Category Archives: disasters

Jan 28, 1969: The Santa Barbara Oil Spill

On January 28, 1969 the Santa Barbara oil spill happened.

Within a ten-day period, an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 barrels (13,000 to 16,000 m3)of crude oil spilled into the Channel and onto the beaches of Santa Barbara County in Southern California, fouling the coastline from Goleta to Ventura as well as the northern shores of the four northern Channel Islands.” [wikipedia]

The Cuyahoga River had caught fire (no, honestly) in 1952, and when it did again in June 1969, these two ‘focusing’ events helped amplify environmental concern in the US. Meanwhile, in Vietnam…

See also:

Focusing events/ trigger events. But on their own, they are not enough. “Disasters” won’t on their own “save” us.  They have to be turned into “scandals”…

Birkland, T. (1998) Focusing Events, Mobilization and Agenda Setting. Journal of Public Policy 18, 1, 53-74.


As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

Jan 27, 1986: Engineers try to stop launch of NASA shuttle Challenger, fail.

jan27Challenger_explosionOn January 27th engineers working for a NASA subcontractor tried to get the launch of the Challenger Space Shuttle postponed for safety reasons. They were over-ruled. The following day, 7 astronauts died when the vehicle exploded 73 seconds after launch.


NASA was under pressure to do more launches. They were sending a teacher up into space too. The bolted-together-bits-of-Shuttle-to-ensure-pork-barrel-across-the-US was not going to cope with the low temperatures. One engineer, Roger Boisjoly,  knew it. He did everything he could, but when you are up against a hierarchy that doesn’t respect expertise, and has its own “face” to consider, don’t expect to win. The climate connection? Think on it, it will come to you… or clock Mark Bowen’s (2008) Censoring Science, page 61 –

‘But with the Bush administration ignoring the nearly unanimous warnings of climatologists not only in this country but worldwide [Hansen] pointed out, “The situation is analogous to that faced by an engineer who spots a flaw in the Space Shuttle, but finds his complaint ignored by management. He has the right, and responsibility, to make his concern known to the highest authority. IN our case the spacecraft carries billions of humans and other life forms, and the highest authority, the only authority with the power to throttle the engine, is the public.”’

If we were serious about getting out of this mess, we’d teach this as a case study to primary school students.

This is from wikipedia (downloaded 31st December 2014)

Following the announcement that the Challenger mission was confirmed for January 28, 1986, Boisjoly and his colleagues tried to stop the flight. Temperatures were due to be down to −1 °C (30 °F) overnight. Boisjoly felt that this would severely compromise the safety of the O-ring, and potentially lose the flight.

The matter was discussed with Morton Thiokol managers, who agreed that the issue was serious enough to recommend delaying the flight. They arranged a telephone conference with NASA management and gave their findings. However, after a while, the Morton Thiokol managers asked for a few minutes off the phone to discuss their final position again. Despite the efforts of Boisjoly and others in this off-line briefing, the Morton Thiokol managers decided to advise NASA that their data was inconclusive. NASA asked if there were objections. Hearing none, the decision to fly the ill-fated STS-51L Challenger mission was made.

Boisjoly’s concerns proved correct. In the first moments after ignition, the O-rings failed completely and were burned away, resulting in the black puff of smoke visible on films of the launch. This left only a layer of insulating putty to seal the joint. At 59 seconds after launch, buffeted by high-altitude winds, the putty gave way. Hot gases streamed out of the joint in a visible torch-like plume that burned into the external hydrogen tank. At about 73 seconds, the adjacent SRB strut gave way and the vehicle quickly disintegrated.

Boisjoly was relieved when the flight lifted off, as his investigations had predicted that the SRB would explode during the initial take-off. However, seventy-three seconds later, he witnessed the shuttle disaster on television.

See also:

Richard Feynman showing his famous glass-of-water experiment.

And this from wikipedia

Feynman devoted the latter half of his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? to his experience on the Rogers Commission, straying from his usual convention of brief, light-hearted anecdotes to deliver an extended and sober narrative. Feynman’s account reveals a disconnect between NASA‘s engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA’s high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. For instance, NASA managers claimed that there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure aboard the shuttle, but Feynman discovered that NASA’s own engineers estimated the chance of a catastrophe at closer to 1 in 200. He concluded that the space shuttle reliability estimate by NASA management was fantastically unrealistic, and he was particularly angered that NASA used these figures to recruit Christa McAuliffe into the Teacher-in-Space program. He warned in his appendix to the commission’s report (which was included only after he threatened not to sign the report), “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Other things that happened on this day:

2014 Pete Seeger dies. Seeger had asserted his First amendment rights rather than his Fifth when faced with the House Un-American Committee. And he did some early environmental campaigning (1966)

As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

Jan 10, 2011, Queensland hit by huge cyclone, floods

“A series of floods hit Queensland, Australia, beginning in December 2010. The floods forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities.At least 70 towns and over 200,000 people were affected. Damage initially was estimated at around A$! billion before it was raised to $2.38 billion.The estimated reduction in Australia’s GDP n is about A$30 billion.” [direct quote from wikipedia]

Context: Obviously this is a natural disaster, so we have to point you to the Attribution Page.

Cyclone Yasi (for it is she) had a quite dramatic effect on the volume of coal exported from Queensland in the first quarter of 2011. [Marc to fill in extra detail]

As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

Jan 8, 1979: The oil tanker Betelgeuse explodes in Ireland

At around 1am on 8 January 1979, the oil tanker Betelgeuse exploded in West Cork, Ireland. Fifty people died in the explosion and fire, with only 27 bodies recovered. During the salvage operation a Dutch diver died. [wikipedia]

Context: We don’t see it, do we? The people who die mining the coal, or moving the oil from there to here. A measure of our “civilisation” is the invisibility of the energy we use.

Meanwhile, the satirical newspaper The Onion is, as ever, your most reliable source…


As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

Jan 6: Devastating weather event hits Dublin

On January 6th, known as “The Night of the Big Wind”, a “powerful European windstorm … swept without warning across Ireland, causing severe damage to property and several hundred deaths; 20% to 25% of houses in north Dublin were damaged or destroyed, and 42 ships were wrecked.” [wikipedia]

Context: Don’t remember that? Well, go easy on yourself, it happened in 1839…

Now, this is a favourite trick of denialists. They point to these sorts of events and say “bad weather happens” as if people who “believe” in climate change were ignorant of the fact. Battles over “attribution” are something this site will return to when it commemorates the attacks on Ben Santer and the second IPCC report of 1995/6, which used the word “discernible”.

As James Hansen tried to explain in the late 80s with his model dice that he took to Congress, what we are doing with climate change is painting extra dots on some of the faces. Alea iacta est and all that…

See our “Attribution” page for more quotes.

As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

See also:
Professor Steven Sherwood has some interesting things to say about all this.

Jan 2, 2006: West Virginia coal mine explosion kills 12

On January 2nd, 2006 an explosion kills 12 miners at the Sago mine in West Virginia. You can read about the rescue, the media and the aftermath at the wikipedia page.

Context: Coal mining is a dangerous business, though safer at present in the United States than it has been for a long-time, partly thanks to a much smaller workforce. We latte-drinking liberals in big cities, distant from the point of extraction and production, forget that, very very easily.

Mining disasters are common in other countries, not least in China, Russia, Turkey. The world wants energy…

Meanwhile, there are slower, more insidious dangers lurking. It isn’t just the people who go to work one day and don’t come home who matter. Sadly though, the state appears reluctant to fulfil its obligations.

In 2009, the NSW state government agreed to install 14 monitors to check dust levels, but only three of them are designed to measure the tiniest (2.5 micron) and most dangerous particles. It is worse in Queensland, where only two of the 29 dust monitors are installed by the Queensland government are in mining districts, the rest being in major towns. The one monitor in a mining area operates in Moranbah in the Bowen Basin, but its results are not publicly released.

(Pearse et al.,2013:28)

And don’t even start me on the air quality in Beijing, as tweeted by the US embassy…

Pearse, G, McKnight, D. and Burton, B. (2013). Big Coal: Australia’s Dirtiest Habit. Sydney: NewSouth.


See also: Big Coal: The Dirty Secret behind America’s Energy Future by Jeff Goodell, Coal: A Human History by Barbara Freese

Other things that happened on this day:

1999 – A brutal snowstorm smashes into the Midwestern United States, causing 14 inches (359 mm) of snow in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 19 inches (487 mm) in Chicago, Illinois, where temperatures plunge to -13 °F (-25 °C); 68 deaths are reported.

As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.