Catastrophic failure

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A catastrophic failure is a sudden and total failure from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure. The term is most commonly used for structural failures, but has often been extended to many other disciplines in which total and irrecoverable loss occurs. Such failures are investigated using the methods of forensic engineering, which aims to isolate the cause or causes of failure.

Failure state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective

Failure is the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success. Product failure ranges from failure to sell the product to fracture of the product, in the worst cases leading to personal injury, the province of forensic engineering.

Cascading failure

A cascading failure is a process in a system of interconnected parts in which the failure of one or few parts can trigger the failure of other parts and so on. Such a failure may happen in many types of systems, including power transmission, computer networking, finance, transportation systems, organisms, human body, and ecosystems.

Forensic engineering

Forensic engineering has been defined as "the investigation of failures - ranging from serviceability to catastrophic - which may lead to legal activity, including both civil and criminal". It therefore includes the investigation of materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended, causing personal injury, damage to property or economic loss. The consequences of failure may give rise to action under either criminal or civil law including but not limited to health and safety legislation, the laws of contract and/or product liability and the laws of tort. The field also deals with retracing processes and procedures leading to accidents in operation of vehicles or machinery. Generally, the purpose of a forensic engineering investigation is to locate cause or causes of failure with a view to improve performance or life of a component, or to assist a court in determining the facts of an accident. It can also involve investigation of intellectual property claims, especially patents.


For example, catastrophic failure can be observed in steam turbine rotor failure, which can occur due to peak stress on the rotor; stress concentration increases up to a point at which it is excessive, leading ultimately to the failure of the disc.

In firearms, catastrophic failure usually refers to a rupture or disintegration of the barrel or receiver of the gun when firing it. Some possible causes of this are an out-of-battery gun, an inadequate headspace, the use of incorrect ammunition, the use of ammunition with an incorrect propellant charge, [1] a partially or fully obstructed barrel, [2] or weakened metal in the barrel or receiver. A failure of this type, known colloquially as a "kaboom", or "kB" failure, can pose a threat not only to the user(s) but even many bystanders.

Headspace (firearms)

In firearms, headspace is the distance measured from the part of the chamber that stops forward motion of the cartridge to the face of the bolt. Used as a verb, headspace refers to the interference created between this part of the chamber and the feature of the cartridge that achieves the correct positioning. Different cartridges have their datum lines in different positions in relation to the cartridge. For example, 5.56 NATO ammunition headspaces off the shoulder of the cartridge, whereas .303 British headspaces off the forward rim of the cartridge.

A propellant or propellent is a chemical substance used in the production of energy or pressurized gas that is subsequently used to create movement of a fluid or to generate propulsion of a vehicle, projectile, or other object. Common propellants are energetic materials and consist of a fuel like gasoline, jet fuel, rocket fuel, and an oxidizer. Propellants are burned or otherwise decomposed to produce the propellant gas. Other propellants are simply liquids that can readily be vaporized.

In chemical engineering, thermal runaway can cause catastrophic failure.

Thermal runaway situation where an increase in temperature changes the conditions in a way that causes a further increase in temperature, often leading to a destructive result

Thermal runaway occurs in situations where an increase in temperature changes the conditions in a way that causes a further increase in temperature, often leading to a destructive result. It is a kind of uncontrolled positive feedback.


Original Tay Bridge from the north Original Tay Bridge before the 1879 collapse.jpg
Original Tay Bridge from the north
Fallen Tay Bridge from the north Tay bridge down.JPG
Fallen Tay Bridge from the north

Examples of catastrophic failure of engineered structures include:

South Fork Dam dam in Pennsylvania

The South Fork Dam was an earthen work dam on Lake Conemaugh, an artificial body of water near South Fork, Pennsylvania, United States. On May 31, 1889, the South Fork Dam failed catastrophically and 20 million tons of water from Lake Conemaugh burst through and raced 14 miles (23 km) downstream, causing the Johnstown Flood.

Johnstown Flood Massive flood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania caused by the collapse of the South Fork Dam

The Johnstown Flood occurred on May 31, 1889, after the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam, located on the south fork of the Little Conemaugh River, 14 miles (23 km) upstream of the town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The dam broke after several days of extremely heavy rainfall, releasing 14.55 million cubic meters of water. With a volumetric flow rate that temporarily equaled the average flow rate of the Mississippi River, the flood killed more than 2,200 people and accounted for $17 million of damage.

St. Francis Dam dam in Los Angeles County, California, United States

The St. Francis Dam was a curved concrete gravity dam, built to create a large regulating and storage reservoir for the city of Los Angeles, California. The reservoir was an integral part of the city's Los Angeles Aqueduct water supply infrastructure. It was located in San Francisquito Canyon of the Sierra Pelona Mountains, about 40 miles (64 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles, and approximately 10 miles (16 km) north of the present day city of Santa Clarita.

See also

Dragon King Theory

Dragon king (DK) is a double metaphor for an event that is both extremely large in size or impact and born of unique origins relative to its peers. DK events are generated by / correspond to mechanisms such as positive feedback, tipping points, bifurcations, and phase transitions, that tend to occur in nonlinear and complex systems, and serve to amplify DK events to extreme levels. By understanding and monitoring these dynamics, some predictability of such events may be obtained.

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Great Sheffield Flood March 1864 flood that devastated parts of Sheffield, England, UK

The Great Sheffield Flood was a flood that devastated parts of Sheffield, England, on 11 March 1864, when the Dale Dyke Dam broke as its reservoir was being filled for the first time. At least 240 people died and more than 600 houses were damaged or destroyed by the flood. The immediate cause was a crack in the embankment, the cause of which was never determined. The dam's failure led to reforms in engineering practice, setting standards on specifics that needed to be met when constructing such large-scale structures. The dam was rebuilt in 1875.

Teton Dam dam in Fremont & Madison counties, Idaho

The Teton Dam was an earthen dam on the Teton River in Idaho, United States. It was built by the Bureau of Reclamation, one of eight federal agencies authorized to construct dams. Located in the eastern part of the state, between Fremont and Madison counties, it suffered a catastrophic failure on June 5, 1976, as it was filling for the first time.

Environmental disaster Disaster to the natural environment due to human activity

An environmental disaster or ecological disaster is a catastrophic event regarding the environment due to human activity. This distinguishes it from the concept of a natural disaster. It is also distinct from intentional acts of war such as nuclear bombings.

Gun barrel firearm component which guides the projectile during acceleration

A gun barrel is a crucial part of gun-type ranged weapons such as small firearms, artillery pieces and air guns. It is the straight shooting tube, usually made of rigid high-strength metal, through which a contained rapid expansion of high-pressure gas(es) is introduced behind a projectile in order to propel it out of the front end (muzzle) at a high velocity. The hollow interior of the barrel is called the bore, and the diameter of the bore is called its caliber, usually measured in inches or millimetres.

The Banqiao Reservoir Dam is a dam on the River Ru (汝河), a tributary of the Hong River in Zhumadian City, Henan province, China. Its failure in 1975 caused as many as 230,000 deaths. The dam was subsequently rebuilt.

Anthropogenic hazards are hazards caused by human action or inaction. They are contrasted with natural hazards. Anthropogenic hazards may adversely affect humans, other organisms, biomes and ecosystems. The frequency and severity of hazards are key elements in some risk analysis methodologies. Hazards may also be described in relation to the impact that they have. A hazard only exists if there is a pathway to exposure. As an example, the center of the earth consists of molten material at very high temperatures which would be a severe hazard if contact was made with the core. However, there is no feasible way of making contact with the core, therefore the center of the earth currently poses no hazard.

STS-51-L Twenty-fifth flight of the American Space Shuttle program

STS-51-L was the 25th mission of the United States Space Shuttle program, the program to carry out routine transportation for Earth-to-orbit crew and cargo; as well as the final flight of Space Shuttle Challenger.

Dee Bridge disaster train wreck

The Dee Bridge disaster was a rail accident that occurred on 24 May 1847 in Chester, resulting in five fatalities. It revealed the weakness of cast iron beam bridges reinforced by wrought iron tie bars, and brought criticism of its designer, Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson.

Squib load

A squib load, also known as a squib round, pop and no kick, or just a squib, is a firearm malfunction in which a fired projectile does not have enough force behind it to exit the barrel, and thus becomes stuck. This type of malfunction can be extremely dangerous, as failing to notice that the projectile has become stuck in the barrel may result in another round being fired directly into the obstructed barrel, resulting in a catastrophic failure of the weapon's structural integrity.

Dam failure failure of a dam barrier

A dam failure or dam burst is a catastrophic type of failure characterized by the sudden, rapid, and uncontrolled release of impounded water or the likelihood of such an uncontrolled release.

2003 Hokkaidō earthquake earthquake occurred off the coast of Hokkaidō, Japan on 26 September 2003

The 2003 Hokkaidō earthquake, scientifically named the 2003 Tokachi-Oki earthquake, occurred off the coast of Hokkaidō, Japan on 26 September at 04:50 local time. At a focal depth of 27 km (17 mi), this great undersea earthquake measured 8.3 on the moment magnitude scale, making it the most powerful earthquake of 2003, as well as one of the most intense earthquakes to hit Japan since modern record-keeping began in 1900.

A firearm malfunction is the failure of a firearm to operate as intended for causes other than user error. Malfunctions range from temporary and relatively safe situations, such as a casing that didn't eject, to potentially dangerous occurrences that may permanently damage the gun and cause injury or death. Improper handling of certain types of malfunctions can be very dangerous. The basic rules of firearms safety should be followed at all times to minimize the risk to shooters and bystanders. Proper cleaning and maintenance of a firearm play a big role in preventing malfunctions.

Silver Lake Dam is a dam located on the Dead River 30 miles (48.3 km) upstream of Marquette, Michigan. It is the farthest upstream of five dams on the river and had no electricity generating facilities. The dam failed on May 14, 2003 and forced the evacuation of 1800 people. The dam was rebuilt in 2008.

Structural integrity and failure engineering event in which the structural integrity of a construction is compromised due to failure of components of the structure

Structural integrity and failure is an aspect of engineering which deals with the ability of a structure to support a designed structural load without breaking, and includes the study of past structural failures in order to prevent failures in future designs.

Engineering disasters Comprehensive list

Shortcuts in engineering design can lead to engineering disasters. Engineering is the science and technology used to meet the needs and demands of society. These demands include buildings, aircraft, vessels, and computer software. In order to meet society’s demands, the creation of newer technology and infrastructure must be met efficiently and cost-effectively. To accomplish this, managers and engineers have to have a mutual approach to the specified demand at hand. This can lead to shortcuts in engineering design to reduce costs of construction and fabrication. Occasionally, these shortcuts can lead to unexpected design failures.

Mariana dam disaster iron ore tailings dam failure in Brazil, disaster which occurred on 5 November 2015

The Mariana dam disaster, also known as the Bento Rodrigues dam disaster and Samarco dam disaster, occurred on 5 November 2015, when an iron ore tailings dam in Mariana, Minas Gerais, Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure, resulting in flooding that destroyed the village of Bento Rodrigues and killed 19 people.

Brumadinho dam disaster 2019 dam disaster which killed 237 in Brumadinho, Brazil

The Brumadinho dam disaster occurred on 25 January 2019 when Dam I, a tailings dam at the Córrego do Feijão iron ore mine, 9 kilometres (5.6 mi) east of Brumadinho, Minas Gerais, Brazil, suffered a catastrophic failure. The dam is owned by Vale, the same company that was involved in the 2015 Mariana dam disaster. The dam released a mudflow that advanced through the mine's offices, including a cafeteria during lunchtime, along with houses, farms, inns and roads downstream. At least 248 people died as a result of the collapse.


  1. Hal W. Hendrick; Paul Paradis; Richard J. Hornick (2010-12-12). Human Factors Issues in Handgun Safety and Forensics. CRC Press. p. 132. ISBN   9781420062977 . Retrieved 2014-02-24. Many firearms are destroyed and injuries sustained by home reloaders who make a mistake in estimating the correct powder charge.
  2. Gregg Lee Carter, ed. (2012-05-31). Guns in American Society. ABC-CLIO. p. 255. ISBN   978-0-313-38670-1 . Retrieved 2014-02-24. ... and left the copper jacket lodged in the barrel, leading to a catastrophic failuer of the rifle when the next bullet fired hit the jacket remnants.