After a year littered with heartbreaking natural disasters, where scientists warn that global climate change may exacerbate the risks of these events, the world’s attention has turned back to the disasters of yesteryear. And while natural disasters appear to have become more frequent and devastating in the past ten years, human history is filled with reports of catastrophes of nature.
This reflection process is important. The more we understand about past disasters, the better we are at responding to tomorrow’s tragedies, limiting loss of life and minimizing international impact. And the more we know about why these events happened, the better we can understand the Earth we live on, spurring scientific progress.
Here are 13 of recent history’s most strange and noteworthy disasters.
1. Lake Nyos, Cameroon: In 1986, this volcanic lake became the site of an environmental tragedy that took 1,746 lives. Because of its depth, stillness, and volcanic origin, the lake had five gallons of carbon dioxide for every gallon of water, and the building gas spelled trouble.
On August 21st, the gas became too saturated for the water to hold, and it erupted from the lake, creating a “poison cloud” that traveled at 60 miles an hour, suffocating people and livestock in its path. Since then, scientists have installed an “escape valve” for the lake’s gas, and a warning system in case something like the eruption happens again.
2. Lusi, Indonesia: A mud volcano occurs when underground layers of silt are put under pressure and then triggered to explode by an external event. In the deadly 2006 Lusi eruption, the cause is thought to be unprotected gas drilling. Whatever the cause, the “mudcano” erupted boiling water, mud, and hydrogen sulfide, burying nearby villages and killing 16 people as of yet. The damage is still ongoing; the mud volcano is projected to continue erupting for the next 25-30 years.
3. Centralia, Pensylvania: In 1962, a coal mine near Centralia was set on fire in an attempt to clear the nearby landfill. And while citizens thought the fire had been put out, it flowed through the underground coal deposits, releasing toxic gases, heating the town’s gas supplies to a frightening 180 degrees Fahrenheit, and eventually creating sinkholes under the city. Today, the fire still exists, but the city does not; it was eventually deemed to be uninhabitable.
4. Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland: The famous volcano erupted in 2010, spewing massive clouds of ash into the atmosphere. And these plumes birthed a rare phenomenon called a “dirty thunderstorm”: when electrically-charged ash and rock erupting high into the air cause lightning to strike from the volcano’s ash.
5. Chandka Forest, India: In 1972, the Indian subcontinent was hit by a heat wave, a drought, and a resulting plague of elephants. The herd of elephants, searching for food and water, stampeded through the villages of the Chandka forest, leveling buildings and killing 24.
6. New Madrid, Arkansas: In 1812, the area was struck by some of the strongest earthquake tremors in American history. Because the area was sparsely-populated, few died, but the tremors caused a rare alluvial tsunami in the nearby Mississippi River. Because of this, the river actually flowed backward for several hours!
7. Lake Peigneur, Louisiana: Is it still a natural disaster if it’s pretty much entirely due to human error? In 1980, a Texaco oil expedition somehow managed to drill directly into a salt mine under Lake Peigneur, creating a whirlpool that sucked in 65 acres of land and a 400-foot geyser. Incredibly, no one died in the disaster, except for a few people’s careers.
8. The Missing Summer: In 1815, a volcanic eruption blotted out not only the sun but the entire following summer. Mount Tambora’s explosion was felt far beyond its native Indonesia: temperatures dropped up to 1.3 Fahrenheit, farming failures caused food riots, and Italy got covered in a layer of terrifying red snow. Today, the volcano’s caldera is relatively peaceful.
9. Bhola, Bangladesh: The 1970 disaster has the dubious honor of being one of the most politically-important natural disasters in recent memory. The cyclone, the deadliest ever recorded, killed more than half a million people, mostly through the flooding of the low-lying Ganges delta. The chaos helped spark the Bangladesh Liberation War, a conflict that eventually resulted in an independent Bangladesh
10. Tangshan Earthquake, China: The 1976 quake, the 20th century’s most fatal, is another disaster famous for its political milieu. The 8-magnitude shocks hit a China in political crises, and the country’s insular leadership refused UN aid after the crisis. Public anger about the government’s response helped buoy relative moderate Premiere Hua Guofeng to political power, putting an end to the Cultural Revolution.
11. The Tunguska Event, Russia: This is one of the most mysterious incidents on the list, as we’re still not entirely sure what caused the 1908 explosion. We do know that something exploded in the Siberian wilderness with enough force to demolish 80 million trees, flattening 830 square miles of forest. The current theory is that the explosion happened because a comet entering Earth’s atmosphere caused an “air burst”. Fortunately, as the area was almost entirely unpopulated, the trees were the only casualties.
12. Lituya Bay, Alaska: While a tsunami happens when underwater tectonic activity forces water up and out, megatsunamis happen when large volumes of rock or mud fall into the water, creating initial waves that can be up to hundreds of meters high. Before the 1958 megatsunami in Lituya Bay, these rare events were not scientifically recognized. But on July 9th of that year, a 30-million-cubic-meter rockslide sent waves 1,710 ft up the entrance of Gilbert Inlet, killing a swath of trees that was clearly visible from the air, even years afterward.