Disaster

Surface Tension

Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.

The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.

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Andrée and the Aeronauts' Voyage to the Top of the World

From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
From right to left: S. A. Andrée, Knut Fraenkel, Nils Strindberg, and Vilhelm Swedenborg (Spaeronaut)
On the 11th of July 1897, the world breathlessly awaited word from the small Norwegian island of Danskøya in the Arctic Sea. Three gallant Swedish scientists stationed there were about to embark on an enterprise of history-making proportions, and newspapers around the globe had allotted considerable ink to the anticipated adventure. The undertaking was led by renowned engineer Salomon August Andrée, and he was accompanied by his research companions Nils Strindberg and Knut Fraenkel.

In the shadow of a 67-foot-wide spherical hydrogen balloon--one of the largest to have been built at that time--toasts were drunk, telegrams to the Swedish king were dictated, hands were shook, and notes to loved ones were pressed into palms. "Strindberg and Fraenkel!" Andrée cried, "Are you ready to get into the car?" They were, and they dutifully ducked into the four-and-a-half-foot tall, six-foot-wide carriage suspended from the balloon. The whole flying apparatus had been christened the "Örnen," the Swedish word for "Eagle."

"Cut away everywhere!" Andrée commanded after clambering into the Eagle himself, and the ground crew slashed at the lines binding the balloon to the Earth. Hurrahs were offered as the immense, primitive airship pulled away from the wood-plank hangar and bobbed ponderously into the atmosphere. Their mission was to be the first humans to reach the North Pole, taking aerial photographs and scientific measurements along the way for future explorers. If all went according to plan they would then touch down in Siberia or Alaska after a few weeks' flight, laden with information about the top of the world.

Onlookers watched for about an hour as the voluminous sphere shrank into the distance and disappeared into northerly mists. Andrée, Strindberg, and Fraenkel would not arrive on the other side of the planet as planned. But their journey was far from over.

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Night Takes Rook

Please give a warm welcome to our newest author Mr J A Macfarlane. Hip-hip...!

Engineers need to have faith in their designs, but not many would necessarily be confident enough to put their lives at risk just to prove it. It takes a great deal of faith to design a lighthouse for the most dangerous reef in the English Channel, especially when no-one has ever built a lighthouse on the open sea before. It takes rather more to actually build it. And one approaches the shores of hubris when one decides to visit said lighthouse with a massive gale on the way. But when Henry Winstanley, an 18th-century English eccentric, designed and constructed the world’s first open-sea lighthouse on a small and extraordinarily treacherous group of rocks fourteen miles out from Plymouth, he was so confident in his building that he blithely assured all doubters he would be willing to weather the strongest storm within its confines – a boast he had the chance to live up to when he found himself in his lighthouse as the most violent tempest in England’s history approached its shores.

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Better Call Sol

The sun as seen through the SOHO Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT)
The sun as seen through the SOHO Extreme ultraviolet Imaging Telescope (EIT)
On 10 January 1709, pioneering weather observer William Derham recorded an historic event outside his home near London. He examined his thermometer in the frigid morning air and jotted an entry into his meticulous meteorological log. The prior weeks had been typical for an English winter, but overnight an oppressive cold had lodged itself over the Kingdom. As far as Derham was aware, London had never experienced so few millimeters of mercury as it did that morning: -12º C.

The remarkable cold lingered in Europe for weeks. Lakes, rivers, and the sea froze over, and the soil solidified a meter deep. The cold cracked open trees, crushed the life out of livestock huddling in stables, and made travel a treacherous undertaking. It was the coldest winter in the past 500 years, and one of the coldest moments in a larger global phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age. Likely causes include volcanic activity, oceanic currents, and/or reforestation due to Black-Death-induced population decline. It is nearly certain, however, that it has something to do with the unusually low number of sunspots that appeared at that time, a phenomenon referred to as the Maunder minimum.

We now know that such solar minima correlate quite closely with colder-than-normal temperatures on Earth, but science has yet to ascertain exactly why. Solar maximums, on the other hand, have historically had little noteworthy impact on the Earth apart from extra-splendid auroral displays. But thanks to our modern, electrified, interconnected society these previously innocuous events could cause catastrophic economic and social damage in the coming decades.

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In Soviet Russia, Lake Contaminates You

In late 1945, along the banks of the Techa River in the Soviet Union, a dozen labor camps sent 70,000 inmates to begin construction of a secret city. Mere months earlier the United States' Little Boy and Fat Man bombs had flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving Soviet leaders salivating over the massive power of the atom. In a rush to close the gap in weapons technology, the USSR commissioned a sprawling plutonium-production complex in the southern Ural mountains. The clandestine military-industrial community was to be operated by Russia's Mayak Chemical Combine, and it would come to be known as Chelyabinsk-40.

Within a few years the newfangled nuclear reactors were pumping out plutonium to fuel the Soviet Union's first atomic weapons. Chelyabinsk-40 was absent from all official maps, and it would be over forty years before the Soviet government would even acknowledge its existence. Nevertheless, the small city became an insidious influence in the Soviet Union, ultimately creating a corona of nuclear contamination dwarfing the devastation of the Chernobyl disaster.

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The Forgotten Fire

This article was written by Dan Gillis, one of our shiny new Damn Interesting writers!

On October 8th, 1871, the small Wisconsin logging town of Peshtigo was consumed by one of the most severe and woefully under-reported fires in human history.

After a hot and dry year, with a mere two inches of rain falling from July through September, churchgoers were praying for much-needed precipitation. The creeks had dried up, and the Peshtigo River, which many residents relied upon for transportation and water, was dangerously low.

In the midst of that quiet Sunday evening, the tiny township was totally annihilated - charred by a gigantic fire that engulfed the buildings, the countryside, and even the townsfolk themselves. Even today the little-known blaze holds the distinction of being the deadliest fire ever to occur in the US.

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The Star Dust Mystery

The passenger manifest for British South American Airlines (BSAA) flight CS-59 might have made a perfect character list for a murder-mystery. Aboard were two businessman friends touring South America on the lookout for trade opportunities: a fun-loving Swiss and a self-made English executive. Also travelling were a Palestinian man who was rumoured to have a diamond stitched into his jacket, and a South American agent of the Dunlop tyre company who had once been the tutor to Prince Michael of Romania. The oldest passenger was in her seventies, a widow of German extraction returning to her Chilean home after an inconvenient World War had unexpectedly extended her stay abroad. And to add a whiff of espionage, a member of a select corps of British civil servants known as King’s Messengers joined the flight, carrying a diplomatic bag bound for the UK embassy across the border.

The date was August 2nd, 1947, and the flight was scheduled to depart from Buenos Aires, Argentina, bound for Santiago, Chile. The intrepid voyagers were to fly in the Star Dust, a shiny Lancastrian aircraft derived from the legendary Avro Lancaster World War II bomber. Its aircrew were ex-Royal Air Force to a chap, and the machine was captained by an experienced and decorated wartime flyer named Reginald Cook. Traversing the Andes Mountains in atrocious winter weather was an undertaking that would demand all his knowledge and skills, yet the journey should have been well within the capabilities of both man and machine.

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Terror on Wall Street

On 16 September 1920, throngs of brokers, clerks, and office workers poured from the buildings lining New York City's Wall Street as a nearby church bell struck twelve o'clock. The narrow cobblestone street became a river of sputtering automobiles and scurrying pedestrians as the financial district employees set out to make the most of their mid-day break.

Traveling opposite the egressing crowds, an elderly bay horse plodded along Wall Street pulling a nondescript wagon and a driver. The cart came to a stop just around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), across the street from the imposing JP Morgan & Co. bank building. The wagon's driver cast the reins aside, leaped from his perch, and fled from the street with conspicuous haste. As the lunch-going men and women shuffled past the parked wooden cart and its patiently waiting horse, a timer within the cargo compartment quietly counted off its final few seconds.

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DAMN LARGE

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