The Top 20 Biggest Man-Made Disasters

A collection of the biggest disasters we caused to the Earth.

Audrey Wright
Nov 14, 2013 · 17 min read

Disaster — noun — a sudden accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life.
It’s what we call tsunamis, earthquakes, typhoons, eruptions and climate changes. However, those are nothing more than a reaction to our actions. We blame the Earth for the death millions. We also think of ourselves as the alpha beings on this land, as governors and protectors. And yet, every now and then, our own incompetence and stupidity surfaces and shows us we’re nothing more than a danger.
Not convinced ? Hold your answer for after you finish the following list. Since it’s virtually impossible to estimate total damages or compare, no classification can be made. Thus, the number before each heading is nothing more bug structural enhancement.

1. The Bhopal Gas Leak

The victims of the gas leak

In 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, resealed 30 metric tons of methyl isocyanite into the atmosphere. The Union Carbide India Limited chemical plant was in extremely poor condition and had broken dozens of safety regulations years before the accident. However, the errors accumulated in time and on the night of December the third, a safety release system activated and emptied a storage tank in the air, in order to prevent a huge chemical explosion. The release spread highly toxic chemicals over Bhopal and the neighbouring areas. Official death count by the Indian government is 3,787 bodies, however, unofficial records state 8,000 deaths or more tied to the disaster.

2. The Jilin Chemical Explosion

The toxic cloud from the explosion

In November the thirteenth, 2005, a petrochemical plant in Jilin, China was the site of series of explosions. Poor handling of the operating systems led to blasts which shattered windows up to 200 metres away. Six people died, dozens were injured and thousands were forced to evacuate the region.

The event released 100 tons of pollutants, mainly benzene and nitrobenzene, into the environment. Surprisingly enough, the accident went seemingly victimless as viewed in scale. However, Songhua River and Amur River were covered in 80 km of toxic sludge. The benzene level rose to 108 times the safety levels. Exposure to it lowers the amount of blood cells in the body and can cause leukaemia and other immune system impairments.

Later the Jilin and Heilongjian Province water supplies were shut off, due to the contamination. Tens of millions of people were stranded without the vital supply. The initial death count might have been small, but surely, a lot more people died in result of the explosions.

3. The Tennesse Coal Ash Spill

A house in Kingston buried in the ash

The Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant like any other of it’s kind produced fly coal ash as a by product of the coal combustion. The methods of storing required the ash to be mixed with water and the mixture stored in dredge cells. However, due to poor management, the mixture was stored in dangerously high amounts on the slope of a hill. After a powerful rain storm, in 2008, the slurry gave weight and stormed down the hill in a massive landslide of mud and ash. In the southern states, people love to play in mud slides, however, one would guess this one was a bit over the top. Three hundred acres of land were buried under the filth and a lot of properties in Kingston were destroyed. An estimate of 675 million dollars of damage was caused to the residents and national land with another 975 million needed to clean up the slurry. Six months after, only three percent is removed.

4. The Sidoarjo mud volcano

The mud volcano in action

Typically mud volcanoes are results from seismic activity. However, man couldn’t stand the fact somebody else, be it mother nature, do something he could not. So, we caused one of our own.

PT Lapindo Brantas was an Indonesian drilling company. Although being warned multiple times, the company pushed forward with an excavation site in a know unstable area not far away from the ring of fire. Apparently, the drilling reactivated previously inactive faults. This was complimented by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake to the south-west and several big aftershocks. A few days later, the drill hole erupted mud 200 metres above itself in result. It continues to this day, with the expectancy to continue for the next 25 to 30 years. At it’s peak the mud volcano spewed 180, 000 cubic metres of mud into the ocean.

Despite mud is not directly toxic, it’s not edible or drinkable either. The amounts released continue to contaminated the surrounding waters and affects thousands of near by inhabitants and wildlife.

5. The North Pacific Garbage Patch

A gyre is a marine phenomenon, caused by the relationship of neighbouring currents. Essentially, it’s a vortex of trapped water which spins around a centre point. It has no access to the neighbouring currents, so transfer of particles is not possible.

In 1988, scientists predicted the garbage thrown off in the ocean will ultimately converge in one of these gyres and create a huge patch of waste floating in circles forever. Well, it happened. Estimates vary between 700 thousand and 15 millions square kilometres of garbage. Roughly 0.4 to 8.1 percent of the entire surface of the Pacific Ocean is covered in a mixture of toxic sludge, plastic, petrol and other thrown away waste. No wonder sharks don’t like us. Hell, I’d bite off the leg of anyone who comes into my home and empties their garbage can inside.

6. The Gulf War Spill

The contaminated waters in the gulf

As a direct result of human idiocy, 720 thousand cubic metres were spilled into the Persian Gulf during the war. Apparently, Iraq found it a brilliant military strategy to drown the waters in petrol, just to make it hard for US forces to land.

This brilliant defence manoeuvre changed the surrounding wildlife for good. The amounts was just too much to clean up and well, Iraq didn’t really try hard to fix what they broke. The oil is now settled in the very sediment layers of the water bed. All marine wildlife suffered a great deal of damage, as some local species even disappeared. The environment still recovers after 21 years and still has a long way to go. Mother nature is one tough cookie.

7. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

The oily waters of the Mexican Gulf

Considered the worst oil spill in history, on April, the twentieth, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in the sea. This left the drill hole completely open and petrol began to blow out directly into the waters, much like a gun wound in the chest. It ultimately discharged 780,000 cubic metres of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, while claimed seven lives. The US managed to cap it 87 days later, as it was even considered to use nuclear blasts to seal the well. I guess a huge oil leak was not enough press material, as naturally they wanted to make the evening news cast.

The spill threatened 8,332 marine species, some of which, already endangered and under federal protection. In the following years and on-going, scientists continue to pile up reports of the catastrophic effects. From mutated fish to closed beaches from washed petrol ashore, more and more damage just keeps surfacing. The oil is now soaked up in the environment and food and water resources. It’s described as the biggest health crisis in the US.

8. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The waters after the Exxon Valdez spill

If you haven’t already guessed, humanity has evolved out of the ability to learn from it’s mistakes. The Exxon Valdez oil tanker was on a course for Long Beach, California in 1989, before it struck the shore around midnight local time. The reason was a tired and insufficient crew which led to one of the world’s biggest contamination disasters for all times. An estimate of 119 thousand cubic metres of crude oil were spilled over several days, before the US government could react to the situation. In the end, 2,100 kilometres of coastline and 28 thousand square kilometres of ocean were coated in thick layer of oil.

No wonder the US is always hungry for more, they just keep spilling it in the ocean.

9. The Guiyu E-Waste Dump In China

A child in the Guiyu e-waste dump

The Americans, although completely deserving, are not the only ones to blame for the current state of the Earth.

The Guiyu dump in China is the biggest e-waste landfill in the world. A total of 52 square kilometres of land is buried in iPhones, Galaxy S4s and other famous electronic devices. Even though of e-waste can’t possibly compare in size with world garbage, it contains the intimidating amount of 70% of all heavy metals in the landfills. In time, they leak out of the appliances and guess what, end up in the land, air and water. Pretty much all of the surrounding area and especially the rice supplies are exposed to lead poisoning. Guiyu’s children have a 54 percent higher lead levels in their blood than those of the nearby town Chendian.

On top of that, the methods of disposal and reprocessing are highly outdated. Some include literally burning the piles of electronics to retrieve precious metals, which furthermore pollutes the area. Soil samples from a Guiyu workshop show 371 times more lead and 115 times more copper in comparison to samples taken 30 kilometres away.

The environmental impact from electronic waste is one of the largest growing problems in the world as of now. Consider that next time you drop your batteries in the general trash can.

10. The Baia Mare Water Cyanide Contamination

The Săsar river in Baia Mare

The gold mining company Aurul is a venture by the Australian company Esmeralda Exploration and the Romanian government. One of the processes, used to extract the precious metal from the ore is gold cyanidation. What’s left after the process finishes is cyanide-contaminated water.

The company claimed they can take care of their junk and shipped it to a dam near Bonitza Mare. However, whether to poor management, incapability or lack of monitoring, the dam wall ruptured on January the thirtieth, 2000. A total of 100 thousand cubic metres is toxic water, in which resided 100 tons of cyanide spilled over the near by farmlands and made it’s way into the Somes river. From there, it travelled across many European rivers and ultimately ended up in Danube river.

The spill killed 80% of all life in the Serbian section of the Tisza. Sixty two species or fish, twenty of which are under protection, were threatened, as large quantities died by the poisoned water. In Hungary the water supply of two and a half million people were destroyed.

The cyanide contamination is the second biggest pollution in Europe after the Chernobyl event.

11. Chernobyl

Pripriyat nowadays

Many of you, the readers, know of the Chernobyl melt-down. As we proved we have not learned with the Fukushima crisis, there is a desperate need to remind the world as often as possible what danger nuclear power hides if not monitored.

Chernobyl used to be a nuclear power plant near Pripryat, Ukraine. In 1986, an explosion, caused by poor management, cracked open one of the plant’s nuclear reactors and leaked large quantities of radio active particles into the atmosphere. The winds spread the radioactive cloud all over USSR and Europe. It was classified as level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The only other accident to receive the maximum rank is the Fukushima event. Way to go, catching up Japan!

Even though the reactor was sealed as quickly as humanly possible, the entire area around the plant, including the near by town Pripryat was highly contaminated. The residents were evacuated immediately, however, long therm effects of the exposure still appear to this day. In the accident itself died 31 people, but each year hundreds of birth malformation and radiation-related illnesses add to the death toll.

The town is now nothing more that a dead, ghostly monument to remind us of our mistakes.

12. London’s Great Smog

The smog in London

The winter of ‘52 was a cold one for Londoners. At the time, people heated their homes with mainly coal powered heaters. Naturally, the consumption increased to battle the chills. It wouldn’t have been a problem if there wasn’t an anticyclone right on top of the city which collected the burned pollutants and smoke, and formed a thick layer of smog over the entire city. It lasted for four days and due to nature of the city nobody paid attention. However, the smog was highly toxic and hit the lungs of pretty much every inhabitant. Later in the year, when medical reports were analysed, it was found that four thousand people have died prematurely and a hundred thousand more developed dreadful respiratory illnesses. I guess ignorance is not always blessed.

13. The Minamata Disease

Japan’s prime minister leaving flowers at the victims memorial

The Minamata disease was discovered in the mid twentieth century in Minamata Bay, Japan, hence the name. It’s a neurological degradation, caused by organic mercury poisoning. Not a big discovery really, we’ve known of the toxic effects of mercury for a long time. However, the situation that demanded the extended research is far more interesting and horrific. The residents near Minamata Bay and especially the fishermen and their families exhibited a bizarre neurological impairment.

At first it was suspected a contagion was loose in the area. Naturally, the diseased were isolated and their homes purified. This led to wide discrimination of those who showed signs of the illness. When medical specialists and universities showed interest in the events, it was discovered the sick had a mortality rate of 36.7 percent — a truly dreadful figure. This attracted international attention and large scale researches began.

Ultimately, it was found the waters in Minamata Bay, it’s fish and everybody in contact had a period of 34 years of exposure to lead, mercury, manganese, arsenic, thallium and copper — all highly toxic heavy metals. Turns out, the near by chemical factory, owned by the Chisso corporation, was dumping it’s contaminated waste water directly into the bay.

The corporation officially certified 2,265 victims most of which already dead in March, 2001. Another 10 thousand have received financial recompense. However, the total death toll is probably much higher. Good thing they have certificates now to show for their suffering.

14. The Libby Montana Asbestos Contamination

A warning sign near Libby

Libby, Montana is a small town that only prospered thanks to the W.R Grace plant which operated the vermiculite mines. However, at the time (starting 1919), people knew little about the effects of asbestos on the respiratory system. The toxic material was one of the by-products of the mines and plant operations. As a result, it was constantly pumped out of the industrial chimneys and continued to cover the town until 1990, when the mine was closed. Even though, by that time, asbestos had pretty much soaked into the very existence of the residence. Along the particles transmitted by the smoke, excess materials were used as fill for driveways, gardens and playgrounds. Even the school track was made from tailings provided by the plant.

The pollution accounts for 200 deaths and thousands of illnesses throughout the inhabitants. Now, the entire area is announced as contaminated and warning signs are put all over to avert people from further health danger.

15. The Love Canal Toxic Landfill

The Love Canal dump during clean up

The Love Canal is a neighbourhood in Niagara Falls, New York. At the time of landscaping the area, the land belonged to Hooker Chemical, which used it to bury their toxic waste. However, an economic boom called for drastic expansion of the area. Niagara Falls had to quickly acquire more land to build a school. At start, Hooker Chemical refused to sell, due to health precautions. Ultimately, however, they were persuaded and the neighbourhood was build right on top of the buried toxic trash. Because there is no more effective way to learn chemistry, than right on top of a chemical landfill. The pollution, of course, affected the residents almost immediately. Birth defects, anomalies and strange illnesses began to emerge. However, no sooner than 1978 was the issue made public by US reporters. And yet, even that didn’t attract the attention of the respected authority.

In 1995, district judge John Curtin finally ruled in favour of the residents and matters were settled. The school was brought down and clean up began.

16. The Centralia Fire

Rising steam from the underground fire

Centralia is a borough, now almost completely abandoned, in Columbia County, Pennsylvania. It’s story goes way back in the times of native Americans, however, it will always will be remembered for the event in 1962. Every year the administrative Council hired men to clean up the local landfill. In 1962, five firemen were took the job. A common method is to set the dump on fire, let it burn for some time and later extinguish.

Now, fighting fires is what firemen are usually good at, right? Well, not in this case they’re not. Centralia had a coal mine, which was abandoned for some years. Abandoned is typically good to set fire in, a mine and furthermore coal, however, is not. The firemen stuck the piles of trash in the mine and set it a blaze. Here is where stories start to heavily differentiate, but the most popular one is they never completely extinguished the fire. So, it spread throughout the mine, fuelled by the leftover coal inside. Eventually, it spread underground, below Centralia and Byrnesville.

At the start, as always, the issue was ignored. It was only after a sinkhole collapsed and sucked a child underground, that state officials turned their eyes onto the problem. Right now the two towns are almost completely abandoned, with very few residents, who just refuse to leave their homes, regardless of the dangers.

17. The Door To Hell

The burning hole

The Door To Hell is a natural gas field in Derweze, Turkmenistan, which to this day forth still continues to burn, after it was set on fire in 1971. Soviet scientists began to drill and excavate the resource in the same year. However, during their work the ground under the drilling rig gave weight and collapsed. A giant crater formed and started to blow out methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, right into the atmosphere. Out of fear of further pollution, the workers did the next best thing — lit it on fire. When the gas is burned, almost all environmental hazards are removed.

Whether that was the reason, or a secret passion to surpass the Centralia event, I leave to you. The scientists had the expectancy the fire would burn for a few days and then die. However, four decades later, it still does, fed by the underground deposits. Which you know, considering the fuel crisis warnings, could have been useful.

18. The Death Of Aral Sea

A dried out harbour in the Aral sea

The Aral Sea can be considered as a sacrificial lamb to the former Soviet Union’s agricultural plans. In 1960, it was the world’s fourth in size. However, in the same year, USSR officials decided to divert the route of the two rivers which fed into the lake. Massive irrigation channels went under construction. The plan was to eventually feed the rivers back into the lake, but also make them pass through the desert, where crops were to be planted. The union wanted to become the biggest exporter of cotton. And the biggest they were in 1988. However, that first place cost them the fate of the lake.

The channels were very poorly build which is to be expected of the time. The cold war demanded speed and quantity, rather than quality. The diversion channels were so inefficient, in some places up to 75 percent of water was lost to the land, rather then fed in the lake.

In result, the lake began to evaporate. In 2004, it’s surface area was only 25 percent of the original size.

Uzbekistan cares for the land as much as it did for the water. The agricultural plan was made to achieve results and nothing more. Naturally, the land was exhausted and large quantities of pesticides and fertilizers were used to keep up the production. The run off from the fields washed all the toxic chemicals into the already shrank sea. Those, combined with the salinity, which resulted from the evaporation, continue to heavily pollute the surrounding area and inhabitants to this day. Sand storms pick up the poisonous particles and shower the area with toxic dust. The residents of the area live a highly polluted life. Birth defects, death of newborns and pregnant women, illnesses and lack of water are just the start of an endless list of suffering. All for mother Russia, I guess.

19. The Palomares Incident

The hydrogen bomb recovered from the sea

In 1966, an American B-52 bomber, loaded with four hydrogen bombs, crashed into a KC-135 tanked, while they refuelled mid-air over Spain. Miscommunication was the main cause. The nuclear weaponry was released in the crash. Out of the four, three bombs landed in the area near Palomares — a fishing village in Spain. Two of them had discharged their non-nuclear explosives. A two square kilometre zone was contaminated with plutonium…and democracy. The third and fourth ones were recovered from the land and sea, respectively, generally intact. Although, somehow, human losses were averted, it was only due to pure luck that we hadn’t seen a new Nagasaki. Had this happened, the world could have been gone by the time you read these lines.

20. Castle Bravo

The nuclear mushroom cloud from the explosion

This was the code name given to the biggest nuclear bomb ever discharged by American hand. The blast had a force of 15 megaton of freedom, a thousand times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Apparently, the designers of the bomb made a little miscalculation and it ended up three times more powerful than expected. It’s the largest nuclear explosion in the US. Only Russia has ever discharged more powerful bombs. But, of course, no Russian will ever settle to have his…confidence smaller than the American.

It happened on the first of march 1954 in the Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. The explosion spread fallout over 20 thousand people who inhabited the near by islands. The residents of Rongelap and Utrik Atolls were never even alerted about the test and spend three full days of fallout exposure, before the American government evacuated them. Three years later, they were returned to their homes, only to be told their land is contaminated and they can’t stay. A Japanese boat came in direct contact with the radiation and grew ill. One of them died and caused an international uproar. The world still remembers the previous contact between Japan and US nuclear weaponry. This was the country’s second close call to a new and possibly nuclear, world war. One would start to wonder whether Americans are not really trying to stir something up.


Author’s notes

Written and edited by Audrey Wright. As information is collected from the Internet and furthermore, there are multiple versions to most stories, some statistics or facts can vary from the truth.

P.S. The Author needs to eat food at some point, so if you live in London and plan to move any time soon..or at all, check out the link below.

Move out Mates is the one stop company to solving all your moving and tenancy cleaning needs in London. Do you need ? Drop by our website and give us a chance to tell you why we’re the best!

    Audrey Wright

    Written by

    Audrey Wright is a freelance writer, living in London. She holds a City of Wesminster College A-level degree in English Language and Literature.

    More From Medium

    Related reads

    Related reads

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade