Picture Gallery: 10 Greatest Environmental Disasters

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The Dust Storm of the 1930s

The Oklahoma and Texan Southern Plains were seen by the immigrant farmers as the Promised Land. This was especially so during the First World War, when the prices for wheat sky rocketed and the farmers became prosperous. This prompted them to sow more wheat, however this over planting was one of the causes for the disaster known as the “Dust Bowl”.

The other cause was the change in the weather. Normally the plains were supplied with an adequate supply of rainfall that watered their crops and filled the lakes. In 1931 a drought set in and high winds ensued that combined to dry the soil and blow it away from the prairie lands, creating dust storms and preventing crop growth. These dust storms occurred during 1930 and 1936 and in some areas they didn’t cease until 1940.

The Great London Smog of 1952

I well remember seeing newspaper images of the time showing people walking around the capital covering their mouths with cloths to avoid inhalation of this dangerous air pollutant. The smog lasted for a few days in December 1952 and was responsible for the deaths of over 4000 citizens. Many of those who died were the very young, the elderly, or those already suffering from a respiratory disease such asthma.

The smog was caused by an extremely cold fog descending on London. This resulted in citizens burning more coal in their homes to keep warm. In addition the city’s new trams had diesel engines and their fumes added to the smoke from domestic fires. The cold fog trapped these fumes, causing a build-up of pollution known as smog a combination of smoke and fog.

The 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy

This disaster occurred in 1984 at a chemical plant outside the city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.

It was caused by the malfunctioning of a valve in a tank containing methyl isocyanate, a chemical used to produce pesticides, and it emitted a cloud of lethal gas and chemicals to the atmosphere.

This quickly spread to the neighboring city of Bhopal with its 900,000 inhabitants. Thousands were exposed to the deadly chemical cocktail and almost 3,000 people died within the first few days of exposure.

The Indian government shut the plant down immediately and later awarded compensation to the victims. Since then several committees have been set up in an attempt to reach a better settlement, obtaining further compensation payments for more than 570,000 victims.

Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

On the morning of 26th April 1986 number four reactor exploded at Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. This sent clouds of long half-life caesium and strontium over Chernobyl, Belarus, Russia and Ukraine; although nearly every country in the Northern Hemisphere received radioactive fallout.

The cause of the disaster was the overheating of number four reactor during a test. There was a massive surge of power and the emergency shutdown mechanism failed. Explosions blew off the dome-shaped roof, ejecting radioactive particles high into the atmosphere. A second explosion caused a fire that burned for over a week.

Official UN figures put the number of cancer-related deaths at 9,000 . But Greenpeace estimate the real number is far higher: between 90,000 and 200,000 deaths.

Piper Alpha Disaster

The Piper Alpha was an oil and gas offshore production platform built at McDermott’s Scottish construction yard in 1974, and operated in the North Sea.

The Piper produced oil and gas from its own wells, as well as being supplied with gas from other platforms which it exported through several undersea pipelines.

The accident occurred on 6th July 1988 when a pipeline maintenance flange cover blew off, emitting gas that immediately exploded starting several fires. These were fuelled by the gas from other platforms; the high temperatures rupturing these pipelines adding to the inferno.

Oil workers had no means of escape as the passage to the lifeboats was obstructed by toxic fumes. Many jumped from the platform into the sea that was also on fire, and some were picked up by rescue boats.

167 men lost their lives; the majority were asphyxiated by fumes as they waited to be rescued.

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

The Exxon Valdez, a 986 foot long oil tanker carrying 1,264,155 barrels of crude oil, departed from the Trans Alaska Pipeline Terminal around 9 pm March 23, 1989.

She was manoeuvred through the Valdez Narrows by a harbor pilot who then handed her over to the master, Captain Hazelwood. Shortly after this icebergs were encountered in the shipping lane and the captain ordered a change of course to avoid them.

He handed over the bridge to the Third Mate with the instruction to put the ship back on course at a certain point.

The ship was never returned to the shipping lane, running aground on Bligh Reef just after midnight.

The reef ruptured the ship’s cargo tanks, and more than 250,000 barrels of crude oil spilled into the sea, polluting 1300 miles of Alaskan shoreline and killing thousands of birds, seals and otters.

The Burning of the Kuwait Oil Fields

The purpose of Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War was to eject Saddam Hussein and his troops from Kuwait.

The US troops along with their allies were successful, but during the war and on their retreat, the Iraqis set fire to Kuwait’s oil fields.

Over 750 oil wells were set on fire creating serious air pollution; large emissions of soot and smoke affected the Northern Hemisphere and devastated the ecological landscape and habitats of this area of the Persian Gulf.

The Indian Ocean Tsunami Disaster

On 12th December 2004, an undersea earthquake triggered massive tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean reaching most of the landmasses on its borders. The worst hit county was Indonesia, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. More than 200,000 people were killed in 14 countries.

The international community responded immediately, sending in aid workers and money to support the many thousand victims of one of the world’s deadliest natural disasters.

The Kingston Fossil Plant Coal Fly Ash Slurry Spill

Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee is a coal-burning power plant and one of the pollutants from combustion of coal is fly ash. Slurry ponds contained the fly ash enclosed by earthen walls and it was one of these walls that failed, causing the disaster.

Fly ash typically contains thallium which can cause birth defects, along other heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, lead and chromium.

The wall was breached on 22nd December 2008 ejecting over five million cubic yards of fly ash slurry into the neighboring land.

The slurry flowed north and east along the valley floor, damaging dozens of homes, polluting the Emory River, and burying thousands of acres in sludge.

Executives of the plant blamed heavy rainfall coupled with freezing temperatures for the wall failure.

Deepwater Horizon Disaster in the Gulf of Mexico

The Deepwater Horizon was a drilling rig operating in the Gulf of Mexico. On 20th April 2010 an explosion and fire engulfed the rig killing 11 oil workers and spewing crude oil into the waters of the Gulf.

The explosion was caused by an uncontrolled gas and oil leak from the undersea well.

The safety system contained a “blow out preventer”. This large underwater valve was installed to isolate the supply from the well in just such an incident.

Unfortunately the automatic control failed to operate, as did the manual one operated by an underwater Remote Operating Vehicle (ROV).

The oil continued to leak from the well until being plugged on 15th July having released an estimated five million barrels of oil. The effect of the oil spill on the environment was colossal, with Gulf beaches, marine life and habitats affected.