The Top 10 Worst Modern Natural Disasters

March 27, 2009

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.

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10. 1908 Tunguska Event

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

5. 1883 Eruption of Krakatoa

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Source: H. POITRENAUD/AFP/Getty Images

Krakatoa is a volcanic island in Indonesia. That's not to say this is an island which has a volcano within it, in this case, the volcano is the island itself. While this island was largely unpopulated, the neighboring islands of Java and Sumatra have been populated for some time, and on August 26th, 1883, when Krakatoa experienced a "cataclysmic" series of eruptions, its effects were brutal to all neighboring islands.

The first people to bare the impact of these eruptions were the citizens of the town of Ketimbang in Sumatra, where nearly 1,000 people were killed by a sustained rain of volcanic ash. These people turned out to be the highest casualties of the eruptions themselves, rather than the subsequent series of tsunamis that followed.

Which each eruption, several square kilometers of volcanic material was deposited into the sea, which displaced massive amounts of ocean water, which in turn caused huge tsunamis, most notable of which was the tsunami which destroyed the town of Merak, which was reported to be 46 meters (150 feet) high.

The eruptions were so severe they were said to have noticeably darkened the sky, worldwide, for several years afterwards.  The death toll stands at around 36,000.

4. Hurricane Katrina 

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When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 25th, 2005 and ravaged the gulf coast of the United States and decimated Louisiana and parts of southeast Texas, it came the costliest hurricane the United States has ever suffered (expected to ultimately exceed $150 billion dollars) and one of the deadliest, with over 1,800 lives claimed in the hurricane and subsequent flooding.

While Katrina ended up being a relatively moderate, Category 3 hurricane when it made landfall in New Orleans, the levee system which literally keeps New Orleans afloat suffered catastrophic failure in approximately 50 different places, causing massive flooding through out the city, with over 80% of New Orleans flooded at one point.

While the hurricane's impact was the source of the devastation, the federal government's dismal failure to act, as seen through the eyes of the world who watched the events unfold on television and the Internet, created unnecessary suffering and general chaos in the region for weeks afterward, and led to the resignation of FEMA head Michael D. Brown, or "Brownie" as he was affectionately referred to by President Bush. Years later, many displaced residents of the area were still living in temporary federal assistance trailers.

3. 2004 Indonesian Eathquake/Tsunami

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When this earthquake struck on December 26th, 2004 off the west coast of Sumatra (note to Sumatrans: consider relocating), with a magnitude of approximately 9.3 on the Richter scale, it was the second largest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. It triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska and caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 1 centimeter. The earthquake also had the longest duration ever observed at approximately 9 minutes. By comparison, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 released a small fraction of the amount of energy of this one.

The resulting tsunamis that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean following the earthquake caused the majority of the destruction, impacting with more than twice the total explosive energy used during all of World War II (including both nukes). Waves were said to be as high as 100 feet in certain areas and reached almost a mile and half inland. 

In terms of human casualties, this is one of the ten worst earthquakes in recorded history, as well as the single worst tsunami in history.

2. 1931 China Floods

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Source: Public Domain

Though perhaps not nearly as "spectacular" in nature as other events noted on this list, the death toll from the Central China Floods of 1931 is shocking - by some estimates, north of 4 million people - one of the deadliest naturally-occurring events in recorded history. A constant onslaught of sadistic wrath, seven cyclones hit the region just in July of 1931 in an area where two per year was typical.

Literally millions of people died from drowning and diseases such as typhus and cholera, and reports of infanticide and cannibalism were reported. Numerous towns along the Yellow, Yangtze and Huai rivers were literally swept away overnight when dikes gave way and drowned hundreds of thousands of people while they slept. In the decades since, the government has reportedly taken steps to prevent a similar occurrence in the future, but the details related to those projects are scarce.

1. 1918-1919 Global Influenza Pandemic

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Source: Public Domain

That's right, the flu. Back in the early 20th century, an unusual and deadly strain of the virus began to spread across the world, and its effects were felt on a truly global scale. When we consider the flu in current times, it typically just involves a few days of soup and bed rest. But this particular strain was a whole different animal.

Believed to have been spread during World War I, the first case of the virus was reported on March 4th, 1918 at Fort Riley, Kansas, and appeared in New York, Boston, and also in other parts of the globe like Brest, France and in Sierra Leone, virtually overnight. 

In contrast to typical flu strains, which affect the juvenile or elderly patients the most, this particular strain took its heaviest toll on healthy young adults by way of a rare variation called a "cytokine storm.” In these cases, the virus uses the immune system against itself, and the strong immune systems of healthy young adults were in turn more deadly than the weaker immune systems of elderly or juvenile victims. This caused uncontrollable internal hemorrhaging that filled the lungs, often leading to victims literally drowning in their own bodily fluids.

The mortality rate from this strain of influenza is stifling. At its peak, the virus was estimated to be killing between one and three million people per week, worldwide, for the first six months of the outbreak. It has been estimated that five percent of the world's population at the time died from the outbreak, with more than 20% of the world's population being affected by the strain between 1918 and 1920. Other diseases have had a larger toll on the global population, but never in such a short amount of time. All told, this strain of influenza killed more than twice the amount of people that World War I did.

Moral of the story? Get flu shots. Or don't?

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