Deep in a laboratory far under the megacity of Exampleville, a scientist is experimenting on a new compound found in an alternate, magical universe. He accidentally knocks over a vial of Handwavium, which falls into a sink. Suddenly, the magic spreads through the city's water, instantly thickening it to the viscosity of maple syrup.

This transformation spreads at about 100 feet/second, but I'd also be interested in how the effect would be different if it were instant. Assume that any water touching the sewer or fresh water systems would be converted. Lakes and rivers are out of the scope I'm looking for; I might make that a second question.

Anyway, how would this affect our water/sewer infrastructure, and would the effects be permanent? These buildings are skyscrapers, and there are at least 10 million people. Precipitation and dew are obviously not affected unless they contact contaminated water. Note that there is no magic aside from the Handwavium that affects the water, so no magical answers.

  • $\begingroup$ Will this Handwavium take all over the world's water, including water in the bodies of living organisms? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Mar 5 at 1:12
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander No, only water contaminated water touches $\endgroup$ – Redwolf Programs Mar 5 at 2:20
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If it infects all water it touches, it first infects all water in the city pipes. Then it will either travel backwards up the water treatment plant and infect the lake or other body of water. Either that or it will travel back to the lake through the sewers and the treatment plant. So how would be stopped from contaminating all water? $\endgroup$ – cybernard Mar 5 at 13:23
  • $\begingroup$ @cybernard Say, for example, a dam? $\endgroup$ – Redwolf Programs Mar 5 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ 4 degree celsius... $\endgroup$ – user6760 Mar 5 at 13:50

Most pumping systems are damaged, possibly destroyed.

Low viscosity fluids (like water) are usually pumped using centrifugal pumps, which are very efficient but generate high shear. An increase in viscosity will reduce the flow, increase the head, and markedly increase power requirements and heat production. Maple syrup levels of viscosity will make most electric pumps overheat and burn.

Some pumps will have overheating protection; most will not.

Most people die.

The human body is mostly composed of water. Consider that a comparatively small increase in blood viscosity due to high hematocrite is enough to increase the risk of a stroke. Should the water component assume the viscosity of maple syrup, absolutely 100% of people would immediately die of both cerebral ischemia and heart attack. Pulmonary embolia would also kill, but no one will survive long enough for that.

There is a novel by Kurt Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle - that I think deals with a special form of ice (Ice IX) that freezes way above 0 °C, so that when coming in contact with ordinary water, that too is frozen into ice IX (ice IX actually exists, but has no such property).

I also remember some French novel in which a scientist developed a catalyst capable of burning water. If dropped in the Seine, it would have set the whole world on fire.

  • 7
    $\begingroup$ Name of Vonnegut novel is "Cat's Cradle", ice nine is a mcguffin used in the it. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cat%27s_Cradle $\endgroup$ – Artur Biesiadowski Mar 5 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ @ArturBiesiadowski thanks, edited answer! I hadn't checked the original title; in my own language the novel is called "Ice Nine" (ibs.it/ghiaccio-nove-libro-kurt-vonnegut/e/9788807883682), probably because the literal translation of "Cat's Cradle" would have been both ridiculous and ambiguous (the string game is ripiglìno, with a stress on the last syllable, but it's spelled like ripìglino which, with a stress on the second syllable, means may they catch something again or may they recover -- and is dialectal Italian, proper Italian being riprèndano) $\endgroup$ – LSerni Mar 5 at 16:33
  • $\begingroup$ Not just people. The molecular characteristics of water are critical to the biological processes of pretty much every form of life on the planet that I can think of... $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Mar 5 at 16:47

Blocked pipes and sewers.

Fatbergs are already issues in sewers. Causing running water to immediately become more viscous would only accelerate the issue immensely.

In fact, it may be that the problem doesn't even spread very far, if the flow of magic relies on the water (as you might expect, given that it took being spilt down the drain to have an effect) because of the slow flow of the water.

The end result would be that the sewers very quickly stop working, leading to huge sanitary problems for the city, like sewage flowing down the streets.

In addition to that, backed up viscous water could break free, leading to disasters on its own - even viscous liquids can, given enough of it flow remarkably quickly.

  • $\begingroup$ It only takes a single faucet to be open(ed) when the magic has hit the sink's drain for the entire fresh-water system to be infected. And once it's in the freshwater pipes, it's virtually impossible to stop as all freshwater pipes are filled 100% 24/7. $\endgroup$ – cmaster Mar 5 at 21:09

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.