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The Top 10 Worst Modern Natural Disasters

by bradiger   March 27, 2009 at 10:00AM  |  Views: 5,232

If there's one thing natural history class taught us, it's that Mother Nature can be an awfully cruel mistress when the urge to destroy catches her fancy. It's easy to forget that our civilizations rest upon a planet which is in constant, violent flux. And when we do get those occasional reminders, the results can be devastating.

Source: Sami Sarkis/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

10. 1908 Tunguska Event


Source: Public Domain

To this day, nobody is still quite sure what happened in the early morning of June 30th, 1908 in the Krasnoyarsk Krai region of Siberia. What is for sure is that something exploded - something big enough to release 1,000 times the energy of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima, completely leveling 830 square miles and flattening 80 million trees. The location of the impact was extremely fortunate though, considering that estimates theorize the explosion had the potential to completely obliterated a large metropolitan area like New York or Los Angeles. The blast is widely considered to be a result of an "air burst" explosion of a large meteoroid or comet entering the Earth's atmosphere, and it is considered to be the largest impact in modern history. Not surprisingly, Metallica has chimed in with their own theories about exactly what went down in Tunguska.

9. Lake Nyos Gas Cloud of 1986


Source: Staff/AFP/Getty Images

Lake Nyos in Cameroon has the distinction of being one of only three lakes on the planet which is known to be saturated with underwater layers of cardon dioxide, a result of an open chamber underneath the region which causes the gas to seep up through the lake bed.  What makes that significant? Well, eventually all that carbon dioxide has to go somewhere, as it did in 1986, with devastating results.

On August 21st, 1986, a sudden massive displacement and release of underwater carbon dioxide occurred, releasing approximately 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air, causing an immense cloud of the gas to expand across the regional area at an unavoidable rate of about 60 mph. Since carbon dioxide is heavier than air, this cloud displaced all breathable air in its 15 mile path of destruction - effectively suffocating all plant, animal and human life in its reach. Many of those that fled the area during the disaster later suffered from respiratory problems, lesions, and paralysis as a result of the occurrence.

8. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake/Fire


Source: Public Domain

At approximately 5:12 on the morning of April 18th, 1906, the San Francisco bay area was struck by an earthquake which has been estimated as being approximately 7.8 on the Richter scale, and was felt as far away as Oregon, Nevada and Los Angeles. Long before the days of "earthquake proof" building materials, the initial trembler laid waste to the San Francisco metropolitan area.

However, it's been estimated that almost 90% of the total damage and loss of life associated with the disaster was caused by the subsequent fires and confusion which raged throughout the city and left San Francisco resembling a post-apocalyptic wasteland when all was said and done.

Out of a population of about 400,000 residents at the time, approximately 300,000 of these people were immediately rendered homeless, as most buildings simply dissolved under the stress of the quake. And with those buildings went the lines supplying natural gas to them. Almost immediately after the shaking stopped, over 30 massive fires were ignited by these broken gas lines. To compound problems, the city's fire chief had been killed in the initial quake.

Stranger still, firefighters who were completely untrained with the use of explosives were instructed to use bundles of dynamite to hastily demolish buildings to use them as firebreaks, which in turn not only destroyed many buildings which would have otherwise survived the disaster, but actually served to cause many more fires to be ignited, which continued to burn for four days straight.

As if that wasn't enough, Mayor Schmitz decided that the best way to stem the tide of looting and rioting was to call in the Army and proclaim that they "have been authorized by me to kill any and all persons engaged in looting or any other crime." Unfortunately, this resulted in over 500 people throughout the city being shot dead in the street, many of which were not looting, but actually trying to save their belongings from the advancing fires. Over 3,000 people lost their lives in the catastrophe, making it the deadliest natural disaster in California's history.

7. Mount Pelée Eruption of 1902


Source: Maldison/Hesitating/Getty Images

Mount Pelée , located in the Lesser Antilles island arc of the Caribbean is considered one of the deadliest volcanoes on Earth. It earned most of that distinction in the late spring of 1902.

It wasn't as though the volcano erupted without warning, however. In fact, for a solid two years before the massive eruption on May 8th, 1902, the volcano had been showing obvious signs of activity which went largely ignored - from volcanic lightning bolts to glowing red caters spewing ash over the nearby city of Saint-Pierre for literally days before the main eruption occurred. Few heeded the repeated warnings that Mount Pelée offered, and the volcano finally unleashed its fury at approximately 7:52 p.m.

The initial eruption caused a massive hole at the summit of the mountain, out of which a massive cloud of volcanic gas was released, traveling at a speed of about 400 mph with a temperature of around 1100 degree Celsius, instantly igniting anything flammable in the town below once it had reached there and consuming the entire city in less than 60 seconds. Massive flows of lava and burning ash continued to decimate the area for weeks.

Out of a population of 28,000 people, there were only two survivors: one a man left in a poorly ventilated dungeon-like prison cell for wounding his friend with a sword and another man who lived on the outskirts of the town who suffered severe burns and fled from the lava flows to another town nearby. 

The volcano is still considered active today and is under constant observation by geophysicists and volcanologists.

6. 1970 Bhola cyclone


Source: Mondadori/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Considered the deadliest tropical cyclone in recorded history, the Bhola cyclone stuck the area now called Bangladesh. Estimates of loss of life from the twister reach upwards of 500,000 people, most of whom were caught up in the subsequent floods after the storm surge. The massive twister was easily visible from space.

Though the region was certainly no stranger to severe weather, as the Bhola cyclone was the sixth cyclonic storm of the season for that region, its magnitude and devastation caught everyone off guard.  This problem was highlighted more prominently by the Pakistani government, who was roundly criticized for its poor handling of the situation and refusal of help from neighboring country and long-running adversary India, despite the fact that Pakistan's resources were woefully inadequate to handle the scope of the disaster.

The outrage was so severe that it helped trigger the Bangladesh Liberation War in which the region annexed itself from Pakistani governance and became its own sovereign state of Bangladesh.