Nature Unleashed at OMSI in Portland


Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural DisastersNature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters

Tree trunk damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Photo: Jonathan Liu

This weekend the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) opened a new exhibit, Nature Unleashed. It’s all about natural disasters — what causes them, how we measure them and try to predict them, what sort of damage they can cause. For kids (and adults) who are interested in uncontrollable forces of nature, it’s a pretty cool exhibit about tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

OMSI Nature UnleashedOMSI Nature Unleashed

OMSI Nature Unleashed: Tornadoes, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, and Hurricanes.

The exhibit was developed by The Field Museum in Chicago and has been traveling nationwide since 2008. It will be at OMSI in Portland, Oregon, through September 3, and will then head to the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, and then the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City next year.

The seismometer display lets you see the magnitude of your stomping. Photo: Jonathan LiuThe seismometer display lets you see the magnitude of your stomping. Photo: Jonathan Liu

Stomp to trigger the seismometer. Photo: Jonathan Liu

The exhibit is a combination of signs and photos, videos, artifacts, and interactive elements. Some kids may be impatient to get to the interactive stuff, but if you can take the time to read the signs and watch the videos, there’s a lot of information about what causes natural disasters and how scientists study them.

One of the interactive bits is the seismometer. Below a sign explaining how a seismometer works, there’s an actual seismometer linked to a screen. Stomp in front of the screen, and you’ll see the little waveform zip across the screen.

Another earthquake-related piece is a heavy metal brick with a spring attached to it. You turn a crank which pulls on the spring, and you try to figure out when the brick will move (and how much). Because of the friction, the brick just sits there for a while until enough tension builds up in the spring and then — snap! — it shifts a few inches and then stops again. It’s a cool way to demonstrate why it’s so hard for geologists to predict when earthquakes will strike.

Also in the earthquake section are a lot of rocks showing visible fault lines. A couple of these are mounted so that you can touch them, so not everything is behind glass:

OMSI fault rockOMSI fault rock

Rock with visible fault lines. Photo: Jonathan Liu

There’s a section about tsunamis, including a video explaining how undersea earthquakes can cause a tsunami. There’s also a video which shows how waves spread from the 2004 Thailand tsunami: in about 36 hours, there were measurable waves hitting the Atlantic coast!

Make Your Own VolcanoMake Your Own Volcano

Make your own volcano: adjust the gas and silica levels, and then watch it erupt! Photo: Jonathan Liu

The volcanoes section includes models of the four major types of volcanoes with signs explaining how they occur. But to really help you understand the formation of volcanoes, there’s the “Build Your Own Volcano” station. Choose high or low amounts of dissolved gas and high or low amounts of silica in the lava, and then press the button to watch it erupt on the big screen. The video shows the formation of the volcano over time, and you’ll get to watch a spectacular eruption (or, in the case of the lava dome, a quiet oozing). There are also samples of pahoehoe, a’a, and obsidian that you can feel, with explanations of how they form.

The section on hurricanes includes several objects that were recovered from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There’s also a cross-section of a tree from the Gulf Coast showing how researchers could figure out what years had heavy hurricane seasons (or fires) based on the rings. There’s also the impressive tree trunk from Hurricane Hugo (shown at the top of this post) which has been folded over by the wind.

Items from GreensburgItems from Greensburg

Items recovered after a tornado hit Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007. Photo: Jonathan Liu

The final section focuses on tornadoes, and this is the part that probably hit home closest for me, having lived in Kansas for many years. While I’ve never personally suffered damage from a tornado, I’ve had a close call or two. The tornado that swept through Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007 wiped out about 95% of the buildings there, and the exhibit has several artifacts that were collected from the site, including a tree trunk with a piece of metal embedded in it and a metal street light punctured by a shard of wood.

There’s also an area with screens set up in a hexagonal ring where you can watch footage shot by storm chaser Tim Samaras. He used a special cone-shaped probe with several cameras in it to capture footage from inside a tornado, and you can watch as the tornado approaches and goes right over the probe.

Tornado Alley posterTornado Alley posterOf course, if you want an even better experience of being inside a tornado, you should try to catch a screening of Tornado Alley. It’s showing right now at OMSI as part of their IMAX Film Festival, but you can also check the film’s website to see if it’s playing at an IMAX theater near you.

I took my kids to see Tornado Alley, which follows storm chaser Sean Casey in his custom-built Tornado Intercept Vehicle as he attempts to get large-format footage from inside a tornado, as well as the VORTEX 2 team of researchers with a large fleet of sensor-laden vehicles who are studying how tornadoes form in order to better predict them. The IMAX format is perfect for capturing the vast power of these storms, although there were some shaky-camera parts that made me a little nauseated.

It’s fascinating following these two teams as they chase down tornadoes, and getting to see the twisters form (from the safety of a movie theater) is awe-inspiring. And scary enough that my kids both wanted to crawl into my lap for portions of the movie.

OMSI also just started running another related IMAX film this weekend: Rescue. it’s all about rescue training and responding to disasters, focusing on the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. I haven’t seen that one yet, but I may try to watch it later this week.

You can find out more about OMSI at their website, or read about the Nature Unleashed exhibit here.

Photo credits for images at top, provided by OMSI:

An F-4 category tornado bears down on storm chaser Tim Samaras, New Manchester, South Dakota.
© Carsten Peter/National Geographic Image Collection.
hres.NGS.MM6880_0006 (Tim Samaras Storm chasing)

Pu’u ‘O’o is a classic cinder-and-spatter volcanic cone on Kilauea, Hawaii. Expanding gases in the lava fountain tear the liquid rock into irregular globs that fall back to earth, forming a heap around the vent.
© United States Geological Survey; Photo by G.E. Ulrich hres.USGS.RIFT_007 (Erupting Volcano)

A fissure in one of San Francisco’s streets caused by the earthquake of April 18, 1906.
© The Field Museum
hres.postcard (1906 SF Crack in Road)

Satellite image of the eye of Hurricane Katrina at 10:15 a.m., August 30, 2005.

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