Death is, by default, unwelcome. Most demises triggered by the natural world are relatively uneventful, but nature can be cruel and spectacularly gruesome from time to time, providing science with the unenviable task of picking apart how these deaths occurred, step-by-step.
Here’s a selection of five truly awful, messy, accidental and somewhat rapid ways to hurtle into oblivion, and the gut-wrenching science behind them. If you’ve not got a strong stomach, then abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Most of these are relatively painless for the victims - but they'd be rather awful to accidentally observe.
1 – The Missing Skulls of Ancient Rome
Death by pyroclastic flow – or its less dense, gas-rich cousin, the pyroclastic surge – isn’t a pleasant way to go. Although most people’s minds jump to Pompeii and Herculaneum in the year 79 CE, these hazards are quite obviously not a thing of the past. Travelling at typical speeds of 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour, but possibly far faster than that, their superheated mixture of gases, lava blebs, and debris can reach temperatures as high as 1,000°C (1,830 °F) and will indiscriminately annihilate anything in their path.
When these hellish density currents blasted across the rooftops and through the streets, they flash-fried anyone that they engulfed. The skin was instantly cooked, and the victims died of extreme heat shock, freezing them in a pugilistic pose – a coiled-up “instant rigor mortis” – as their muscles suddenly contracted. Any (un)lucky few that made it through the thermal annihilation stage likely suffocated under the toxic volcanic gas and ash.
There is one rather gruesome detail, though, that’s often not spoken of. The skulls of several of the victims in Herculaneum and Oplontis, both near Pompeii, were found to have shattered, and it’s likely that the extreme environmental heat would have caused the fluids within their skull and brain to boil. Within mere moments, this would have caused their heads to explode. How’s that for mind-blowing?
2 – The Diving Bell Accident
The Byford Dolphin, a semi-submersible drilling rig owned by BP in the North Sea, was doing its usual thing back on November 5, 1983. Several divers were working in the Frigg gas field with the help of a diving bell, a rigid chamber that’s designed to take divers to dangerous depths.
As these diving bells are put under enormous external pressure as they dive ever deeper, the air inside these bells is highly compressed, and the internal pressures can be incredibly high.
A rigorously safe procedure, involving two divers outside the bell, ensured that the diving bell could attach itself to a series of low-pressure chambers and trunks and allow the occupants to disembark without exposing themselves to a sudden drop in pressure.