On 15 January 1919, a massive tank containing 2.2m gallons of molasses burst in Boston, causing the death of 21 people.
Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive
An obscure accident led to the first class action lawsuit against a major company, paving the way for modern regulation.
It may sound like the fantastical plot of a children’ story but Boston’s Great Molasses Flood was one of the most destructive and sombre events in the city’s history.
On 15 January 1919, a muffled roar heard by residents was the only indication that an industrial-sized tank of syrup had burst open, unleashing a tsunami of sugary liquid through the North End district near the city’s docks.
As the 15-foot (5-metre) wave swept through at around 35mph (56km/h), buildings were wrecked, wagons toppled, 21 people were left dead and about 150 were injured.
Now scientists have revisited the incident, providing new insights into why the physical properties of molasses proved so deadly.
Presenting the findings last weekend at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, they said a key factor was that the viscosity of molasses increases dramatically as it cools.
This meant that the roughly 2.3m US gallons of molasses (8.7m litres) became more difficult to escape from as the evening drew in.
The Cyclone Tracy exhibit at Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory in Darwin. Photograph: Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve in 1974, causing mass destruction.
Photographs by Jonny Weeks for the Guardian
Top Enders live with extreme weather in a way few southern Australians can comprehend.
It’s interminably hot and the rains seem to turn on and off like a tap: when it’s not bone dry, you have to contend with raging floods.
But even the hardy locals of Darwin couldn’t prepare for the fury of Cyclone Tracy, the storm that came tearing down from the Arafura Sea on Christmas Eve 1974, taking 66 lives.
A permanent exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory includes before and after photos that capture the devastation wreaked on the flattened town.
Don’t miss the terrifying cyclone room where, in pitch black, you can experience for yourself the screaming, screeching sounds of the wind and the groaning of buildings and trees: on the day maximum gusts of 217 km/h were recorded before equipment failed.
The Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is at 19 Conacher Street, The Gardens, Darwin, (08) 8999 8264.
The much maligned venomous cane toads earned their bad reputation shortly after being released into the Australian ecology in 1935 with the hope that they would control the destructive cane beetle population.
They turned out to be failures at controlling beetles, but remarkably successful at reproducing and spreading themselves.
About 3,000 cane toads were released in the sugarcane plantations of north Queensland in 1935.
They now number well into the millions, and their still expanding range covers thousands of square miles in northeastern Australia.
Photo by Iрина Д. UkraineJoined in 2015
They are considered pests, and government eradication efforts include asking residents to help collect and dispose of them.
Cane toads are large, stocky amphibians with dry, warty skin, and are native to the southern United States, Central America, and tropical South America.
Their numbers are manageable in their natural range, but they have thrived in Australia because there are few natural predators, they breed easily, and they have abundant food, including pet food, which they steal from feeding bowls left outside of homes.
Scientists have announced that they may have solved one of history’s biggest biomedical mysteries—why the deadly 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed perhaps 50 million people worldwide, largely targeted healthy young adults.
The explanation turns out to be surprisingly simple: People born after 1889 were not exposed as kids to the kind of flu that struck in 1918, leaving them uniquely vulnerable.
Older people, meanwhile, had been exposed to flu strains more closely related to the 1918 flu, offering some immunity.
Simply put, the Spanish flu owed its ferocity to a switch in dominant influenza varieties that had occurred a generation earlier. (Related: “1918 Flu That Killed 50 Million Originated in China.”)
“All a matter of timing,” says virologist Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University in New York, who was not part of the study.
Researchers involved in the study looked at the evolutionary history of the components of the 1918 flu, which was built of genes from human and avian flu strains. They unraveled the history of dominant flu strains stretching back to 1830.
The evolutionary biologists found that a worldwide 1889 outbreak of the so-called Russian flu, the H3N8 flu virus, left a generation of children that had not been exposed to anything resembling the Spanish flu, which was an H1N1 strain.
(The H and N in the flu designation stand for proteins called hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, respectively).
The spread of a more closely related H1 flu variety after 1900 provided partial immunity to children born after that time. That closed the window of vulnerability.
“You have the most deadly flu pandemic in history essentially leaving the elderly, its most frequent victims, completely alone,” says biologist Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who led the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences report.
Instead, people aged 18 to 29 died in droves during the outbreak, which killed about 1 in 200 of victims.
Experts have suggested that such a window of vulnerability partly explained the 1918 pandemic, Racaniello notes.
But the new study provides computational evidence that the 1918 flu’s precursor originated around 1907, he says, and explains how the window of vulnerability opened and closed for the disease.