disastrous trivia roundup

Calamities, fiascoes, debacles: a roundup of things disastrous.

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1. Occasionally I am moved to ponder the many ways nature can kill you. But I am a connoisseur of the instruments of natural catastrophe. Earthquakes are mundane and wildfires are banal; bathtub gin compared to the 47 Cheval Blanc of natural perfidy: exploding lakes.

In Cameroon, there is a lake that sits directly on top of a pool of magma, which on its own is a good reminder that we’re all just living on a 5 billion year old rock the center of which is a 1,500 mile diameter 5000-degree ball of spinning iron. Anyway, the magma pool leaks carbon dioxide into the water, causing it to be supersaturated with CO2. Normally this is not a problem, but if the lake is disturbed—say by a volcanic eruption or earthquake—it can experience “limnic eruption” or “lake overturn,” which are highly technical terms meaning “the lake done exploded.”

Chemically what happens is that the CO2 supersaturated water at the lake’s bottom rapidly intermixes with cooler, less carbonated water at the top. This causes carbon dioxide to be explosively released via “catastrophic outgassing.” (Watch now as I do not make a catastrophic outgassing joke, because I am a very mature adult person).

So, Lake Nyos exploded in August 1986. The eruption produced an 80-foot wave and released 1 cubic kilometer of CO2 in a 300-foot tall cloud that weighed 300,000 tons. Trees were knocked down, and I feel compelled to reiterate that a…lake…just…exploded. A cloud of carbon dioxide rolled downhill at 60+ miles per hour, displacing air in low-lying villages, and suffocating more than 1700 people and 3500 livestock, up to 16 miles away. Some who survived were unconscious for days before awaking to find everyone around them dead, and a lake that was now smaller and rust brown. Also, as if a fast-moving pall of suffocation wasn’t quite incomprehensibly Revelations-level wrath-of-god enough, some people suffered frostbite because, oh yeah, the giant cloud of death was also ice cold.

Limnic eruptions have been recorded twice in history: once in 1984 at Lake Monoun in Cameroon (38 deaths), and the 1986 Lake Nyos explosion. But given that everyone in the area dies with no apparent cause, historical records are probably lacking. To wit, studies of Lake Kivu suggest that mass extinction events—presumably limnic eruptions—occur around that lake roughly every 1,000 years. In 2001, a pipe contraption was added to Lake Nyos to offgas CO2 and prevent supersaturation.

You live on the west coast and are mentally prepared for the possibility of an earthquake that will break half of California into the ocean; you live in the midwest and are mentally prepared for the possibility of being sucked into a tornado. Absolutely nothing has prepared me for a giant geological belch that asphyxiates everyone.

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2. Nature also kills towns. The cliffside town of Craco, Italy was deserted after a landslide in 1963. Plymouth, Montserrat was evacuated, then burned by pyroclastic flow and buried under feet of ash in 1997, and is now a ghost town despite still being the nominal capital city. After repeated flooding, the town of Pattonsburg, Missouri was picked up and rebuilt three miles away.

Buried in ash

Then there’s fire. You’re probably familiar with the great Chicago fire of 1871. Or maybe the slightly less well known Peshtigo (WI) fire of the same day. Or the even less well known Holland (MI) and Manistee (MI) fires, also on the same day. All those towns recovered. One that didn’t: Singapore, Michigan.

Singapore, like many towns, was really just a speculative investment, founded on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1836 with hopes it would become a prime port town. That never quite happened—the population nearly starved after heavy snows in 1842, only to be saved by raiding the food stores of a wrecked schooner just offshore. At the time of the fires in 1871, Singapore’s main business was lumber. In the process of shipping out lumber to fire-ravaged towns for rebuilding, the town almost completely deforested itself. No good deed goes unpunished: with no tree cover, winds and sand blew unencumbered through the town, enveloping buildings. By 1875, Singapore was abandoned and buried under the sand. The only town killed by those fires wasn’t ever itself on fire. There’s a metaphor there.

buried under sand

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3. Ah, but you always have the option of taking to the sea! Where, if you can avoid typhoons and giant squid, you may instead be consumed by a rogue wave.

The interesting thing about rogue waves is that they were long considered mythical. A French scientist reported on a 100+ foot freak wave in 1826. He was publicly ridiculed despite having three witnesses, one nemesis even referring to “’truly prodigious waves with which the lively imagination of certain navigators delights in covering the seas’.

The first “scientific” evidence of rogue waves was the so-called Draupner, or the “that fucker came out of nowhere” wave, measured off the coast of Norway in 1995 on offshore gas rig. Rather hilariously, the rig was designed to tolerate a so-called “once in 10,000 year wave” which would have a height of 64 feet. In 1995, it was hit by an 85-foot wave:


Another interesting thing about rogue waves is that they have many causes, depending on where and when they are produced, including:

  • Diffractive focusing, by which the shape of coastline focuses waves into one location (side note: coastline diffraction and associated “swell” patterns is one of the ways old seafaring cultures navigated, which is fascinating as hell! They were navigating by the shape and diffusion pattern of waves bouncing off land miles away. Astrolabes are for amateurs.)
  • Current focusing, in which opposing currents meet, which decreases wavelength and increases wave height
  • “Modulational instability,” which is a technical term for some basically counterintuitive nonlinear shit about how some waves can apparently “soak” energy from other waves. As best I can tell this explanation amounts to “well it’s a really complex system in which sometimes weird and unpredictable things happen,” and requires employing the nonlinear Schrodinger equation and Malcolm phase-space displacement.
  • Wind-wave interactions are hypothesized to produce rogue waves when wind blows in a direction opposite the current
  • Thermal expansion is a super-fun explanation that involves some applications of conservation of energy when warm-water waves hit cold water
  • The electromagnetic coriolis effect, in which clockwise tidal/jetstream motion north of the equator constructively interferes with counter-clockwise whorl effects south of the equator. The shearing motion produces static energy that electrolyzes H2O molecules and releases bound energy that coheres into a wave train
  • I definitely made that last one up.

Rogue waves have the wonderful ability to explain otherwise inexplicable disappearances. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank on Lake Superior in 1975 without even a distress call, is thought to have been a victim of a rogue wave. If not a rogue wave per se, it may have been done in by something Lake Superiorites call “The Three Sisters,” which is a series of three large waves spaced just far enough apart so that the third wave hits before the backwash from the first two has cleared, overloading the ship. But you don’t learn that from Gordon Lightfoot.

Or the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from the remoted Flannan Isles lighthouse 20 miles off the coast of Scotland. When a ship reported the lighthouse as non-operational, a rescue crew arrived to find everything in order, save one overturned kitchen chair. The keepers were missing. No official explanation exists for the disappearance, but the most common explanation is that one man in the lighthouse saw an incoming rogue wave and raced out to warn the others on the cliff, whence all three were washed away. Really your only other alternatives here are murder-suicide or alien abduction, so, sure—rogue wave.

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4. Then there are the terrors of space. Perhaps it will be a cataclysmic comet, like the so-called “Chicxulub impactor,” which produced a near 100-mile wide crater and 300-foot tidal wave when it landed 66 million years ago. And it turns out that the limiting factor on the wave size was not the force of the impact but the (shallow) depth of the ocean. An impact in deep ocean, it’s estimated, would produce a wave 2.9 miles high. Coincidentally, this same logic also determines the maximum height of a bouffant, which is one of the few things phrenology had right. Anyways, what followed was an “impact winter,” devastation of the global ecosystem, and extinction of 75% of world species, including dinosaurs.

But then again, perhaps it will not be one giant space rock but many. A meteor shower in China in 1490 was said to have killed up to 10,000 people, dropping debris that ranged in size from “water chestnut” to “goose egg.”

But maybe it won’t even be rocks. Maybe it will just be a “severe space weather event” such as a geomagnetic storm. These storms are the result of “coronal mass ejections,” the cause of which involves some fun things like “magnetic reconnection” and highly conducting plasmas and magnetic topology and the consequence of which is the sun belching out a giant bolus of plasma and magnetic field. If said eructation hits earth, the magnetosphere—and I’m using a technical term here—freaks the funk:

  • Currents are induced in any long conductors like power lines, causing them to overload. This can also happen to pipelines which is totally cool and not all terrifying
  • Satellite-based communications are impaired due to ionospheric disturbances
  • Increases in atmospheric density increase drag on satellites in low-earth orbit, causing them to shift orbits and potentially fall and burn up—which is exactly what happened to Skylab
  • On the plus side, the gnarliest aurora borealis you will ever see, clear down to the equator
this means something

The first recorded solar storm was in 1859, and it’s also the biggest one to hit earth. Telegraph systems failed, transmission towers were spitting out sparks and shocking operators. The aurora produced was apparently stunning: “The rationalist and pantheist saw nature in her most exquisite robes, recognising, the divine immanence, immutable law, cause, and effect. The superstitious and the fanatical had dire forebodings, and thought it a foreshadowing of Armageddon and final dissolution.”

An insurance industry report suggests that an 1859-level storm would produce US power outages affecting 20-40 million people with durations of 16 days to 2 years. A few years back I went through a serious post-apocalyptic phase. The means of such destruction are varied: climate change, meteor strike, unknown plague, vampirism/zombieism, nuclear strike, blight, war, technology. “Solar flare” is underutilized.

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5. That’s it, I’m never leaving the house.



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