Why do whales explode, anyway?

Sure, a gif of a man getting drenched in exploding whale guts is hilarious, but it could have been worse.

Straight from Buzzfeed, here’s an awesome gif of an exploding sperm whale:

(Why not listen to some music while it loops?)

That man in the orange overalls is a fisherman from the Faroe Islands, where that whale washed up. He was trying to cut open the whale’s belly, which might seem an odd thing to do, but decomposing whales are dangerous things. As disgusting as that gut-spill looks, it could have been a far worse explosion.

Whales have a tendency to explode after they die. As their innards rot, methane builds up in air pockets, and it can reach surprisingly high pressures. Eventually, without warning - kaboom.

In 2004, bystanders in Taiwan experienced this for themselves when watching scientists loading a dead whale onto a truck so it could be taken to the National Cheng Kung University for dissection and study. Roughly 600 people were splattered with blood and guts.

The danger of whale explosions means that preventative measures - like cutting into whales to give the gas a way to escape - are common. Pre-emptively exploding the whale into small chunks in a controlled demolition is also used in some countries, as a whole whale can take ages to decompose. The idea is that smaller chunks are more easily eaten by scavengers, and it saves an unpredictable mess later one.

Explosions like that have been performed in Australia, South Africa, and Iceland over the last decade. However, no whale explosion is an infamous as that which occurred in November 1970, near Florence, Oregon. Authorities there figured that a whale was a bit like a large boulder, so used the same amount of dynamite that would be used when destroying solid rock - 20 cases. According to one expert after the event, they really only needed something like 20 sticks.

Huge blubber chunks flew through the air, damaging cars and remaining hanging from trees for weeks afterwards. The video of the event was something of an early-00s viral hit when rediscovered:

The lesson here is clear - if you find a dead whale washed up on a beach, keep a safe distance, and alert someone who knows what they're doing.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR