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Geek Trivia: Waves of destruction

What World War I accident led to a man-made tsunami?

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While last month's tsunami in the Indian Ocean was a devastating act of nature, technology is playing a critical role in the aftermath. TechRepublic's Tsunamis and Technology resources page demonstrates the varied ways the world is using technology to document the tsunami's damage, rescue and support survivors, help reunite families, and begin to rebuild the devastated infrastructure. Moreover, as the world rushes aid to the victims of this tragedy, technology has also helped us grasp the sheer enormity of this disaster.

According to the Guinness World Records Web site, which has already labeled the 2004 Indian Ocean seismic wave as the most lethal tsunami in recorded history, the earthquake that spawned the wave represented an energetic output equivalent to detonating 32 billion tons of dynamite. That's about 2.5 million times more powerful than "Little Boy," the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Put another way, even if you added together the total output of both the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami represented enough destructive energy to end World War II a million times over.

But nuclear weapons and tsunamis have more in common than mere issues of scale. When post-WWII nuclear testing began, scientists openly feared that undersea atomic detonations could conceivably create an artificial—and possibly radioactive—tsunami.

Since international treaties now explicitly outlaw undersea nuclear testing, the possibility of such a man-made tsunami has become much more remote—but not as impossible as you might think.

While the 2004 tsunami spread destruction across most of the Indian Ocean, many tsunamis are far more local in nature. As such, they require significantly less energy to generate yet provide far less warning to the affected coastlines.

While no nuclear explosion has ever generated a tsunami, a far more conventional accident occurred during World War I, which demonstrated the human potential for generating localized tsunamis.

WHAT WORLD WAR I ACCIDENT LED TO A MAN-MADE TSUNAMI?

What World War I accident notoriously led to perhaps the world's first and only true "man-made" tsunami?

On Dec. 6, 1917, two supply ships collided in the harbor at Halifax, Nova Scotia, resulting in a massive explosion that created a localized tsunami that, along with the fire and shrapnel from the explosion itself, devastated the city in one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history.

Halifax boasts one of the most ideal and ideally defensible natural harbors in the world. However, during World War I, the port suffered from a glut of Allied ship traffic ferrying supplies from North America to Europe.

Eventually, the worst-case scenario occurred when the fully loaded French munitions supply ship Mont Blanc collided with the Belgian relief vessel Imo (formerly of the White Star Line, which also owned the Titanic), setting fire to more than 2,500 tons combined of TNT, picric acid, gun cotton, and benzol.

But the explosion was not immediate. The Mont Blanc merely caught fire following the collision, in effect becoming a time bomb as the flames crept toward the munitions holds.

While the explosion flattened or incinerated most of the buildings near the harbor, the harbor itself confined the seismic force of the explosion, creating a localized tsunami that flooded the entire coastline surrounding the harbor. By the time workers had extinguished the fires and the water had receded, the disaster had effectively wiped the harbor town of Richmond off the map.

All told, more than 2,000 people died in the Halifax explosion and ensuing tsunami, and thousands more suffered injuries. While man-made tsunamis are difficult to induce, these pale imitations of natural tidal waves nonetheless illustrate how deadly tsunamis can be.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble is not a quibble at all, but the kind of generous and flattering sentiment that makes writing this column worthwhile. Thanks to TechRepublic member The Dutchy, who wrote the following in response to the Dec. 22 edition of Geek Trivia, "And called them by name(s)."

"This time of year is the time we look back on 12 months of our lives. A lot of things have happened, varying from personal triumphs to the incomprehensible world-scale disaster in Asia.

"I just realized that it was only a year ago when we were told we would have to do without Geek Trivia in 2004. Our collective storm of protests made the guys of TechRepublic reconsider.

"The Geek should go on eternally—you can retire earlier than that, Jay, but only if you give us a successor!—for it has put a smile on my face in times there was not much to smile about. Let's hope 2005 will be a better year for the world. Happy New Year, everyone."

Indeed, let us hope this year is better than the last and that fate finds you all more kindly than in times past. Best wishes and fondest hopes to you all.

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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