Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Meteor, a Fire, and Fragile Cities

Two of last week’s top news stories could serve as reminders of how fragile cities are. All week long, a cruise ship limped in to shore, towed at 2 miles per hour by a cable that broke even at that speed. The ship was hobbled after an engine room fire took out its ability to move itself and most of its ability to generate power. With the electricity out, almost everything stopped. Parts of the ship became uninhabitable, and many passengers opted to go hungry rather than wait hours in line for food.

Then, on a day when astronomers were watching for an asteroid that would pass by harmlessly, if uncomfortably close, an unrelated meteor exploded over the Ural Mountains in southern Russia, with a boom so loud that building windows were shattered and one factory’s roof collapsed. At least one thousand people were injured by flying glass. Before this event, glass would not be the first danger you would think of when you imagined a meteor strike. Besides the injuries, the broken windows had life-threatening implications with temperatures falling far below freezing at night. The affected area is heavily populated and includes Chelyabinsk, a city of a million. The meteor was probably too small for astronomers to see in advance, even if they knew where to look; NASA estimated its size at 17 meters.

That makes the meteor vaguely similar in size to the “bus-sized” engine room that left the cruise ship helpless. A cruise ship is not unlike a city, and it responded the way a city might, faced with a similar disaster. Both the meteor and the engine room fire show that an unexpected event doesn’t necessarily have to be vast in scale to shut a city down.