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Historic images of a a deadly molasses flood in the year 1919.

Great Molasses Flood was real, deadly and driven by weather

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, November 23, 2016, 7:41 PM - The 'Great Molasses Flood' is a bizarre title that belies the disaster's devastation and deaths. Now, new research suggests the weather made the catastrophe even worse.

On January 15, 1919, a massive storage tank containing 8.7 million litres of molasses burst in Boston's north end, sending a large wave of the stuff spreading through that district, with an initial wave height of 7.6 metres -- about four times the height of an average person.

It was enormous, and it was fast, believed to have moved as fast as 15 metres per second, or about 17 km/h. Its mass and momentum gave it enough power to knock down several buildings, even damaging a raised railway line.

Image: Boston Public Library/Wikimedia Commons

The human cost: 21 dead, and 150 injured. But as bad as the disaster was, a group of scientists at Harvard University say it was made much worse because of the frigid mid-winter temperatures.

Before the tank burst, the molasses it contained were probably warmer than the air temperature by around five degrees, and the scientists say it had been topped off two days prior by a shipment of molasses, which hadn't yet cooled.

When the burst finally happened, the molasses would have been relatively fast moving, but due to the temperature difference, it would have cooled faster. What that meant in practice was a rapid increase in its viscosity, or "thickness," which would have made it harder to reach and extract people who had been engulfed by the mass. It would also have slowed the recovery and cleanup operation.

Image: Boston Public Library/Wikimedia Commons

The scientists came to their conclusion using an analysis of fluid dynamics, and say they hope it can be used as a teachable moment for fluid dynamics among the general public as well as students.

"Once I delved into the history of the Boston Molasses Flood, I was surprised by how rich a subject it is, especially for engineering education," science communicator and aerospace engineer Nicole Sharp says. "It offers the opportunity to address fluid dynamics, structural mechanics, engineering ethics, history and law all in one topic. "We hope that, by shedding some light on the physics of a fascinating and surreal historical event, we can inspire a greater appreciation for fluid dynamics among our students and the public."

SOURCE: Science Daily

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