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, 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. 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, 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. 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 from the balmy Caribbean hadn't yet 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 (17)
  • christiand-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:43 a.m.

    Molasses can destroy a building by collapsing it , Also they use molasses in bulk . ¨Harvard graduate student Jordan Kennedy analyzed the properties of black strap 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.¨ What this quote means is that once molasses are exposed to the cold it thickens and gains mass. In conclusion molasses destroys buildings by thickening it by cold air and destroying the building.

  • briannaf-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:43 a.m.

    Molasses can destroy a building by when it came out the molasses got thicker and was sticking to things better. It was harder to move around. Molasses can ruin the things inside the buildings. It would be very hard to clean up and out.

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

    How molasses, a very sticky substance can destroy a building is it can weak the parts of the building which causes them to fall. Substances lie molasses can weaken buildings or object just by contact.

  • deenad-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:47 a.m.

    Molassess can destroy a buliding because of strong waters.If it's a glass buliding the glasses could break and the water would get stuck in the broken buliding.When the water startes to flood the street more and more water comes in, the bulidings couldn't take the inpack then they starte to fall.

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

    Molasses can destroy many buildings. It can destroy a building because it is so heavy and thick. Also, 2 1/2 million gallons of this spilled so the molasses could have been at the bottom of the building and pulled it down. It could have made the bottom of a building curve in so that would make the building fall down because it wouldn't have anything to keep up.

  • nicolea-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:49 a.m.

    Molasses can destroy buildings because it contains something very sticky and can cause much more serious like floods to damage the buildings. It releases more than 2.3 million gallons of molasses in a towering wave.

  • michaelp-pol
    12/07/2016 - 09:50 a.m.

    The molasses could destroy a building because of the fact that the molasses wave weighed 19,780,000 pounds by my calculations. Another factor is the speed of the wave was 35 miles per hour, resulting in the newtons applied being 692,300,000. That is enough to destroy any old building or probably new building in the wake of the wave.

  • danielb-pol
    12/07/2016 - 12:08 p.m.

    Molasses can destroy a building because molasses can stick to the building and ruin it

  • christinar-pol
    12/07/2016 - 12:09 p.m.

    Molasses could destroy a building if it has enough force. If the force hits into a building strong enough than it could easily knock the building over with basically no effort.

  • jennad-pol
    12/07/2016 - 12:11 p.m.

    A molasses can destroy a building by flooding the it. The flood can affect a building by weakening it, and every piece of furniture will be destroyed and soaked. It can take days or months even years to try to order some furniture from the building. It can affect windows, chairs, everything that you can't imagine getting destroyed. It can also take days to repair something that broke, or if it was ruined. Be prepared when another natural disaster arrives!

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