Disaster goggles

It’s disconcerting watching the side of a hill float toward you.

As part of his March 4 “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics” lecture to a standing-room-only crowd in Sacramento State’s University Union Ballroom, Gerald Bawden of the United States Geological Survey showed off three-dimensional images the USGS uses to study areas hit by floods, landslides, earthquakes, avalanches and other natural and manmade disasters.

However, to experience his tragical mystery tour, folks had to slip on 3-D glasses that were distributed at the door. The visuals made it feel as if viewers were birds gliding over a disturbed landscape. Call it the ultimate 3-D horror movie.

Yeah, bloodthirsty monsters can send chills, but seeing computer-generated, ultrahigh-resolution images of gullies, hillsides and neighborhoods racked by natural and manmade disasters really gives you the willies.

The ride began in Southern California with a Laguna Beach landslide, a Burbank fire zone and a Devore debris flow. Debris to the USGS is mountains of mud, rivers of rainwater and giant tumbling boulders—all potentially coming to a neighborhood near you.

The tour headed north to the tiny Central California town of Parkfield, the earthquake capital of the world, and Donner Pass, where 3-D images helped study snowmelts for future water allocations. The trip ended by jumping across the Pacific Ocean to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, where the USGS tried to figure out how the Ka Loko Reservoir overflowed. There was keen interest in their answer; seven people died in the resulting flood.

“Three-D allows us to see things you wouldn’t see with the naked eye,” informed the soft-spoken Bawden, chief scientist with the USGS Western Remote Sensing and Visualization Center. For instance, he flashed on the screen a regular photograph of a metal guardrail hugging a bridge in Parkfield, which every 20 years experiences an earthquake of at least 6.0 on the Richter Scale. Sure enough, the once straight guardrail had obviously bent over the years. But a 3-D image on another screen of the same guardrail revealed exactly how the metal rolled and twisted.

Engineers find such detailed data essential when designing bridges. More importantly, 3-D images help in the understanding, monitoring and shoring up of threatened areas. (Hint to homeowners: If you see guys in USGS shirts with cameras near your neighborhood, sell!)

It’s tedious work; each piece of information USGS collects is deemed a “data point.” Bawden said 185 million data points were collected over three months in Burbank.

Over in paradise, locals hope the Ka Loko data points will enlighten them about the worrisome Puu Ka Ele Reservoir next door. You may recognize Puu Ka Ele as the “lake” computer-generated dinosaurs emerged from in Jurassic Park, an ultratame flick compared to the one Bawden showed.