HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Nature? Gotta love it. Sunsets, flowers, majestic mountains, refreshing ocean breezes. But from time to time, even nature can have a bad day. Krakatoa is a good example. Hurricane Andrew is another. National Geographic's Forces of Nature takes an interactive look at some of the planet's less endearing atmospheric and geologic attributes, and even lets visitors try their own hand at unleashing Nature's fury.
Created as an online companion to an IMAX film of the same name, Forces of Nature still has content that will interest the majority of online visitors who may never see the theatrical version. (Those who can catch the film will no doubt learn that seeing a hurricane on a 50 by 70 foot screen isn't the next best thing to being there - it's better than being there.) Using a Flash interface and a generous allotment of multi-media, Forces has no trouble keeping the information intelligible and the presentation engaging.
The primary elements of the site are four parallel exhibits looking at Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Tornadoes. Accessible through an animated matrix on the index page, as well as through a screen top navigation bar visible throughout the site, each exhibit supplements the basic facts with Forces' most conspicuous visitor draw - the ability to create your own natural disasters. But in the interests of education, the individual sections only present these interactive phenomena after you've learned the basics behind the real things.
To that end, each force opens with a multi-tabbed "Lab" component. New content is loaded into a fixed frame, with text appearing in collapsible and movable floating boxes. (Two features that minimize the need for scrolling, and reorienting new pages after loading.)
After a brief intro covering the costs (and occasional benefits) of the chosen phenomenon, each Lab presents a world map - which marks the most active areas in the cases of earthquakes and volcanoes, and zooms into animated and labeled cutaways for tornadoes and hurricanes. (While the zooming was a bit clunky on my older computer, the effect was still impressive, and made the mechanics of these events crystal clear.) Since earthquakes and volcanoes both have multiple causes, each scenario is given a basic individual treatment - with text, cutaways, and in the case of earthquakes, simple animations.
After a few more facts, some video clips of hurricanes and tornadoes in action, and a demonstration of the method used to pinpoint the epicenter of an earthquake, visitors can try their hand at creating their own extreme events. (Of course if you're really in a hurry to exercise your control over the planet, each Lab intro-page does have a shortcut directly to the do-it-yourself section.)
Earthquakes allow you to choose ground composition and high or low magnitude shaking, Volcanoes offer magma content and volcano type. Hurricanes make options of location, ocean temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure, while Tornadoes allows control over intersecting air masses and actually demonstrates the impact of your inputs on some rather unfortunate 3-D models.
After the Labs, "Maps" sections reveal the locations and results of some of history's major incidents for each category of event, while six "Case Studies" from each exhibit offer more detailed maps, text, pictures, animations, and movie clips of such events as the Mount St. Helens eruption, and Hurricane Camille.
Navigation is conducive to visitors jumping from one force to another. If, for instance, you wish to compare hurricane and tornado mechanics, you can move from one to the other in two clicks of the mouse. Some examples of iconic navigation also simplify exploration of earthquake and volcano scenarios - with mini page maps that act as both active links and orientation aids.
There is a fair bit of advertising at the site, both for the film and other National Geographic products, and for the film's underwriters, but if you find the page top banners a distraction, they can be easily scrolled out of view. (And they stay out of view, thanks to the fixed content frame.) Other links on the home page offer a few pages of related Resources, current NatGeo Earth Science-related news reports, and a separate but topical online feature about Chasing Tornadoes.
Forces of Nature can be found at http://www.nationalgeographic.com/forcesofnature/.
Also on an environmental note -and for many of us, a more immediately unsettling subject than the occasional threat of hurricanes and earthquakes- is the quality of beach water over the rest of the summer. The Natural Resources Defense Council has just posted its 14th annual survey of water quality at America's costal and Great Lakes beaches, and the news isn't great - with a 51 percent increase in beach closures and advisories over the previous year.
You can find the full report, "Testing the Waters," on the NRDC's home page at http://www.nrdc.org/ - where you'll be able to download the entire 231 page document in PDF format, or browse the online edition (also PDF) for tables, background information, and details about individual states. An interactive map of "Beach Monitoring Practices" also lets visitors know how close-an-eye each state keeps on its water, while lists of "Beach Buddies" and "Beach Bums" (accessible through the "Summary" link) single out the best citizens and worst offenders when it comes to monitoring and notification of specific beaches.
(If Testing the Waters is no longer featured on the NRDC homepage when you read this, you can go directly to the report's own page at http://www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw/titinx.asp.)