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By the very nature of this planet, Earth is constantly in a state of change and 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; however, many are the result of human error, carelessness or simply a combination of human caused factors that culminate to create a non-favorable outcome. Regardless of how environmental disasters are caused though, throughout its lifetime the planet has seen its fair share, ranging from nuclear disaster to natural disaster and each and every one has left a pock-mark on the surface of the planet.
What is an Environmental Disaster?
Due to the fact that the range of causes for such types of disasters is so broad, people become overwhelmed when it comes to categorizing environmental disasters. The biggest 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 disaster. The actual definition of an environmental disaster is an incident which occurs either as the result of a natural disaster or a human caused disaster which results in a negative or “disastrous” impact upon the natural environment. Some individuals use the term environmental disaster only to apply to incidents that are a result of human-caused action; however, it is important to note that this is actually only one category of environmental disaster.
The Various Types of Environmental Disasters
As mentioned above there are a number of various causes of environmental disasters, these include: agricultural, biodiversity, industrial, human health, natural and nuclear disasters.
Agricultural disasters are environmental disasters that occurred as a result of an impact upon the agricultural industry. An example of such a type of disaster is the “dust bowl” that occurred in the United States and Canada between 1934 and 1939.
Biodiversity disasters are environmental disasters that resulted as an after effect of a specific species moving in to a new territory and destroying or severely damaging new species or having a destructive effect upon the natural environment. An example of such a type of disaster is the introduction of rabbits in to Australia or the presence of Dutch elm disease.
Industrial disasters are disasters which occur as the result of large industries impacting the natural environment either in a small radius or on a global span. An example of such a type of industrial disaster is the leak of methyl isocyanate that occurred in the Bhopal disaster or the use of CFC’S depleting the ozone layer.
Human Health Disasters
Human health disasters result from the spread of disease or other cause of mass death among the human species causing mass destruction and devastation. An example of such a type of human health disasters is the introduction of the Bubonic Plague in to the population or the spread of smallpox among the new Americas.
Natural disasters are disasters that occur as a natural process of weather patterns or other factors affecting Earth. These types of natural disasters can include: earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, mudslides, sinkholes and droughts.
Nuclear disasters result from nuclear activity such as a nuclear spill or damage to a nuclear power plant that result in a radiation leak. Many people lump nuclear disasters in with industrial disasters; however, due to the significance of the damage caused by nuclear disasters and the unique nature of the disasters themselves they should be separated in to their own category. An example of nuclear disaster is the recent Fukushima power plant damage that resulted from the 2011 tsunami.
The Top Ten Environmental Disasters
When it comes to categorizing the top ten environmental disasters there is some contention among various groups who feel that certain disasters were significantly more important than others. When creating a list of “top ten” disasters it becomes necessary to focus on only a select few of the thousands of disasters that have affected the globe – this does not indicate that one disaster is more important than another. Every environmental disaster is devastating and significant but for the sake of brevity it is necessary to focus on a small sampling of those disasters which resulted in unforgettable devastation.
1. The Fukushima Nuclear Plant Disaster
The most recent environmental disaster occurred on March 11, 2011. After being struck by a 9.0 magnitude that was followed by a massive tsunami which devastated Okuma in Fukushima, Japan, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant began a process of failure. To date this disaster comes in second only to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in terms of the devastation which was created. The nuclear meltdown began when the water which cools the reactors themselves was unable to flow in to cool the reactors and subsequently overheating occurred which began nuclear meltdown. As the devastation 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 that was left after the nuclear meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant; however at this point no one is really sure as to the extent of the damage that has already been done. Radiation poisoning has already claimed the lives of many of the workers who made efforts to contain the damage caused by the meltdown, but it is known that trace amounts of radiation are already falling on to the ground and affecting not only water supplies but also grasses on which livestock feed. With water and food sources both becoming tainted by radiation it is expected that the radiation leaked by the nuclear disaster will have long-lasting effects on the population of Japan. The effects of the radiation upon the local and global environment have yet to be determined in terms of marine life and local wildlife. Fortunately, this environmental disaster claimed only one life as the result of a heart attack, but some 37 individuals experienced physical injuries and two workers at the plant who were standing in water from the reactor experienced radiation burns.
2. Bhopal, India Gas Leak
In December of 1984 a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India released a toxic gas cloud of methyl isocyanate that would kill some 3,000 people in just days after the leak. This gas cloud is tagged as the single deadliest man-made environmental disaster in history not only because of the death count that built up in the days that followed the event but also because of the fatalities that followed. According to the Indian government some 15,000 individuals died as a result of the immediate and delayed after effects of the toxic gas cloud. The toxins released as a result of this leak would settle and cause later incidences of poisoning which would kill and harm individuals and other living creatures in the area surrounding Bhopal.
3. The Great Smog of London
In December of 1952 a thick fog descended upon London. The fog itself occurred as a result of thick air pollution that was collected as a result of diverse weather conditions. As a period of cold weather moved in to the area and combined with windless conditions and an anticyclone, the pollutants began to collect closely to the ground making the usual London fog much thicker and much more toxic. Due to the fact that the primary heating source in the 1950’s was coal, much of the pollution that was trapped in the atmosphere was thick coal dust which caused a lot of respiratory irritation. Over the period of four weeks it is believed that some 4,000 people died from respiratory distress and other illness prompted by the pollution. Another 8,000 deaths were later attributed to the pollution that was present in the smog. While the smog itself was thick with a number of chemical pollutants, researchers believe that it was the sulfur dioxide that caused the most deaths.
4. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Explosion
No list of environmental disasters would be complete without the mention of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion that occurred in 1986. When the core of the nuclear reactor of the power station exploded the atmosphere became polluted with over 50 tons of radioactive material. The explosion and the subsequent radiation poisoning would leave cities abandoned that even now stand isolated from the modern world, one example of this is the city of Prypriat. Some 350,000 individuals were evacuated in order to minimize their exposure to radiation as a result of the explosion. According to officials in the Ukraine cleanup efforts that took place after Chernobyl led to 4,000 deaths and over 70,000 cases of disability due to radiation exposure. A large number of children born following the Chernobyl were also affected by the nuclear explosion and high incidences of down syndrome, chromosomal aberrations and neural tube defects were noted. Adults and older children exposed to the radiation would also go on to develop higher incidences of cancer as well as other illnesses that went untreated due to the poor healthcare system made available to them after their exposure to radiation at the time of the explosion.
Here is a video that shows what Chernobyl looks like today:
5. The Dust Bowl
The dust bowl has been the focus of many art and literary works; however for those it affected there was nothing artistic at all. The dust bowl describes a period of time in the 1930’s when the combination of severe winds, over farming land without using crop rotation methods and drought created a literal dust bowl on all of the prairie lands of the United States and Canada. 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 extremely dry and as winds picked up they would blow huge clouds of dust that reached as far east as New York. The thick dust would stick in the lungs of those living in the area but it also made it impossible to farm the land and grow fertile crops. It is estimated that some 100,000,000 acres of land stretching across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas and New Mexico were affected. The state of the land forced hundreds of thousands of people to move from their homes due to a lack of food and no economic opportunity.
6. The Contribution of CFC’s to Ozone Depletion
While the use of CFC’s may not seem to measure up to environmental disasters like the Fukushima nuclear power plant melt down, but the results are just as long-lasting if not more so. Up until recently many of the products that we used in our daily lives contained Chlorofluorocarbons or CFC’s. Overuse of these CFC containing products contributed greatly to the depletion of the Earth’s ozone. As CFC’s are released in to 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 after the period of 5 to 7 years that it takes these substances to reach the atmosphere they can continue depleting the ozone for as much as 100 years. The ozone layer plays a vital role in protecting life on the planet from UV rays and when this layer is damaged life on Earth is exposed to increasing levels of UV light. Fortunately researchers expect the ozone layer to recover over time as use of these ozone depleting substances is eliminated.
7. The Bubonic Plague
The bubonic plague was introduces to Europe from Africa in the 7th century at which time some 100 million individuals died. The plague was again introduced to Europe once again but this time from central Asia in the 14th century, it is this episode of the plague that is recognized as the Black Death. The second incidence of the bubonic plague claimed 200 million lives. The Black Death was so destructive that it is estimated that it took 150 years for the population of Europe to recover.
8. The Introduction of Rabbits to Australia
The introduction of something as “harmless” as a rabbit to Australia may not seem like a significant concern but on the contrary it is believed to be one of the most devastating factors in destroying native Australian species. As European rabbits were introduced to Australia they fed on a number of native plant species saplings and with such a rapid reproduction rate plant species were unable to maintain their population. The rabbits also contributed greatly to the erosion as they fed on plant species and left top soil to be ravaged by weather conditions. Rabbits first came to the country in 1788 and currently efforts are still being made to control the rabbit population including the release of rabbit-borne diseases, shooting rabbits, poisoning them and destroying their warrens.
9. The Africanized Bee
The development of the Africanized bee by hybridization between African and European honey bees created a bee that was extremely aggressive. The aggressiveness of these bees drove many European bee colonies from their hives and resulted in the killing of the queen bee. This invasion of the aggressive bees resulted in a reduction in the population of European honey bees and as a result agriculture suffered as fewer honey bees are surviving to promote honey production.
10. The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
On March 24, 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck the Prince William Sound’s Bligh Reef and as a result of the collision spilled some 260,000 to 750,000 barrels of crude oil. While the Exxon Valdez spill is not the largest oil spill in history (the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 was the worst in terms of the amount of oil spilled) it is one of the most recognized. What makes the Exxon Valdez spill so devastating aside from the amount of oil spilled is the fact that it was spilled in such a location that it was extremely difficult to launch cleanup efforts to help reduce the environmental impact of the oil. Much of the wildlife was affected by the oil spill including sea otters, sea birds, seals and salmon. Due to the slow response of cleanup crews much of the shore line suffered from exposure to the oil; however, once cleanup efforts were launched they were extensive. Unfortunately, for the environment though, the extensive cleanup efforts resulted in only 10% of the spilled oil being recovered.
What can we do to minimize the risk of these terrible catastrophes happening again?