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Will decaying whale carcasses explode? The science of the disgusting

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Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist, theweathernetwork.com

Thursday, May 1, 2014, 8:35 PM - A putrid stench has been hanging in the air over the town of Trout River, Nfld, due to a decaying blue whale washed up on their beach, but the situation may become even more horrid as this dead, bloated whale may soon explode!

Just from television, movies and the internet, it's common enough knowledge that dead things start to smell, and the longer they're left, the worse the smell is going to get. However, what's going on that would cause this whale to expand and actually explode?

When something dies, all of its biological functions - breathing, blood circulation, digestion, etc, just to name a few - stop. However, while some of the trillions upon trillions of microrganisms that call the creature home might depend on those biological functions, and thus die along with it, most of the microbes that live inside it don't. These survivers turn their host into a food source, and as they feast, they emit a collection of noxious gases, including methane (highly flammable and explosive) and hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs smell, toxic if inhaled, and also highly flammable). That's not all, though, because anything the creature has eaten just before it dies will also decay inside the creature's digestive system, and will emit its own collection of these gases.

This all combines to cause the creature's various tissues and bodily cavities to expand. For most creatures, the gases escape through the natural openings and the skin can split open to release the rest. However, whales have exceptionally thick hides, and so while a lesser creature might not reach 'critical mass,' the gases are going to keep accumulating and the pressure is going to continue to build inside the whale until it, literally, reaches the bursting point.

There have seen some fairly graphic examples of this in just the last six months.

Back in November 2013, a dead sperm whale washed up on shore in Denmark's Faroe Islands. It had only been there for two days when marine biologist Bjarni Mikkelsen began to dissect it. The results, as seen in the video below, were fairly graphic.

Just last month, a 40-ton dead whale on a beach in the Netherlands was being cut up by workers when the gases trapped inside it were released in a rather spectacular, but also disturbing/disgusting (take your pick), way.

So, will this whale outside Trout River (or the other whales near Rocky Harbour and Cape St. George) end up exploding? Well, maybe not.

In all of these cases, the rotting carcass can be compared to an inflated balloon. In the two videos, the workers or biologists cut into the carcass at a point when it was inflated, but the skin was still largely intact. This is like sticking a brand new balloon with a pin. It pops. However, if you wait for awhile, an inflated balloon will mostly deflate on its own, and if you stick it with a pin then, the results are far less dramatic.

So, if authorities wait to move the whale(s) until they've decomposed a bit more and are able to deflate on their own, they can avoid the explosions. That's if the local residents can stand the stench, that is.

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