Humans are good at creating disasters, and throughout history we’ve rarely been afraid to prove it. Yet in crafting a top 10, the job of slotting one man-made disaster ahead of another begs an uncomfortable justification. The Exxon Valdez oil spill was a colossal disaster, beginning well before it ran aground and extending to poor decisions made during cleanup. But with a human death toll at zero, how can it rank higher than London’s killer fog that took the lives of 12,000?
Fortunately, a top 10 is a subjective survey. Excluding acts of war or terrorism as well as transportation disasters, the following presents the top 10 man-made disasters whose negative effects were most profoundly experienced by people and the environment that otherwise bore no responsibility for them.
London’s killer fog
The winter of 1952 was a typically cold one for Londoners and many responded in typical fashion, burning coal in their furnaces. The smoke met the city’s iconic fog and together the air become even colder. Residents burned more coal. The air, heavy and stagnant, fell to street level and visibility suddenly dropped as a black fog descended on the city.
This killer fog, laden with sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and soot, soon muffled London under near total darkness and was so pervasive it was even found among the book stacks of the British Museum. Just four days later it vanished, but the damage was done: Over the following months, the fog killed over 12,000 people.
In hindsight: Londoners, accustomed to the fog, apparently didn’t panic over it. But hospital wards were overrun with severely ill patients, and the smog killed 4,000 people alone during its four-day stay. And no one thought to send up an alarm?
On June 24, 2003, NASA satellites picked up a massive plume of smoke rising near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. When the fire was determined to be coming from the al-Mishraq state sulfur plant, scientists began to monitor it closely and what they discovered was shocking.
The fire, which burned for about a month, became responsible for releasing the most man-made sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere in history: More than 600,000 tonnes (1.3 billion tons), a little more than half the total sulfur dioxide released in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State.
In hindsight: Since sulfur dioxide was allegedly used by Napoleon to execute hundreds of thousands of slaves, and since it can wipe out crops, create respiratory problems and, when oxidized, lead to acid rain, a better effort should have been mounted to put this out.
Jilin chemical plant explosions
The No.101 Petrochemical Plant in Jilin City, China, produced a significant amount of aniline, a chemical compound used to make dyes, polyurethane and even acetaminophen (Tylenol). They used benzene and nitrobenzene as solvents.
In November 2005, a series of huge explosions rocked the plant, killing six people at the outset. It further forced mass evacuations, after an 80 km-long toxic slick composed largely of benzene and nitrobenzene (known human carcinogens) developed in the Songhua River. Water contamination reached the Sea of Japan and forced city governments to shut off water supplies, inciting panic in a number of cities.
In hindsight: Accidents happen, but Chinese government secrecy prevented a better, faster response to the disaster.
In many areas similar to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana, fires are part of the game; they’re expected every dry season and monitored accordingly. But in the time leading up to the summer of 1988, authorities for Yellowstone neglected a number of indicators suggesting that the upcoming dry season could be disastrous, and that’s exactly what it was: When autumn snowfall finally arrived to effectively extinguish the fires, they burned almost 800,000 acres -- or about one-third -- of the entire park.
In hindsight: The previous winter had seen one-third the normal amount of snow fall on Yellowstone, and while spring dropped a good amount of rain, it only contributed to more growth that would die in the upcoming drought. Coupled with the excessively low humidity, the forests were littered with the right kind of fuel to signify disaster.
St. Francis dam disaster
America’s worst civil engineering failure began as a solution to the need to supply the residents of Los Angeles with water. The job of building an appropriate dam was left to the chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, a self-taught civil engineer named William Mulholland. During construction, Mulholland ruled with dictatorial power and continued to make adjustments to the dam’s design, creating a bigger and bigger reservoir behind the dam. What no one knew was that the rock on which the dam was built was entirely inadequate for the job.
Just before midnight on March 12, 1928, and 12 hours after Mulholland had finished an inspection and declared it safe, the dam failed, unleashing 12 billion gallons (45 billion liters) of water onto the San Francisquito Canyon below. The death toll is estimated at around 600.
In hindsight: Inadequate rock aside, Mulholland’s dam design was not even up to the standards of the era, and he never should have been given so much control and allowed to be the only person overseeing design and construction.
In 1932, the Chisso Corporation in Minamata city on Japan’s Kyūshū Island began releasing a nasty toxic compound called methyl mercury into the waters of Minamata Bay. For the next 24 years they dumped with impunity, until a young girl came forward with multiple symptoms affecting her central nervous system. By the end of 1956, an investigation uncovered 40 more cases, 14 of them already dead. Remarkably, while the source was under investigation, the Chisso factory began dumping the methyl mercury into a nearby river, poisoning everyone and everything downstream. To date, the death toll stands at almost 1,800 people.
In hindsight: People had been seeing feral cats that ate fish scraps from the bay seem to lose their minds and die for years and years prior to the discovery of the source. While Chisso’s egregious behavior is shocking, Japanese society at the time didn’t show victim support. Rather, victims were discriminated against in the same manner as the so-called Hibakusha, sickened survivors of the atomic bombs.
In March 1954, the United States detonated a thermonuclear weapon in the Pacific code-named Castle Bravo. They expected it would yield no more than eight megatons of energy [to express the amount of energy released by nuclear weapons, science uses an equivalent amount of TNT, i.e. 1 megaton = 1 billion kg (2.2 billion pounds) of TNT]. Confident in their math, they lit the fuse.
Instead, Bravo yielded 15 megatons, 1,000 times stronger than the bomb that smashed Hiroshima. It unleashed a three-mile wide fireball and its enormous mushroom cloud went 130,000 feet high and 62 miles in diameter. The excessive yield, coupled with high winds, dispersed nuclear fallout over inhabited islands and fishing boats, and much of the area remains contaminated to this day.
In hindsight: It might have benefited everyone if, before detonating a hydrogen bomb, someone would have double-checked the math and perused the chemistry. Instead, the arms race with the USSR had priority.
Workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Northern Ukraine were in the process of running some tests when, just like a nuclear chain reaction, things began to go wrong in disastrous succession. It all culminated in a steam explosion in the Number 4 reactor, which was powerful enough to blow the roof off. Nuclear meltdown followed in the form of added explosions and a terrible fire. In an instant, Chernobyl assumed every nuclear nightmare from the past 50 years and became a byword for “meltdown.”
The explosions and fires sent a plume of radioactive fallout into the atmosphere. Soviet secrecy prevents an accurate death toll, but an estimated 6.6 million people were exposed to ghastly levels of radioactive contaminate and untold thousands continue to suffer the effects, from birth defects to cancer.
Despite this disaster, two of the three other reactors at the Chernobyl plant remained in operation until 2000 (the Number 2 reactor was shut down following a fire in 1991).
In hindsight: Today, blame for the meltdown is placed on either poor reactor design or human error. Not unlike Castle Bravo, it’s hard not to wish that both countries would have been less concerned with each other and more concerned with their own people.
The oil tanker Exxon Valdez left Valdez, Alaska, at around 9 p.m. on March 23, 1989, loaded with 53 million barrels of crude oil for delivery to the lower 48 states. At 11 p.m. or so, ship captain Joseph Hazelwood retired to his cabin, evidently exhausted from the two-hour shift. He left the ship to an officer who was not certified to pilot [his own ass] through notoriously difficult Prince William Sound.
Just after midnight on March 24th, the officer showed why he wasn’t certified, running Valdez aground onto a huge, well-charted reef. The stranded tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into the Sound, contaminating the water, hundreds of miles of coastline and beaches, and every individual ecosystem within a massive area.
In hindsight: Captain Hazelwood’s New York State driver’s license was revoked at the time of the disaster due to multiple drunk driving arrests. Now, just because you aren’t allowed to drive a car, it doesn’t automatically mean you can’t pilot an oil tanker, but it may indicate a problem with wider implications, such as sleeping on the job or poor discretion in delegating authority.
Bhopal (Union Carbide)
In 1969, a subsidiary of chemical powerhouse Union Carbide Corporation built a pesticides plant in the middle of Bhopal, India, a city of over 900,000 people. Over the next 15 years, massive slums grew around the plant, which was home to thousands of the city’s most destitute.
In the early morning of December 3, 1984, a tank holding over 40 tonnes of extremely toxic methyl isocynate (MIC) overheated and released the heavier-than-air gas. It rolled along the ground like a poisonous foggy avalanche. Thousands were killed almost instantly and panic erupted as others were choked and temporarily blinded.
To date, history’s worst industrial disaster has killed as many as 20,000 people, and another 120,000 still suffer from a variety of hideous health problems.
In hindsight: The local government should have prevented the establishment of sprawling slums so close to the plant, but Union Carbide shoulders most of the responsibility. By opening a plant in India, the U.S. company was saving hundreds of millions of dollars; yet in the years leading up to the disaster they found countless ways to cut expenses. The result was diminished quality control, compromised safety regulations, under-trained employees, and broken equipment.
George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Past mistakes are available for all of us to study, but history shows we’ve typically shown very little interest in their application.