Beware the molasses! In this Jan. 15, 1919, file photo shows the damage caused by 2 1/2 million gallons of molasses that hurled trucks against buildings and crumpled houses in the North End of Boston. (AP Photo, File/AP Photo Bill Sikes)
Beware the molasses!
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The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 was one of Boston's most peculiar disasters. It killed 21 people. It injured 150 others. And it flattened buildings when a giant storage tank ruptured.
 
Now Harvard University researchers think they know why the wave of sticky stuff claimed so many lives. A winter chill rapidly cooled the molasses. This was as it streamed through the streets. That complicated rescuers' efforts to free victims.
 
A team of experts who studied the disaster to gain a better understanding of fluid dynamics concluded that cold temperatures quickly thickened the syrupy mess. It might have claimed few, if any, lives had it occurred in spring, summer or fall.
 
Team leader Nicole Sharp said she hopes the findings, presented at a conference of the American Physical Society, will shed new light "on the physics of a fascinating and surreal historical event."
 
"I'm originally from Arkansas, where we have an old expression: 'Slow as molasses in January,'" she said. "Oddly enough, that's exactly what we're dealing with here. Except that this molasses wasn't slow."
 
On Jan. 15, 1919, shortly after 12:40 p.m., the massive tank in Boston's crowded North End buckled and gave way. It released more than 2.3 million gallons of molasses in a towering wave. Historical accounts indicate the molasses was initially 25 feet tall. That is nearly as high as a football goalpost.
 
Outrunning it was out of the question. Sharp says the sticky tsunami raced through the cobblestone streets at 35 miles per hour, propelled by the sheer weight of the goop.
 
It took only moments for the molasses to engulf the area around Commercial Street. This part of Boston was a bustling artery. It reduced buildings to rubble. It even damaged an elevated train.
 
Sharp's team combed through hundreds of pages of historical accounts. Researchers studied century-old maps. They also looked at archived National Weather Service meteorological data.
 
Harvard graduate student Jordan Kennedy analyzed the properties of blackstrap molasses and how it flows at different temperatures. The team found that molasses thickens dramatically when exposed to cold. At the time of the collapse, the stuff in the storage tank likely was considerably warmer than the wintry air outside.
 
Two days before the disaster, the tank had been topped off. A fresh shipment of molasses had arrived from the balmy Caribbean. But it had not cooled to Boston winter temperatures.
 
Once the tank split and the molasses gushed across the Boston waterfront, it cooled rapidly. That complicated attempts to rescue victims, the team said in its report.
 
Mapping the physics of the molasses flood could help experts better understand other catastrophes such as industrial spills or ruptured levees, Sharp said.
 
But mostly, she and the others hope it will pique students' interest in physics.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How could molasses destroy a building?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (29)
  • dg-gai
    12/06/2016 - 12:07 p.m.

    I can't believe that molasses was black and sticky because of industries polluting water

  • dg-gai
    12/06/2016 - 12:08 p.m.

    How did molasses go so fast through the city?

  • pjack-dav
    12/06/2016 - 05:47 p.m.

    In response to "The Great Molasses Flood," I agree that the flood was fatal. One reason I agree is that the temperature change resulted in pressure building up in the tank. Another reason is that the molasses has a very big mass. It says in the article that the molasses was traveling at 35 miles per hour. A third reason is the molasses was very sticky and you could get trapped inside of the sticky situation. Even though it was funny that molasses can do that, I think
    many people got in a sticky situation that became fatal.

  • kl-gai
    12/06/2016 - 08:26 p.m.

    I hope that a lot of people were safe after that huge flood and how did the molasses get there and destroy everything.

  • angell2-ver
    12/07/2016 - 07:58 a.m.

    In life, there is a lot of accident. Like the big Molasses flood. This is the first time I heard the kind of molasses. So I surprising to hear molasses flood.

  • jakel1-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:41 a.m.

    I think molasses can destroy a building by moving fast and by having a tall wave and hit the building on any side of the building. Because of the molasses being so thick it will push the building right over.

  • namirb1-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:46 a.m.

    Molasses could destroy a building because the water pressure is so strong it could take out a car and the waves are very strong too.

  • colinm-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:46 a.m.

    Molasses could destroy a building because it is really thick and was very heavy and could destroy a building easy 2.3 million gallons of molasses got dumped out onto the land.

  • leilam-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:48 a.m.

    How molasses destroys a building is by reducing the buildings to rubble. The molasses will slowly rub onto the building, causing erosion, and wearing away the metal, wood, glass and other types of things that makeup the building. Also, if the molasses is very strong, it could possibly push the building out of place causing the building to fall.

  • jackl1-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:48 a.m.

    Molasses could destroyed a building because when it flooded the streets 35 miles an hour it may have distroy some building at that speed and also because most buldings in 1919 were made with wood no like concrete.

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