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Fertilizer can explode*. We all know that. It was a key ingredient in the bomb that destroyed Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in 1995. Last night, a factory full of the stuff went up with enough force that United States Geological Survey seismographs registered it as a magnitude 2.1 earthquake.
Ammonium nitrate is the chemical that makes these dramatic displays possible. But creating an explosion isn't as simple as just having a pile of ammonium nitrate — let alone a pile of fertilizer — sitting around. We've come to think of this as pretty volatile stuff. But, according to chemist Jimmie Oxley, ammonium nitrate is a lot less dangerous than you might guess. Despite a history of high-profile explosions, like the one that happened last night, ammonium nitrate isn't considered to be that big of a danger. In fact, Oxley called it a "marginal explosive" — a chemical that is mostly safe, but can become dangerous when the conditions are just right.
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Beachgoers in Qingdao, Shandong province, China, were met with a fuzzy, green blanket of ocean last week, as the water there exploded with algae.
You've heard before about dead zones. These are patches of coastal ocean where river runoff full of fertilizer chemicals have produced massive algae blooms. As the algae die, their decomposition reduces the oxygen level of the water to the point that many fish and other aquatic life can no longer live there.
This is what a dead zone looks like, just before the death.
It's worth noting, when I pulled this photo out of the Reuters files, I could see similar shots, taken on the same beach, in 2010, 2009, and 2008. This isn't a fluke. It's an endemic problem.
Image: REUTERS/China Daily China Daily Information Corp - CDIC