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Dig safely when building sandcastles and tunnels this summer – collapsing sand holes can cause suffocation and even death

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theconversation.com – Stephen P. Leatherman, Professor of Coastal Science, Florida International – 2024-07-09 07:23:25

It's fun to take your kids to the beach, but keep an eye out for deep holes that could bury them.

Juan Silva/Photodisc via Getty Images

Stephen P. Leatherman, Florida International University

While millions of Americans vacation on beaches every year to seek out sun, sand and the sea, many might not realize how dangerous digging holes in the sand can be. In February 2024, a 7-year-old girl died after an approximately 5- (1.5-meter) hole she and her brother dug in the sand collapsed in on her, burying her alive.

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As a coastal science researcher who's been studying beaches for many years, I was called in to help investigate the girl's . While many people nearby stepped in to try to the girl after the sand hole collapsed, local firefighters couldn't arrive until several minutes after the incident – too late to resuscitate the victim.

A young girl suffocated in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, ., after a sand hole collapsed on her in February.

Digging holes in sand might seem innocent, but if the hole is deep enough and collapses on a person, it is extremely difficult to escape. In fact, research suggests more people die from sand burial suffocation than from shark attacks.

Sand basics

Sand isn't actually a type of material. It's a category of material size, ranging from 0.0025 to 0.08 inches (0.06 to 2 millimeters) in diameter. The type of sand is determined by the materials making it up. Quartz sand, made up of silicon dioxide, is the most common sand found on beaches, except at tropical coasts where coral sand beaches, made up of calcium carbonate, are found.

Material coarser than sand is not soft to the touch – it doesn't make sturdy sandcastles. Silt and clay, which are finer than sand, make murky and are commonly called mud.

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Sand's weight depends on the materials it's made of. Pure quartz sand beaches, which have very white sand, weigh around 90 pounds per cubic foot when dry.

But most beaches contain a mixture of minerals, creating a tan or brown appearance. The minerals that darken the sand are much heavier – sand on most beaches would weigh up to 130 pounds per cubic foot when dry.

Dry, loose grains of sand will form a pile with a slope angle of about 33 degrees, termed its angle of repose. The angle of repose is the steepest angle at which a pile of grains remains stable, and the force of friction between each grain determines that stability.

A pile of sand with the angle of the pile's slope labeled 'angle of repose.'

The angle of repose the slope of a pile of sand.

Davius/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

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Sand is more stable when it's wet because the surface tension between water and sand grains can hold the pile of sand in place vertically. But once it dries, the pile will collapse, as there's no more surface tension.

So if you dig a hole in the beach, it'll stay stable for as long as the sand stays moist. Once it dries, the hole collapses.

Sand is unstable

When either the sand forming the hole dries out or someone stands near the edge of the hole, adding extra weight, the sand hole collapses in, and the heavy grains fill all open spaces in the hole. This leaves no available for a trapped person to breathe.

While skiers trapped in avalanches can cup their hands to form an air pocket because snow is light, but that's not the case when sand collapses.

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Rescuing someone from a collapsed sand hole is very difficult because sand is both heavy and unstable. As rescuers scoop away sand to free the victim, the hole will continue to collapse under the rescuers' weight and refill with sand. Rescuers have only about three to five minutes to save a person who is trapped in a sand hole before they suffocate.

Professionals like firefighters will place boards across the hole when rescuing someone from a sand hole collapse. This way, they can reach down and use tools to remove the sand without putting any weight directly on the edge of the hole.

Experts recommend never digging a hole deeper than the knee height of the shortest person in your group – with 2 feet (0.6 meters) being the maximum depth.

To rescue someone in a collapsing sand hole, focus on exposing their mouth and removing sand from on top of their chest. If you expose their mouth, you can administer rescue breathing while other rescuers continue digging out their chest.

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Too many people crowding a sand hole rescue can cause more harm than good. Just two or three rescuers should work in the victim's immediate area while others work on clearing sand away from the wider excavation area, which makes it easier for those in the center to remove sand. The people on the outer perimeter can clear sand away from the central area using anything available, from buckets and shovels to beach chairs and boogie boards.

A long, narrow sand hole that's about two feet deep.

A sand hole from a collapse in New Jersey.

Stephen Leatherman

Case studies

Collapsing sand holes led to 31 deaths, mostly kids and 87% male, from 1997 to 2007 in the U.S. During that period, 21 others were in a reported sand hole collapse but survived, though many required CPR.

Victims of sand hole collapse have ranged in age from 3 to 21 years. The holes were generally 2 to 15 feet (0.6 to 4.6 meters) in diameter and 2 to 12 feet (0.6 to 3.7 meters) deep. Digging, tunneling, jumping and falling into the hole have all inadvertently triggered collapse.

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These collapses can happen suddenly, and in situations that don't seem dangerous to most. During your next to the beach, make sure to keep an eye out for sand holes and fill all holes as soon as possible. Even a shallow hole can injure someone who stumbles into it.The Conversation

Stephen P. Leatherman, Professor of Coastal Science, Florida International University

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The Conversation

Storytelling strategies make communication about science more compelling

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theconversation.com – Emma Frances Bloomfield, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, of Nevada, Las Vegas – 2024-07-11 07:26:49
A story that includes characters and focuses on what people care about can stand up to misinformation.
SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Emma Frances Bloomfield, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

As a science communication scholar, I've always supported vaccination and trusted medical experts – and I still do. As a new mom, however, I've been confronting new-to-me emotions and concerns while weighing decisions about my son's health.

Vaccines are incredibly effective and have minimal risks of side effects. But I began to see why some parents may hesitate because of the flood of content, especially online, about potential vaccine risks.

Part of what makes vaccine misinformation persuasive is its use of storytelling. Antivaccine advocates share powerful personal experiences of childhood illnesses or alleged vaccine side effects. It is rare, however, for scientists to use the same storytelling strategies to counter misinformation.

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In my book “Science v. Story: Narrative Strategies for Science Communicators, I explore how to use stories to in a compelling way about controversial science topics, including vaccination. To me, stories contain characters, action, sequence, scope, a storyteller, and content to varying degrees. By this definition, a story could be a book, a article, a social post, or even a conversation with a friend.

While researching my book, I found that stories about science tend to be broad and abstract. On the other hand, science-skeptical stories tend to be specific and concrete. By borrowing some of the strategies of science-skeptical stories, I argue that evidence-backed stories about science can better compete with misinformation.

To make science's stories more concrete and engaging, it's important to put people in the story, explain science as a , and include what people care about.

woman and man with arms around each other looking at burned out house site
Stories hit home more when they include human characters and not just forces of nature.
VladTeodor/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Put people in the story

Science's stories often lack characters – at least, human ones. One easy way to make better stories is to include scientists making discoveries or performing experiments as the characters.

Characters can also be people affected by a scientific topic, or interested in learning more about it. For example, stories about climate change can include examples of people feeling the effects of more extreme weather , such as the devastating impacts of California wildfires on local communities.

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Characters can also be storytellers who are sharing their personal experiences. For example, I started this article with a brief discussion of my personal vaccine decisions. I was not a hidden or voiceless narrator, but someone sharing an experience that I hope others can relate to.

Explain science as a process

People often think of science as objective and unbiased. But science is actually a human practice that constantly involves choices, missteps and biases.

At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, the medical advice was not to mask. Scientists initially thought that masks didn't prevent transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. However, after additional research, medical advice changed to masking, providing the public with the most updated and accurate knowledge.

If you explain science as a process, you can walk people through the sequence of how science is done and why researchers reach certain conclusions. Science communicators can emphasize how science is conducted and why people should trust the process of science to provide the most accurate conclusions possible given the available information.

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Include what people care about

Scientific topics are important, but they may not always be the public's most pressing concerns. In April 2024, Gallup found that “the quality of the ” was one of the lowest-ranked priorities among people in the U.S. Of those polled, 37% said they cared a great deal about it. More immediate issues, such as (55%), crime and violence (53%), the economy (52%), and hunger and homelessness (52%) ranked much higher.

Stories about the environment could weave in connections to higher-priority topics to emphasize why the content is important. For example, stories can include information about how mitigating climate change can work hand in hand with improving the economy and creating jobs.

Medical provider faces woman and child, in discussion
A pediatrician is a science communicator, and so is a parent who talks about their own medical experiences.
SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Telling science's stories

Scientists, of course, can be science communicators, but everyone can tell science's stories. When we share information online about health, or talk to friends and family about the weather, we contribute to information that circulates about science topics.

My son's pediatrician was a science communicator when she explained the vaccine schedule and ways to keep my son comfortable after receiving vaccines. I was a science communicator when I spoke to others about my decisions to fully vaccinate my son on the recommended schedule, and how he is now a healthy and happy 9-month-old.

When communicating about science topics, remember to borrow features from stories to strengthen your message. Think about all of a story's features – character, action, sequence, scope, storyteller and content – and how you might incorporate them into the topic. Everyone can find opportunities to strengthen their science communication, whether it's in their jobs or in their everyday interactions with friends and family.The Conversation

Emma Frances Bloomfield, Associate Professor of Communication Studies, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

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AI supercharges data center energy use – straining the grid and slowing sustainability efforts

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theconversation.com – Ayse Coskun, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Boston – 2024-07-11 07:26:28
A data center in Ashburn, Va., the heart of so-called Data Center Alley.
AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

Ayse Coskun, Boston University

The artificial intelligence boom has had such a profound effect on big tech companies that their energy consumption, and with it their carbon emissions, have surged.

The spectacular of large language models such as ChatGPT has helped fuel this growth in energy demand. At 2.9 watt-hours per ChatGPT request, AI queries require about 10 times the electricity of traditional Google queries, according to the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit research firm. Emerging AI capabilities such as audio and generation are likely to add to this energy demand.

The energy needs of AI are shifting the calculus of energy companies. They're now exploring previously untenable options, such as restarting a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island power plant that has been dormant since the infamous disaster in 1979.

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Data centers have had continuous growth for decades, but the magnitude of growth in the still-young era of large language models has been exceptional. AI requires a lot more computational and data storage resources than the pre-AI rate of data center growth could provide.

AI and the grid

Thanks to AI, the electrical grid – in many places already near its capacity or prone to stability challenges – is experiencing more pressure than before. There is also a substantial lag between computing growth and grid growth. Data centers take one to two years to build, while adding new power to the grid requires over four years.

As a recent report from the Electric Power Research Institute lays out, just 15 states contain 80% of the data centers in the U.S.. Some states – such as Virginia, home to Data Center Alley – astonishingly have over 25% of their electricity consumed by data centers. There are similar trends of clustered data center growth in other parts of the world. For example, Ireland has become a data center nation.

AI is a big impact on the electrical grid and, potentially, the climate.

Along with the need to add more power generation to sustain this growth, nearly all countries have decarbonization goals. This means they are striving to integrate more renewable energy sources into the grid. Renewables such as wind and solar are intermittent: The wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. The dearth of cheap, green and scalable energy storage means the grid faces an even bigger problem matching supply with demand.

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Additional challenges to data center growth include increasing use of water cooling for efficiency, which strains limited fresh sources. As a result, some communities are pushing back against new data center investments.

Better tech

There are several ways the industry is addressing this energy crisis. First, computing hardware has gotten substantially more energy efficient over the years in terms of the operations executed per watt consumed. Data centers' power use efficiency, a metric that shows the ratio of power consumed for computing versus for cooling and other infrastructure, has been reduced to 1.5 on average, and even to an impressive 1.2 in advanced facilities. New data centers have more efficient cooling by using water cooling and external cool when it's available.

Unfortunately, efficiency alone is not going to solve the sustainability problem. In fact, Jevons paradox points to how efficiency may result in an increase of energy consumption in the longer . In addition, hardware efficiency gains have slowed down substantially, as the industry has hit the limits of chip technology scaling.

To continue improving efficiency, researchers are designing specialized hardware such as accelerators, new integration technologies such as 3D chips, and new chip cooling techniques.

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Similarly, researchers are increasingly studying and developing data center cooling technologies. The Electric Power Research Institute report endorses new cooling methods, such as air-assisted liquid cooling and immersion cooling. While liquid cooling has already made its way into data centers, only a few new data centers have implemented the still-in-development immersion cooling.

a man wearing rubber gloves and a visor lowers a circuit board into a trough containing a liquid
Running computer servers in a liquid – rather than in air – could be a more efficient way to cool them.
Craig Fritz, Sandia National Laboratories

Flexible future

A new way of building AI data centers is flexible computing, where the key idea is to compute more when electricity is cheaper, more available and greener, and less when it's more expensive, scarce and polluting.

Data center operators can convert their facilities to be a flexible load on the grid. Academia and industry have provided early examples of data center demand response, where data centers regulate their power depending on power grid needs. For example, they can schedule certain computing tasks for off-peak hours.

Implementing broader and larger scale flexibility in power consumption requires innovation in hardware, software and grid-data center coordination. Especially for AI, there is much room to develop new strategies to tune data centers' computational loads and therefore energy consumption. For example, data centers can scale back accuracy to reduce workloads when training AI models.

Realizing this vision requires better modeling and forecasting. Data centers can try to better understand and predict their loads and conditions. It's also important to predict the grid load and growth.

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The Electric Power Research Institute's load forecasting initiative involves activities to with grid planning and operations. Comprehensive monitoring and intelligent analytics – possibly relying on AI – for both data centers and the grid are essential for accurate forecasting.

On the edge

The U.S. is at a critical juncture with the explosive growth of AI. It is immensely difficult to integrate hundreds of megawatts of electricity demand into already strained grids. It might be time to rethink how the industry builds data centers.

One possibility is to sustainably build more edge data centers – smaller, widely distributed facilities – to bring computing to local communities. Edge data centers can also reliably add computing power to dense, urban regions without further stressing the grid. While these smaller centers currently make up 10% of data centers in the U.S., analysts the market for smaller-scale edge data centers to grow by over 20% in the next five years.

Along with converting data centers into flexible and controllable loads, innovating in the edge data center space may make AI's energy demands much more sustainable.The Conversation

Ayse Coskun, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Boston University

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What do storm chasers really do? Two tornado scientists take us inside the chase and tools for studying twisters

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theconversation.com – Yvette Richardson, Professor of Meteorology, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Penn – 2024-07-11 07:25:05
Scientists in a truck outfitted with instruments race toward a storm.
National Severe Storms Lab/NOAA

Yvette Richardson, Penn State and Paul Markowski, Penn State

Storm-chasing for science can be exciting and stressful – we know, because we do it. It has also been essential for developing 's understanding of how tornadoes form and how they behave.

In 1996 the movie “Twister” brought storm-chasing into the public imagination as scientists played by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton raced ahead of tornadoes to deploy their sensors and occasionally got too close. That movie inspired a generation of atmospheric scientists.

With the new movie “Twisters” coming out on July 19, 2024, we've been getting questions about storm-chasing – or storm intercepts, as we call them.

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Here are some answers about what scientists who do this kind of fieldwork are up to when they race off after storms.

A tornado near Duke, Oklahoma, with a wheat field blowing in the foreground.
Scientists with the National Severe Storms Lab ‘intercepted' this to collect data using mobile radar and other instruments on May 24, 2024.
National Severe Storms Lab

What does a day of storm-chasing really look like?

The morning of a chase day starts with a good breakfast, because there might not be any to eat a good meal later in the day.

Before heading out, the team looks at the weather conditions, the National Weather Service computer forecast models and outlooks from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center to determine the target.

Our goal is to figure out where tornadoes are most likely to occur that day. Temperature, moisture and winds, and how these change with height above the ground, all provide clues.

There is a “hurry up and wait” cadence to a storm chase day. We want to get into position quickly, but then we're often waiting for storms to develop.

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A radar image shows a storm cell with a hook at the back suggesting a tornado could form.
A ‘hook echo' on radar, typically a curl at the back of a storm cell, is one sign that a tornado could form. The hook reflects precipitation wrapping around the back side of the updraft.
National Severe Storms Lab

Storms often take time to develop before they're capable of producing tornadoes. So we watch the storm carefully on radar and with our eyes, if possible, staying well ahead of it until it matures. Often, we'll watch multiple storms and look for signs that one might be more likely to generate tornadoes.

Once the mission scientist declares a deployment, everyone scrambles to get into position.

We use a lot of different instruments to track and measure tornadoes, and there is an art to determining when to deploy them. Too early, and the tornado might not form where the instruments are. Too late, and we've missed it. Each instrument needs to be in a specific location relative to the tornado. Some need to be deployed well ahead of the storm and then stay stationary. Others are car-mounted and are driven back and forth within the storm.

A row of seven minivans, SUVS and jeeps with racks on top holding the sorts of instruments one might see in a weather station.
Vehicle-mounted equipment can act as mobile weather stations known as mesonets. These were used in the VORTEX2 research . Dozens of scientists, including the authors, succeeded in recording the entire life cycle of a supercell tornado during VORTEX2 in 2009.
Yvette Richardson

If all goes well, team members will be concentrating on the data coming in. Some will be launching weather balloons at various distances from the tornado, while others will be placing “pods” containing weather instruments directly in the path of the tornado.

A whole network of observing stations will have been set up across the storm, with radars collecting data from multiple angles, photographers capturing the storm from multiple angles, and instrumented vehicles transecting key areas of the storm.

Not all of our work is focused on the tornado itself. We often target areas around the tornado or within other parts of the storm to understand how the rotation forms. Theories suggest that this rotation can be generated by temperature variations within the storm's precipitation region, potentially many miles from where the tornado forms.

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An illustration shows a thunderstorm cloud with an updraft with a smaller downdraft behind it. Both are spinning. A spinning football indicates the type of spin.
Formation of a tornado: Changes in wind speed and direction with altitude, known as wind shear, are associated with horizontal spin, similar to that of a football. As this spinning is drawn into the storm's updraft, the updraft rotates. A separate air stream descends through a precipitation-driven downdraft and acquires horizontal spin because of temperature differences along the air stream. This spinning air can be tilted into the vertical and sucked upward by the supercell's updraft, contracting the spin near the ground into a tornado.
Paul Markowski/Penn State

Through all of this, the teams stay in contact using text messages and software that allows us to see everyone's position relative to the latest radar images. We're also watching the for the next day so we can plan where to go next and find hotel rooms and, hopefully, a late dinner.

What do all those instruments tell you about the storm?

One of the most important tools of storm-chasing is weather radar. It captures what's happening with precipitation and winds above the ground.

We use several types of radars, typically attached to trucks so we can move fast. Some transmit with a longer wavelength that helps us see farther into a storm, but at the cost of a broader width to their beam, resulting in a fuzzier picture. They are good for collecting data across the entire storm.

Smaller-wavelength radars cannot penetrate as far into the precipitation, but they do offer the high-resolution view necessary to capture small-scale phenomena like tornadoes. We put these radars closer to the developing tornado.

An inside look at some of the mobile and tools scientists use in storm-chasing, including how team members monitor storms in real time.

We also monitor wind, air pressure, temperature and humidity along the ground using various instruments attached to moving vehicles, or by temporarily deploying stationary arrays of these instruments ahead of the approaching storm. Some of these are meant to be hit by the tornado.

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Weather balloons provide crucial data, too. Some are designed to ascend through the atmosphere and capture the conditions outside the storm. Others travel through the storm itself, measuring the important temperature variations in the rain-cooled air beneath the storm. Scientists are now using drones in the same way in parts of the storm.

Symbols show the paths of over 70 balloon-borne probes that the authors' team launched into a supercell thunderstorm. The probes, carried by the wind, mapped the temperature in the storm's downdraft region, which can be a critical source of rotation for tornadoes. Luke LeBel/Penn State

All of this gives scientists insight into the processes happening throughout the storm before and during tornado and throughout the tornado's lifetime.

How do you stay safe while chasing tornadoes?

Storms can be very dangerous and unpredictable, so it's important to always stay on top of the radar and watch the storm.

A storm can cycle, developing a new tornado downstream of the previous one. Tornadoes can change direction, particularly as they are dying or when they have a complex structure with multiple funnels. Storm chasers know to look at the entire storm, not just the tornado, and to be on alert for other storms that might sneak up. An escape plan based on the storm's expected motion and the road network is essential.

In 1947, the Thunderstorm Project was the first large-scale U.S. scientific study of thunderstorms and the first to use radar and airplanes. Other iconic projects followed, including ones that deployed a Totable Tornado Observatory, or Toto, which inspired the ‘Dorothy' instrument in the movie ‘Twister.'

Scientists take calculated risks when they're storm chasing – enough to collect crucial data, but never putting their teams in too much danger.

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It turns out that driving is actually the most dangerous part of storm-chasing, particularly when roads are wet and visibility is poor – as is often the case at the end of the day. During the chase, the driving danger can be compounded by erratic driving of other storm chasers and traffic jams around storms.

What happens to all the data you collect while storm-chasing?

It would be nice to have immediate eureka moments, but the results take time.

After we collect the data, we spend years analyzing it. Combining data from all the instruments to get a complete picture of the storm and how it evolved takes time and patience. But having data on the wind, temperature, relative humidity and pressure from many different angles and instruments allows us to test theories about how tornadoes develop.

Although the analysis is slow, the discoveries are often as exciting as the tornado itself.The Conversation

Yvette Richardson, Professor of Meteorology, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education, Penn State and Paul Markowski, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology, Penn State

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