Environmental Disasters: Types And 10 Big Ones

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Environmental Disasters power plantBy the very nature of this planet, Earth is constantly in a state of change. Some of these changes become so devastating in their after-effects that they are recognized as environmental disasters.

Not all environmental disasters are the result of natural change. Many are the result of human error, carelessness or a combination of human-caused factors that create a disastrous outcome.

Article Overview

What Is An Environmental Disaster?

Because the range of causes is so broad, people become overwhelmed when it comes to categorizing environmental disasters. The most significant confusion when using the term “environmental disaster” is using it interchangeably with “natural disaster.”

An environmental disaster can sometimes be the result of a natural disaster, but it does not have to be. Environmental disasters can also be the result of human-caused incidents such as an oil spill or a nuclear blast.

Environmental disaster – A natural or human-caused incident which results in a negative or “disastrous” impact upon the environment.

Some individuals use the term environmental disaster to describe incidents that are a result of human-caused action. However, it is important to note that this is only one category of environmental disaster.

Various Types Of Environmental Disasters

  • Wildfire burningAgricultural disasters occur as a result of an impact upon the farming industry. An example is the Dust Bowl that occurred in the U.S. and Canada between 1934 and 1939.
  • Biodiversity disasters result as an after-effect of a new species moving into a territory and damaging existing species or the environment. An example is the introduction of rabbits in Australia.
  • Industrial disasters occur as the result of large industries impacting the natural environment either in a small or global span. An example is the leak of methyl isocyanate in the Bhopal disaster or CFC’s depleting the ozone layer.
  • Human Health disasters result from the spread of disease or other cause of mass death among the human species. An example is the Bubonic Plague.
  • Natural disasters occur as a natural process of weather patterns or other factors affecting Earth. These can include earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, wildfires, mudslides, sinkholes and droughts.
  • Nuclear disasters result from a spill or damage to a power plant that results in a radiation leak. An example is the Fukushima power plant damage that resulted from the 2011 tsunami.

10 Major Environmental Disasters

We focus on a select few of the thousands of disasters that have affected the globe. This doesn’t indicate that one catastrophe is more notable than another. Every environmental disaster is devastating and significant.

1. Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster

After being struck by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami followed which devastated Okuma in Fukushima, Japan. This resulted in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant failing.

Fukushima Nuclear Plant with people walkingTo date, this disaster comes in second only to the Chernobyl nuclear accident in terms of the devastation it created. The atomic meltdown began when the water was unable to flow in to cool the reactors and subsequently overheating occurred. As the situation worsened, radiation began to seep out from the damaged reactor and affect the local environment.

According to officials, it could take multiple decades to clean up the devastation left from the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. No one is certain of the extent of the damage that has already occurred.

Radiation poisoning killed many workers who tried to contain the damage caused by the meltdown. Additionally, trace amounts of radiation are affecting water supplies and grasses on which livestock feed.

With water and food sources both becoming tainted by radiation, this event is expected to have long-lasting effects on the population of Japan. Radiation effects on the environment are unknown in terms of marine life and local wildlife.

2. Bhopal, India Gas Leak

In December of 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, released a toxic gas cloud of methyl isocyanate that killed approximately 3,000 people. This gas cloud is the deadliest human-made environmental disaster in history.

According to the sources, some 15,000 individuals died as a result of the immediate and delayed after-effects of the toxic gas cloud. The toxins released created a poison which harmed and killed many living creatures in the area.

3. The Great Smog Of London

Historical photo of statute with Great Smog Of LondonIn December 1952, a thick fog descended upon London. It formed from thick air pollution that collected as a result of diverse weather conditions. The cold weather, windless conditions and an anticyclone caused the pollutants to accumulate close to the ground, making the usual London fog much thicker and more toxic.

Because the primary heating source in the 1950s was coal, much of the pollution in the atmosphere was thick coal dust which caused respiratory irritation. Over four weeks, some 4,000 people died from respiratory distress and other illness prompted by pollution.

Another 8,000 deaths were later attributed to the pollution present in the smog. While the smog itself was thick with many chemical pollutants, researchers believe  sulfur dioxide caused the most deaths.

4. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Explosion

 Power Plant Explosion in fieldNo list of environmental disasters would be complete without the mention of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion that occurred in 1986.

When the nuclear reactor core of the power station exploded, over 50 tons of radioactive material polluted the atmosphere. The explosion and the subsequent radiation poisoning left cities abandoned and still stand isolated from the modern world. One example of this is the city of Prypriat.

Around 350,000 individuals were evacuated to minimize their exposure to radiation as a result of the explosion. According to officials in the cleanup efforts, 4,000 deaths and over 70,000 cases of disability due to radiation exposure occurred. Children born after Chernobyl experienced high incidences of down syndrome, chromosomal aberrations and neural tube defects.

Adults and older children exposed to the radiation were more likely to develop cancer and other illnesses. Many went untreated due to the poor healthcare system made available to them after their exposure to radiation.

Here is a video that shows what Chernobyl looks like today:

5. The Dust Bowl

Historical photo of house surrounded by The Dust BowlThe Dust Bowl took place in the U.S. and Canada in the 1930s during a drought. Farming land that didn’t use crop rotation methods experienced severe winds, and a dust bowl occurred on the prairie lands. The most famous book based on this topic is The Grapes of Wrath.

During the time of the Dust Bowl, the over-farmed land was arid, and as winds picked up, they blew vast clouds of dust that reached as far east as New York. The thick dust stuck to people’s lungs and made it impossible to farm the land and grow fertile crops.

An estimated 100 million acres of land in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico were affected. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people left their homes due to a lack of food and economic opportunity.

6. Contribution Of CFC’s To Ozone Depletion

The use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) may not seem to measure up to environmental disasters like the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, but the results are just as long-lasting.

Map of Ozone DepletionUp until recently, many of the products that we used in our daily lives contained CFC’s. Overuse of these CFC containing products contributed substantially to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone. As CFC’s release into the environment, they are photo dissociated and create halogen atoms which destroy the ozone.

Before we discovered the ozone-depleting properties of substances like CFC’s, much of the ozone was already depleted. It is estimated that it takes 5 to 7 years for these substances to reach the atmosphere. They can continue depleting the ozone for up to 100 years.

Life on Earth is exposed to increased levels of UV light when damage occurs to the ozone layer. Some researchers expect the ozone layer to recover over time as we reduce the use of these ozone-depleting substances. But many scientists are not as confident since humans continue to find new ways to destroy our planet’s protective atmosphere.

7. The Bubonic Plague

The Bubonic Plague was introduced to Europe from Africa in the 7th century, killing about 100 million individuals. A second plague was introduced to Europe in the 14th century, but this time from central Asia. This episode is recognized as the Black Death.

The second incidence of the Bubonic Plague claimed 200 million lives, taking 150 years for the population of Europe to recover.

8. Introduction Of Rabbits To Australia

Bunnies in a fieldThe introduction of something as “harmless” as a rabbit may not seem significant. However, in Australia rabbits are believed to be one of the most devastating factors, responsible for destroying native species. As European rabbits were introduced, they fed on native plant species and with such a rapid reproduction rate plant species were unable to maintain their population.

The rabbits also contributed to the erosion as they fed on plant species and left topsoil to be ravaged by weather conditions. Rabbits first came to the country in 1788, But, efforts are still in place to control the rabbit population, including the release of rabbit-borne diseases, shooting and poisoning them, and destroying their warrens.

9. Africanized Bee

The development of the Africanized bee by hybridization between African and European honey bees created an extremely aggressive bee. The aggressiveness of these bees drove many European bee colonies from their hives and resulted in the killing of the queen bee.

This invasion resulted in a reduced population of European honey bees, and as a result, agriculture suffered as fewer honey bees live on to promote honey production.

10. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

 Oil spillOn March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck the Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and as a result of the collision spilled 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil.

While the Exxon Valdez spill is not the largest oil spill in history (Deepwater Horizon in 2010 suffered the most oil spilled), it is one of the most recognized.

One thing that makes the Exxon Valdez spill so devastating is that oil spilled in a location where cleanup was difficult. This made it much harder to reduce the environmental impact and much of the wildlife was affected, including sea otters, sea birds, seals and salmon.

Due to the slow response of cleanup crews, much of the shoreline suffered from exposure to the oil. However, once cleanup efforts launched, they were extensive. Unfortunately, the extensive cleanup efforts resulted in only 10% of the spilled oil recovered.

Learn More About Disasters

Learn more about disasters, including wildfires and disaster relief after they happen.

What can we do to minimize the risk of these terrible catastrophes in the future?

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