Tag Archives: disaster

Molasses Spill Destroys Hawaii Reef

Image from

Image from

Sometimes it seems like we can’t even touch the ocean without causing some sort of environmental disaster. British Petroleum poisons the Gulf of Mexico, our ships might be deafening whales, and now even molasses is killing fish. That’s what’s been happening off Honululu’s Sand Island harbor since September 9th, 2013, when a faulty pipe caused over 200,000 gallons of molasses that was supposed to go on a ship to be dumped into the harbor instead.

Turns out, molasses is pretty bad for fish. Instead of sitting on top of the water like oil does, the molasses immediately sank to the bottom of the reef, suffocating anything unlucky enough to be caught in it. Worse still, the sudden influx of pure sugar might be causing an algal and bacterial bloom. These guys suck all the oxygen out of the water and can even be harmful to human health.

Goddamnit molasses, stop accidentally killing things.

Officials say that there’s not much they can do to help out here. It’s not like they can scoop it out or try to contain it like an oil spill, which means they have to sit back and wait for the ocean currents to do the majority of the work. Luckily, most of the fish population should recover quickly as newcomers help repopulate the reef but the immobile animals, like the corals that help build the reef, may take years or even decades to recover.

The company that manages molasses shipping out of the port, Matson Navigation Co, has stepped up and claimed responsibility for the accident, saying that any recovery efforts will be paid out of their pocket and that they will take steps to make sure this never happens again, even if it means abandoning their molasses operations.

Hopefully, the reef will recover quickly. Preliminary fly-overs already look better. Hawaii’s reefs host hundreds of different fish species, including angelfish, bigeyes, blennies, butterflyfish, sunfish and jacks. These species are important to both the fishing and tourism industry in Hawaii. Any large scale disaster has the potential to seriously affect people’s livelihoods.

Not to mention, you know, the fish’s.

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Posted by on September 22, 2013 in Modernity


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Doggerland’s End

The trawler scuttled along. The Colinda dragged its nets along the sea floor, forty kilometers off the coast of Norfolk, scraping catch out of the ocean. Pilgrim Lockwood must have been tired. He was the boat’s skipper, they had fished all night. I can see fingers stained nicotine-yellow from cigarettes working the winches and hauls. His nails were short and black with grease. The nets were heavy and the boat would have groaned and shuddered as they started to rise. Pilgrim methodically shepherded them along, plucking out his catch. Mixed in with the nets was mud, deep black and rank. It looked like peat. It came up in chunks. I can see Pilgrim’s hands, reaching for a shovel, knocking the evil-smelling chunks from the deck. Perhaps he stopped to ask what moss was doing out in the middle of the North Sea. Perhaps not, he had fished here before and would have seen it already.

Something hard and yellow skittered out across the deck. Pilgrim stopped knocking the peat aside and reached down. His hands found the object and brought it into the light. It was part of deer’s antler, encased in the mud. It had been carved at some point into an elegant barbed point. Flecks of peat still stuck to the ivory-like bone. Perhaps he looked up then, across the water, and wondered what he had found.


Today, we worry about rising sea levels. I’m personally fascinated by looking at projected coastlines, seeing what cities will survive and what islands will disappear. But on the flip side of that I also love looking at maps of the world as it once was. During the last ice age the sea level was up to one hundred and twenty meters lower than it is now. Great expanses of land existed where today there is nothing but water.

What Pilgrim Lockwood had found was archaeological remains from an area known as Doggerland. At its greatest extent, Doggerland would have stretched across the North Sea, forming a highway of hunter-gatherer societies, meandering rivers, harsh tundra, and rolling hills.

The people who lived there would have probably been a hearty mix of cultures. Unfortunately, the very fact that this “British Atlantis” is now underwater makes archaeological study extremely difficult. Since the 30’s, we’ve had more luck bringing up artifacts, but not much. Mammoth tusks, harpoon points, and flints have all emerged from the dense sea mud, but most of our knowledge is still guesswork and extrapolation.

We do know that this land must have been a dynamic place to live. Climate change would turn this area from a long stretch of glaciers into fertile plains and swampland. As sea levels continued to rise, the plains and hills would have eventually been turned into tide pools and estuaries. Still the rising tides would not recede, eventually turning the Dogger Hills into the Dogger Islands and, by 6000 BC, the submerged Dogger Bank. People would have needed to adapt, changing from nomadic hunter-gatherers into islanders and sailors. It would been a steady gradual pressure, changing cultures by generations. However, the final end of the Dogger Islands culture was probably much more abrupt.

An immense landslide happened in Norway, sending a tsunami rocketing across the North Sea. It is known as the Storegga Slide and evidence of it still scars the coast of Scotland and Denmark. The low-lying islands of Doggerland would have been especially vulnerable. This was likely the end of a strong Dogger culture. Survivors would have fled as the islands. The remains of their culture were swallowed by the ocean. Houses, graves, fires, and tools, submerged. Sinking into the ocean mud, lost, half-preserved under the waves.

Sources: National Geographic, Weninger et al (2008),,, Geochemistry.usask.caWikipedia


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Islanders May Lose Nation over Climate Change

Across the Pacific Ocean, tens of nations are taking a long, grim look at their future. Climate change is expected to cause ocean levels to rise at least thirty centimeters by the end of the century, possibly as much as two meters. For most nations this will be a tough environmental and economic fate as low-lying areas become inundated with salt water. But what do you do when climate change threatens not just your coasts, but your entire nation?

Pacific nations such as Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Fiji have already been acknowledged as particularly vulnerable to climate change. Changes in weather patterns, ocean acidity, temperature, and currents can cause crop failures, coral bleaching, and increasingly destructive storms. Storm surges and rising tides in particular are becoming a major problem. The flood of salt water erodes beaches and invades low-lying cropland, destroying food production. Even if cropland is saved, salt water can pollute the islands’ few natural sources of fresh drinking water.

But Kiribati and Tuvalu in particular are taking a grim stance on their future. Neither island stands much more than two meters above sea level and it is likely that climate change will make their land uninhabitable, if not outright submarine. Both nations are now starting to plan for their worst case scenario: full-scale evacuation of the nation.

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, Kiribati’s President Anote Tong expresses his views:

ANOTE TONG: There’s a number of scenarios. We are programming for the worst possible case scenario – 50, 60 years. And so we have to think about that.

[ABC Reporter] KERRI RITCHIE: The President says his people have no options left – they must leave.

ANOTE TONG: Well, we have to find the next highest spot. At the moment there’s only the coconut trees. But I think we have to, in fact I’ve appealed to the international community that we need to address this challenge. It’s a challenge, I think not for any one single country but I think for the whole global community. Maybe we have a few decades to address this but we believe that we should begin to address the issue yesterday… We want to deny it, we don’t want to believe this, and our people don’t want to believe this. But it gives us a deep sense of frustration. What do we do?

Their government is currently in negotiations with New Zealand. They hope to be able to migrate to the larger island nation when the time comes.

Other nations are making similar plans.

Sources:,,, wiki: sea level rise,

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Posted by on June 2, 2012 in Modernity


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The Wrath of God

Then the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah – from the Lord out of the heavens” – Genesis 19:24

Someone once said that every myth has a nugget of truth buried in it. Well, in 2008, Alan Bond of Reaction Engines Ltd and Mark Hempsell at Bristol University published a paper saying that they may have found the origin of one of the most spectacular disasters of the old testament.

It starts a long ways away from the Middle East, in Austria. For a long time, scientists have studied a geologic anomaly; thousands of years ago a small town named Köfels was buried under a gigantic landslide. The rubble is over 500 meters thick and spreads out for kilometers in a wide circle. A popular idea was that it was the site of an asteroid strike, but the signature crater is missing. No impact site could be found. However, a seemingly unrelated discovery in Iraq held the key.

It was a tablet, a clay one, buried underground for two and a half thousand years. Written in 700 BC, the tablet is a copy of an earlier Sumerian astronomer’s work. Stars, clouds, and other aspects of the night sky are recorded in fine detail for one specific date. Here is where Hempsell and Bond enter the story. Together they’d been working on a program to accurately map the night sky. The tablet is a remarkable piece of work and they were keen to test out their program. But in particular interest to them was the path of a large meteor scribed across the field of view.

Because of the star chart’s amazing precision, Bond and Hempsell could actually work the dates backwards. This formed a timeline back to 3123 BC, exactly the time of the Köfels disaster. Suddenly all the dates lined up.

This is what Hempsell and Bond think happened. On June 29th, 3123 BC, an asteroid entered the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s trajectory was unusually low, less than six degrees against the ground. As it hurtled through Austria nearly parallel to the ground it skimmed off the top of a mountain named Gamskogel, 11 km away from Köfels. Both the mountain top and the asteroid were instantly vaporized, turning the projectile from a single solid object into an immense ball of shrapnel and fire. Köfels, directly in the path of the fireball, was pulverized.

But Sodom and Gomorrah is a Middle Eastern myth, not an Austrian one. What is the deal? There’s a second part of the story. According to Mark Hempsell Well, because of the trajectory, part of the fireball was ejected back into space. Still captured by Earth’s gravity, the debris would arc upwards and then begin to rain down thousands of miles away. And the destination? Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Levant. They would have all caught a whiff of it, local heatwaves and some spectacular meteor showers, but one particularly unlucky location directly underneath the trajectory would have received infernal heat, hundreds of degrees above the norm, and a rain of fiery boulders descending from the sky. Anything underneath, animate or not, were destroyed in a cataclysm of, well, biblical proportions.

The news of the disaster would spread, of course, and plant itself in the imagination of everyone it met. I mean, come on. Seeing that would have made me fear an angry god.

Sources: The Register,,

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Posted by on March 6, 2012 in Uncategorized


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The Boston Molasses Disaster

A dull, muffled roar gave but an instant’s warning before the top of the tank was blown into the air. The circular wall broke into two great segments of sheet iron which were pulled in opposite directions. Two million gallons of molasses rushed over the streets and converted into a sticky mass the wreckage of several small buildings which had been smashed by the force of the explosion.” -The New York Times, January 16, 1919

January 15th, 1919 was an unseasonably warm day for Boston, Massachusetts. The temperatures had risen from the low single digits to over forty degrees fahrenheit and many of the streets lacked the normal blanket of snow. As the day ran on into the early afternoon people would have surely been tempted to eat their lunches sans overcoat.

The waterfront scene near Commercial Street was dominated by the storage tanks of the Purity Distilling Company. Molasses was one of their main commodities. It could be distilled into rum or ethyl alcohol in addition to serving as a household sweetener. Ethyl alcohol in particular was in high demand due to it’s use in munitions. This was during World War I, after all. The molasses was mainly stored in a gigantic tank that could hold over two million gallons (almost 13000 tons) of the stuff. This picture of a man standing on top of it shows just how gigantic this tank must have been.

However, just because the tank was large did not mean it was particularly suited to holding so much weight. The Purity Distilling Company had put a man named Arthur Jell in charge of it’s construction and maintainance. Jell was sloppy at best and criminally incompetent at worst. During construction he neglected to consult blueprints and wholly skipped a few vital tests. The tank often sprung leaks, which Jell covered up by painting the exterior brown. It is said that children would collect the drippings in jars or cans to bring home for supper.

A critical weakness was the manhole cover at the bottom of the tank. The pressure from the molasses would have been greatest here, exacerbated by carbon dioxide build up from unintended fermentation. Furthermore, the day’s unusual heat would have served to only increase this fermentation. The metal’s fatigue eventually overcame its integrity and a crack bloomed outwards. RIvets popped out of sockets and sang through the air like the rattle of a machine gun.

The resulting explosion created a wave fifteen feet high that rippled outwards at thirty-five miles an hour. The greatest casualties came from the surrounding buildings which were filled with municipal employees on lunch break. The buildings collapsed instantly, crushing the occupants. A gigantic piece of sheet metal ripped through the elevated ‘El’ traintracks and destroyed the structure, barely missing a cab full of passengers. Some people were caught by the wave and carried long distances before they finally drowned in the molasses. Even after the initial shock rescue attempts were hampered by the sticky knee-deep morass. One man wasn’t found for eleven days. All traffic stopped. As the author Stephen Puleo puts it:

Molasses, waist deep, covered the street and swirled and bubbled about the wreckage. Here and there struggled a form — whether it was animal or human being was impossible to tell. Only an upheaval, a thrashing about in the sticky mass, showed where any life was… Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly-paper. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were ensnared. Human beings — men and women — suffered likewise.

Initially, the Purity Distilling Company refused to accept blame, instead pointing the finger at external sabotage by mystery anarchists. Others began to spread rumors that the company was ignoring safety in an attempt to distill as much alcohol as they could before the impending Prohibition became official. But no matter the exact reason, the tanks dangers and defects had been a matter of public knowledge for a long time prior to the disaster and when a civil case was brought to court by the victim’s families, Purity’s parent company U.S.I.A. was found liable for the damages and forced to pay over $600,000 to the plaintiffs.

Today the event is commemorated with a plaque found near to the disaster site and the urban legend that on hot summer days the Boston North End still smells like the sticky sugary syrup that once covered so much of it.

Sources: Boston Public Library, Straight Dope, The Massachusetts Historical Society, Mass Moments, The New York Times, Wikipedia

Note: Forgive me for straying a bit from the natural into regular history. Oh well.

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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in History


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