Thursday, April 29, 2010

Setting Up for the Big Bang Over Machtesh Ramon

Due to this winter's unusually heavy rains, water erosion caused a large rock face overhanging Route 40 in Ramon's Crater (Machtesh Ramon) to break loose from its connection to the crater's wall. This rock face, sometimes referred to as a "boulder" in the Israeli press, weighs 800 tons, that's 1,600,000 pounds, and was in danger of breaking completely free and plummeting to the road below. The Israel National Roads Company, a branch of the government, hired Tamar Explosives Labs, Ltd., a quarrying and controlled detonation and explosives company, to remove the rock face via a large controlled implosion.

The 800 ton loose rock face on the cliff  above Machtesh Ramon, seen just below the high tension wire tower. (As always, click for full size image.)

This was big news in Israel and made all the news papers and TV news, although an official of Israel Roads told me there are many much larger excavation explosions in Israel every day. I guess the prospect of a huge rock face explosion and the accompanying landslide of rock down the picturesque face of Machtesh Ramon was a big draw, together with the closing of the main road between the rest of Israel and Eilat.

I had read about the explosion in the newspaper, and since the site was just a short distance from where we live, decided to drive over the day before and see what would obviously be a very blog-worthy event. The site of the boulder was about a quarter mile down the JNF Forrest road off Route 40 in Mitzpe Ramon. It was a gorgeous yellow-sun, blue-sky afternoon as I drove up to the site.

View off the cliff face next to the explosion site over looking Machtesh Ramon

As I drove up I saw a collection of support vehicles and workmen in white overalls and Day-Glo vests. There was an ambulance, support tent, commissary and command and control center, which would move below to control the explosion the next day.

Explosion work site on top of Machtesh Ramon cliff. Hanging rock face is just in front of the high tension wire tower.

I introduced myself to one of the workers who then led me to Dorin, one of the PR women working for Tamar. Everyone was very helpful and gracious to me, especially Dorin, who I'm sure had bigger fish to fry with the professional media who would descend the next day. But she was still happy to work with a small-time local blogger.

Support vehicles at the explosion site                                                               

Dorin working PR for Tamar

Support center for explosion set up on top of Machtesh Ramon

Dorin introduced me to Yoni, the Tamar project manager, who, much to my excitement and surprise, offered to walk me out to the explosion site at the boulder. The wind was blowing strongly out over the Machtesh cliff, so it was with some difficulty that I managed to keep from being blown off! He showed me the robotic drilling machine that had been used to drill into the rock face to set explosives at different depths, up to 100 feet down the overhanging boulder. The idea was to create a controlled implosion, rather than a big explosion, that would cause the rock to shatter and collapse down the cliff face, rather than blow to bits everywhere.

Yoni, the project manager, gives me my first close-up view of the loose rock face, seen here to his rear left. Click on the image to see the wire cables used to secure the rock to the cliff while they work on it. Note the high winds (flag behind Yoni) threatening to blow us off the cliff. Mt. Ardon is at the top right. Route 40, endangered by the loose rock, snakes below.

The robotic drilling machine used to place explosives in the loose rock face, to the right of robot. Note the flag blowing in the strong afternoon winds, common on the Machtesh.

800 tons of rock face threaten to fall on Route 40 below. Note cables used to secure the rock while Tamar installs explosive charges.

Tamar is no bunch of kids with fireworks. I asked Yoni what kind of training one needs to be in this business. He told me that the company had been in business for 12 years and does controlled explosions all over the world. Most of their people were trained in the Israeli military and had been involved with explosives "all their lives." I wish I had friends like this when I was growing up!

The company also takes a very scientific approach to their work. They use computer modeling to simulate the effects of the explosion and create a model of how it will work, and set up many scientific instruments to monitor and measure its results.

Strain gauges monitor movement of the giant boulder while Tamar works on it.

I arranged to meet Dorin the next morning at the set-up base camp and accompany the team below to observe the explosion. I could hardly sleep that night...

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