City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP
City & State or ZIP Tonight, this weekend, May 5th...
City & State or ZIP

PHOTOS: Fernbank’s new ‘Nature Unleashed’ exhibition

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The 200 mile per hour winds of an EF5 tornado in Greensburn, Kan. in 2007 bent this stop sign while debris stripped some of its plate. The sign and other artifacts from the tornado are on display at Fernbank Museum of Natural History. AJC photos by Jamie Gumbrecht

Flashback to eighth grade earth science: Mrs. Kuntz tries to explain Pangaea, tectonic plates, earthquakes, volcanoes. This involves a lot of illustrations, movie clips, glossaries of terms we’ve never seen before, assurances that nobody in Michigan is likely to die from these things — not today, anyway — and the class singing the chorus of “Breaking Up is Hard To Do.” I always imagined we were imitating Little Eva, but I know now that it’s more Neil Sedaka’s thing. I’ll credit both for the education.


Fernbank's Cindy Sheehy stomps the ground to show how a (unusually sensitive) seismometer measures ground movement.

Still, that’s it. Every few years since then, I’ve written about homes ravaged by hurricanes, cities hit by a tornado, fault lines that threaten everything we’ve built or locals impacted by a horrific tsunami far away, but the science behind natural disasters is rarely something that comes up until the very worst moment.

A new exhibition at Fernbank Museum of Natural History brings it all flooding back. (Pun!) “Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters,” digs into the science of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes and tsunamis through historic case studies, hands-on exhibits and jarring artifacts.

“Nature Unleashed” was created by The Field Museum in Chicago, but Fernbank staffers scrambled to add information that explains the recent earthquake in Haiti. (It’s a seamless and smart addition, one that should help parents and kids discuss and understand what they’ve been seeing on the news for the last few weeks.)

A few highlights:

  • In addition to information about the earthquake Haiti, the exhibition digs into the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to show how tectonic plates shift and how technology has improved. Do not miss the monitor that reveals movement in the earth up to 50 years back, or as recent as the last 7 days. (Seriously, Alaska, everything OK up there?)
  • For volcanoes, the exhibition includes stations where visitors can electronically build their own volcanoes, revealing what happens with different levels of gas and silica. There are varieties of lava samples, a display of products that contain lava (they’ll leave your feet silky smooth!) and even a sample from the famed volcano, Mount Vesuvius.
  • The hurricane section digs compares and contrasts a storm that toppled Galveston in 1900 and the storm we know overtook the Gulf Coast in 2005, Hurricane Katrina. (An aside: Go Saints!) This section considers not just science, but society. There are photographs, children’s drawings and responses to the question of whether, in modern times, we bear some of the blame for devastation caused by hurricanes.
  • The most shocking section deals with tornadoes by letting visitors step into the middle of one, then revealing the damage from a 2007 tornado that flattened parts of Kansas. The photo up top shows some of the actual artifacts from the town. It’s a Whoa Moment, for sure.
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Panels pair history and science in "Nature Unleashed." There's a lot of text, yes, but it's really engaging, and easy to grasp, whether you just want highlights, or a deeper dive into the material.

All this ends with information on how to prepare for crazy weather and stories of human resilience. After lot of sad, crazy, shocking views, visitors will see how people survive afterward. One of the key lessons, of course, is that earth was made habitable by these types of events. After a volcano explodes, the ash leaves behind fertile ground, exactly what we need to start over again.

Among the temporary exhibitions that have passed through Fernbank in the past year, this is my favorite. It’s educational, hands-on, timely and practical, touching on the science and the societal impact of natural disasters throughout history. It includes a 20-minute video featuring meteorologists from local TV networks, who explain how Georgia is affected by earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes. (Volcanoes aren’t on the list. I’m all right with that.)

This exhibition is paired up, too, with the Imax film, “Forces of Nature,” which will continue to show through May 27.


Cindy Sheehy, Fernbank's director of children and family programs, shows off a hands-on exhibit that reveals how tectonic plates can shift.

See it: Geology geeks, weather geeks, news junkies, everyone in fourth through eighth grade.

Skip it: Weather-phobes, young kids — they’ll enjoy some of the hands-on pieces, but this far more interesting for people old enough to read.

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Panels show how people recover and adapt after natural disasters, whether with help from World Bicycle Relief, or by building structures developed to withstand an earthquake.

Want to go? “Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters,” runs Feb. 6-May 2. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $13-$15, free for members and children 2 and younger. Fernbank Museum of Natural History, 767 Clifton Road, N.E., Atlanta. 404-929-6300,

16 comments Add your comment

[...] For families: “Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters” continues, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Fernbank Museum of Natural History, Atlanta. Read more. [...]


February 7th, 2010
4:33 pm

Went to this exhibit today and it’s fine for younger kids. My 1st grader really enjoyed it.

Jamie Gumbrecht

February 7th, 2010
10:45 am

WW, yup, other commenters are correct about Fernbank Science Center and Fernbank Museum being two places. Fernbank Museum is newer and larger and includes dinosaurs and an IMAX theater, while the Science Center is a bit older and offer planetarium. They’re both interesting, and the Science Center, in particuar, is a great deal.

Leon, I don’t think there’s a political agenda in this exhibition. The section on whether humans are to blame talks specifically about development, and the fact that wetlands acted as a kind of speedbump for storms like Hurricane Katrina. Once those wetlands were developed, they no longer had that effect. Heat is the cause of these events, whether from inside the earth or from the sun, but climate change isn’t a huge theme here. The exhibition itself asks visitors to make up their own minds after presenting the science. Also, as I have seen the exhibition, let me be clear: there are no essays from children about who is to blame. Letters and photos by children share their memories of before and after.

Really Leon?

February 7th, 2010
10:03 am

Leon, please can you leave politics on the shelf just for a moment and concentrate on the science. McDonald’s can introduce a new sandwich and people like you will find a way to color it political.


February 7th, 2010
9:22 am

I had to miss out on opening day of this exhibit yesterday, but definitely want to take my kids out to see it.


February 7th, 2010
8:25 am

It’s nice to know that the exhibit is being used to push a political agenda. Asking children to write essays on whether they are responsible for weather disasters is bizzare. Scientists can’t even agree on the topic. Science also just reversed itself on the whole vaccine-autism link. Isn’t this the coldest winter in Atlanta in the last 70+ years? I don’t like pollution, but I have doubts about man made climate change.