The Explainer General
Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
Sneed B. Collard III
"Connecting Scientists and Kids”
Only you can prevent forest fires! At least that’s what Smokey Bear taught me growing up. His message? All forest fires are bad, and we’re helping nature by putting them all out.
Recently, I met a scientist who’s made me rethink this negative message about natural wildfires. His name is Dick Hutto and he’s a biology professor at the University of Montana. “There are two kinds of fires,” Dick explains. “The ones that burn down your house or kill your neighbor are bad, bad, bad. The other ones can be the greatest things in the world.”
To prove his point, Dick took me to the Black Mountain burn area, near my home in Missoula, Montana. A severe forest fire burned through this area only ten years ago, and thousands of blackened trees still stand like sentries across the landscape. Surprisingly, this charred landscape explodes with life. Tens of thousands of new tree saplings reach for the sky. Elk and deer graze on the fresh grass growing in the newly-opened areas. More than anything, the songs of birds fill the burned forest.
In his research, in fact, Dick discovered that dozens of bird species love fresh burn areas. In the West, 15 bird species prefer burned forests to all other habitats! Woodpeckers pave the way. As soon as a forest burns, legions of wood-boring beetles descend on the forest and lay their eggs in the dead trees. Three-toed, Hairy, and Black-backed Woodpeckers follow and begin devouring the newly-hatched beetle grubs. They also chisel out their own nest holes—holes that are used by Mountain Bluebirds, American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and many other species. Because of burned forests, these birds find food and shelter. They also find safety. How?
Green forests abound with squirrels and chipmunks—animals that feast on bird eggs. A severe forest fire, though, clears out the small mammals. That means that birds can raise their young much more safely.
But listen, don’t take my word for it—or even Dick Hutto’s.
To learn more about the benefits of fire, throw a water bottle, lunch, a bird guide, and a pair of binoculars in your backpack and go visit a burn area for yourself. You will be astonished by what you see. Take a notebook or a camera along, too. Part of the fun of discovering our planet is sharing what you see. By doing so you’ll help others realize the importance of natural wildfires and burned forest—and help create a healthier, more interesting world.
Sneed Collard III has written a book about the birds that thrive in burn areas. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way. If you would like more information, click here to go to Sneed's website. If you click the Study Guide tab, you will find a guide that's been prepared for this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. Weblog post. Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/rethinking-smokey-bears-message.
The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
Dr. Hugh Willoughby, of Florida International University, was one of the first meteorologists to ever fly into the eye of a hurricane. Now the job is done by the Hurricane Hunters—a team of pilots, navigators and meteorologists who fly into these dangerous storms to help keep us safe. Here’s what I learned when I interviewed Hugh Willoughby:
What is a hurricane eye?
Hurricanes are circular storms so the wind blows around in a circle. The eye is the center of a hurricane. If a circular storm doesn’t have an eye, it is not a hurricane—it’s a tropical storm. The eye is surrounded by a ring of clouds called the eyewall. Within the eye, there is a calm area that is cloudless all the way up to space. The winds are strongest just at the inner edge of the eyewall, which is composed of violent thunderstorms with strong updrafts and downdrafts. The hurricane pinwheels out from the eyewall as spiral bands of wind and rain, which stretch for miles. When a hurricane’s eye passes over land, the storm suddenly stops and the sun comes out. But the relief is short-lived as the other side of the storm soon slams into the area.
How do Hurricane Hunters help us?
Hurricane Hunters fly into the eye of hurricanes that are heading towards our shores to help predict where the storm will make landfall. On every mission they must find the center of the storm at least twice and at most four times over a period of several hours because the change in position of the center of the eye tells us the direction the storm is moving and how fast it is moving. They also drop packages called dropsondes that contain measuring instruments for air pressure, humidity, and wind speed at the eyewall. These measurements tell us the destructive power of the storm or its “category.” During a hurricane season (from June 1 to November 30) the Hurricane Hunters and their fleet of ten airplanes can get data on three storms, twice a day. So flying into a hurricane’s eye is pretty routine for them.
Is it dangerous?
The planes can easily handle changes in air pressure and wind speeds that create “bumps” and it can be pretty bumpy going through the eyewall. But, in more than sixty years there have been only four accidents. All on board agree that the view of the eyewall from inside the eye is worth it! The plane has transported them inside nature’s most magnificent amphitheater.
(c) Vicki Cobb 2014
Harvey and Irma have alerted everyone to the dangers of a hurricane. We can predict the course of a hurricane by flying into a hurricane and repeatedly measuring wind speed, humidity, air pressure, and temperature. Here's a video that will give you a taste of what it looks like as you approach an eye wall. It is filmed from a plane penetrating Hurricane Katrina.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "Flying into the Eye of a Storm." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/ flying-into-the-eye-of-a-storm.
Nonfiction is the new black
Early in 1980, Mt. St. Helens in southwestern Washington state began showing signs that it was about to erupt. Part of the state’s Cascade Range, the mountain was an active volcano that had been dormant for 123 years.
The possibility of seeing the “fireworks” prompted many people to head for the mountain. The sightseers included Ron and Barbara Seibold and their two children, who parked about 12 miles north of the mountain. That was well beyond two danger zones that scientists had established.
En route to the mountain, the children—Kevin, aged 7, and his 9-year-old sister Michelle—made a cassette tape. They asked questions and the parents answered. “They were goofing around—asking whether or not they would see lava coming out of the mountain,” said a state emergency management official. “One asked if it was dangerous, and both parents cheerfully reassured their kids that they’d be safe.”
Exploding on May 18 with a fury far beyond what scientists had expected, the blast generated the largest landslide in U.S. history and flattened millions of trees. Uncounted tons of ash rose as high as 15 miles into the atmosphere.
The Seibolds never had a chance. Ash almost instantly buried their vehicle. They suffocated.
The eruption claimed 53 more people, making it the deadliest-ever on the US mainland. One was Harry Truman, who had run the inn at nearby Spirit Lake for more than 50 years. Truman had become somewhat of a folk hero for his refusal to move despite the danger.
Twenty-year-old newlyweds Christy and John Killian were camping nine miles from the volcano. Christy died of massive head injuries, her arm around her pet poodle. John and the couple’s retriever were never found.
Terry Crall and Karen Varner, both 21, died when a tree fell onto their tent, 14 miles away. Four people outside the tent were unharmed.
So were researchers Keith and Dorothy Stoffel, flying a small airplane less than 1,300 feet above the summit at the moment of the eruption. A cloud laced with lightning bolts billowed toward them. They managed to outrun it.
Today, much of the vegetation destroyed by the blast has returned. But the mountain—once compared in its graceful contours to Mt. Fuji in Japan—lost 1,300 feet of its height. Its former symmetrical cone shape is now topped by a horseshoe-shaped crater which stands as a mute reminder of the catastrophic eruption.
The top of Mount St. Helens two years after the eruption. The removal of the north side of the mountain reduced St. Helens' height by about 1,300 feet and left a crater 1 mile to 2 miles wide and a half mile deep. The eruption killed 57 people, nearly 7,000 big game animals (deer, elk, and bear), and an estimated 12 million fish from a hatchery. It destroyed or extensively damaged more than 200 homes, 185 miles of highway, and 15 miles of railways.
Volcanoes have been erupting for all of recorded history. More than 3,500 years ago, people on the Greek island of Calliste had a very good life. There was only one problem: Calliste was actually a volcano. Around 1650 BCE, the volcano erupted, blowing out the center of the island and creating a large bay. What was left of Calliste was buried under a thick layer of volcanic ash. Though the island was deserted for many years, people eventually returned. Several centuries ago, it was renamed Santorini. The island has reclaimed its beauty and allure, but the volcano below continues to reshape this little plot of land in the Mediterranean Sea. For more information on Jim Whiting's book on the Santorini eruption, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Deadly Eruption of Mount St. Helens." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 5 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Nonfiction is the new black
In the early morning of April 15, 1912, the ocean liner Titanic sank on her maiden voyage after hitting an iceberg. The ship carried just over 2,200 people. More than 1,500 perished.
The main reason for the high death toll was that the ship had only 20 lifeboats. As they pulled away from the sinking ship, many were only half-full or even less. Even if all had been filled to capacity, only half the people would have been saved.
Why didn’t Titanic carry enough lifeboats for everyone on board?
There were several reasons.
Titanic’s original design called for 64 lifeboats. That number was later cut in half, then nearly halved again. The ship’s owners felt that too many lifeboats would clutter the deck and obscure the First Class passengers’ views.
The ship sailed under safety regulations that originated nearly 20 years earlier, when the largest passenger ships weighed 10,000 tons. Titanic was more than four times that amount. Yet officials maintained that ships had become much safer. Revising the regulations was therefore unnecessary. Under those regulations, Titanic actually had four more lifeboats than she was obligated to carry. Nearly every other vessel of that era was similarly deficient in the quantity of lifeboats.
The prevailing thinking at that time was that the ship itself would serve as a gigantic lifeboat. Nearly everyone believed that even a heavily damaged vessel would remain afloat for many hours before sinking. That would allow plenty of time for the lifeboats to go back and forth several times, ferrying passengers to nearby ships. This assumption was not unreasonable. When the smaller liner Republic was involved in a collision in 1909, she remained afloat for more than 24 hours. All 742 passengers and crew were ferried to safety.
The flaw with this assumption was that Titanic sank far more rapidly than anyone anticipated. The first rescue ship arrived more than two hours after Titanic had gone down.
In 2012 an explosive document emerged. It consisted of safety inspector Maurice Clarke’s handwritten notes, urging the addition of 10 more lifeboats five hours before the ship sailed. The ship’s owners wanted to leave on time. Clarke was threatened with being fired unless he kept his mouth shut. If the owners had followed his advice, almost 700 more people might have survived.
The disaster prompted a massive overhaul of regulations. All ships were required to carry enough lifeboats for everyone.
Frederick Douglass was a slave, but from an early age, he was determined to become a free man. He escaped to the North when he was about 20. A few years later, he discovered that he was an outstanding public speaker. For the rest of his life, Frederick would courageously speak out about the issues that affected his fellow blacks. Sometimes his actions placed him in great danger. During his lifetime no other African American did as much for blacks as Frederick Douglass. Even today his memory continues to inspire many people to work for civil rights and racial justice. For more information on Jim Whiting's book, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Titanic - Not Enough Lifeboats." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 31 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/