling of a Fenway pretzel. To accomplish this, I combined this recipe from Sprinkles of Parsley with a few finishing touches from Alton Brown. The resulting pretzels were the perfect balance of sweet and salt, crunch and chew.

What you’ll need for the dough:
1 1/8 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 cup warm water
2 tblsp brown sugar
1 1/8 tsp salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour **(This was surprisingly hard to find, but important, chemically, because of its nice high gluten. Luckily, Whole Foods came through).

…and for the bath and eggy wash:
2 cups warm water
2 tblsp baking soda
1 egg
2 tblsp butter
~1/4 cup coarse salt (sea or kosher, whatever you’ve got)

What you’ll do:

In a large bowl, pour the warm water and yeast. Gently stir until the yeast is dissolved (about a minute). Add the brown sugar and salt, then stir until those are dissolved, too. Then, add the flour a cup at a time, mixing between each addition. Once all 4 cups of flour are added and you’ve got a thick, well-mixed bit of dough, pull it out of the bowl and knead it for about 5 minutes (or until you can push your thumb into the dough, and it bounces back into shape).

Find a deep pot with a cover (if you don’t have this, any deep bowl/pot with plastic wrap will work). Lightly grease the bottom and sides of the pot with olive oil, put the ball of dough down in the middle, and cover it. Now set this somewhere warm to rise for an hour. If your kitchen doesn’t have a warm spot, you can do what I did – preheat the oven to 450F and place the pot on the stove top.

—- go do something awesome for an hour —-

Hopefully by now, your dough has doubled in size. Celebrate by preparing a nice, warm-water baking soda bath for your proto-pretzels! In a clean bowl, pour 2 cups of very warm water (some people use boiling water at this step, though I find that harder to work with, so I just use water as warm as my hands can stand). Add the 2 tablespoons of baking soda, and stir until it’s dissolved. (DCist writer and fellow food-lover Jamie recommends adding honey to this bath, if you’d like a little extra sweetness!)

You should also prepare some baking sheets – either grease them well, or line them with parchment paper, and then set those aside. And, if you hadn’t already preheated your oven to keep your dough warm, you should preheat it now, to 450F.

With the bath nearby, move the dough from your pot to a large cutting mat or board. Chop off about 1 cup’s worth of dough (you can adjust this based on how large you want your pretzels).

Take this chunk, and roll it between your hands to thin it into a rope of dough, whose diameter should not be more than 1/2 inch. Once you have the rope, shape it into a pretzel. I sort of lay it out horizontally, then loop each end in, and twist them together in the middle:

Take each pretzel, and dip it into the warm baking soda bath for about 10 seconds (use both hands, so it can keep its shape). Then, set each pretzel on the baking sheet (give them about 1.5 inches between). When your sheet is full, set it on the warm oven to let the proto-pretzels rise for another 15 minutes.

While they’re rising, you can prepare the egg wash – just whisk 1 egg with 2 tablespoons of melted butter. When their 15 minutes is up, brush the wash onto each pretzel, and then sprinkle coarse salt on top of each.

Bake at 450 for 8-10 minutes, depending on size – my pretzels were about 4 inches across, and only needed 8 minutes. These are best served warm, but are still totally delicious hours later. I served mine with tasty stone-ground mustard, though you could use a sweet glaze as well.