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Halifax Explosion: Preventing history from repeating itself

A hundred years have passed since the Halifax Explosion happened at the Halifax harbour in Nova Scotia. Are we better-equipped to avert a disaster of such consequence? Dave Hamilton explains how technology is being used today to make maritime transportation safer.

Smoke cloud from the Halifax Explosion, probably taken off McNabs Island - Photo credit: Halifax Relief Commission Nova Scotia Archives/ “Photo developed by Captain Baird”

It was the worst man-made disaster in Canadian history. The scale of loss and destruction was unprecedented. The explosion was so severe it was monitored by scientists for its similarities to deploying an atomic bomb. It’s known as the Halifax Explosion.

On Thursday, December 6, 1917, the deep harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia was bustling, as it had been since World War 1 began in 1914.  It was not surprising to have two ships in the harbour, Imo, a Norwegian one full of grain for Belgium where the war had left many starving, and Mont Blanc, a French one loaded with munitions for the Allies on the battlefields.

On that clear winter morning, people stood on the shore and watched, fascinated by the burning Mont Blanc, not knowing its deadly cargo. Within minutes, those spectators were dead.

Shortly after 9 a.m., the fire on the Mont Blanc reached its cargo and the resultant explosion tore the ship to splinters in an inferno reaching 5,000 degrees Celsius.  Nearly 2,000 people died, another 9,000 were maimed or blinded by the flying debris.

Looking north toward Pier 8 from Hillis foundry after great explosion, Halifax, Dec. 6, 1917 - Photo credit: W.G. MacLaughlan Nova Scotia Archives

The Halifax north shore neighbourhood was flattened. The Mi’kmaq settlement at Turtle Grove — where Mi'kmaq families had lived for generations — was completely destroyed by the shock wave and subsequent tsunami. When it was over, more than 25,000 were left without adequate shelter.

Perhaps the most horrifying part of the explosion is that it was completely preventable.

The Harbour Masters should have ordered other vessels to hold their positions until the Mont-Blanc, full of munitions, had made safe passage through the port.

Mont-Blanc's pilot was guiding the ship inbound when he saw the relief ship, the Imo, heading straight towards him in what he believed was Mont-Blanc's lane. The Imo was moving at an unsafe speed for such a large, unwieldly ship in the harbour, and the Mont-Blanc had the right-of-way over outgoing vessels.

Various whistles and communications between the officers and the two pilots failed to avoid the collision, and the Imo struck the starboard bow of the Mont-Blanc with cataclysmic results.

Although the accident was caused by human error, that would be much less likely these days. Now, all such large vessels have an automated identification system (AIS). The AIS transponder allows them to transmit and receive information from and to other vessels as well as those onshore. And it includes a global positioning system (GPS).

In fact, AIS was originally developed in the 1990s by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to help vessels avoid collisions and simultaneously help port authorities control marine traffic more efficiently.

 Since it was first adopted, AIS has been further developed to allow ship owners to see the ship’s location and related data directly on their own web maps and other software. Search and rescue teams, tug and pilot boats, maritime security and federal authorities can all track where these big ships are headed. 

These organizations and others like port authorities use Esri solutions, such as Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS and Common Operational Picture, to visualize AIS and related data, including manifests, currents and weather, to monitor marine traffic.

Virtual Port is a dynamic, ArcGIS-based system that is fundamental to security operations at the Port of Long Beach.

While the Halifax Explosion was caused by human error, disasters like it can certainly be avoided today with technology that allows us to analyze various data, track moving assets in real time and make faster, better decisions, especially during a crisis.

Learn more about how Esri technology helps ensure safety and security in the 21st century, building Safe Communities.

About the Author

David Hamilton is the Public Safety Industry Manager for Esri Canada. His efforts are focused on advising customers how to use GIS technology to improve all areas of public safety, specifically (NG)9-1-1, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, emergency management, and search and rescue. Prior to joining Esri Canada in 2010, David managed the GIS for E-Comm 9-1-1 in Vancouver, and worked for the RCMP at the Integrated Security Unit for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games where he managed their Common Operating Picture. Being active has been a major part of David’s personal life; soccer, track & field, skiing, cycling, hiking and now kayaking are all among his favourite activities.

Profile Photo of David Hamilton