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 - one of Boston's most peculiar disasters - killed 21 people, injured 150 others and 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 as it streamed through the streets, complicating rescuers' frantic 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, which 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, releasing more than 2.3 million gallons of molasses in a towering wave that historical accounts indicate was initially 25 feet tall - 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, a bustling artery. It reduced buildings to rubble and damaged an elevated train.
 
Sharp's team combed through hundreds of pages of historical accounts. Researchers also studied century-old maps and 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, and that 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 with a fresh shipment of molasses from the balmy Caribbean that hadn't yet cooled to Boston winter temperatures.
 
Once the tank split and the molasses gushed across the Boston waterfront, it cooled rapidly, "complicating 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?
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COMMENTS (4)
  • monicas-ste
    12/09/2016 - 01:48 p.m.

    This is so crazy. I never heard of this happening. That's insane.

  • noahr-ste
    12/19/2016 - 12:17 p.m.

    This is insane that something like this could happen and this is the first i am hearing of it. Who knew molasses that thick goop could even move at 35 mph. Thats how it can take a building so fast.

  • zavierm-har
    2/16/2017 - 07:16 p.m.

    The molasses can destroy a building because of a few different reasons. The first reason is that the molasses was flowing through the streets at nearly 35 mph. It created a tsunami of molasses that was almost 25 feet tall. If you take both of these factors into consideration, the molasses would've gotten onto the sides of buildings and people. The final factor is that the molasses was hardened because it was warmer than the Boston weather, thus causing it to harden around the buildings and people. The molasses probably weighed a lot more than it use too which even without being frozen still weighted a ton.

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