10 worst man-made environmental disasters

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NEW YORK — The oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is now about the size of Puerto Rico. It's already reached the marshes of Louisiana. Oil-covered wildlife are starting to show up along the shores. Shrimp, fish and oyster harvest areas have been closed. Residents of Mississippi and Alabama are just waiting for the oil to hit.

As environmental calamity for the Gulf Coast appears imminent, GlobalPost looks at 10 other man-made environmental disasters — both forgotten and infamous — that could have been prevented.

(Read about the animal species most at risk from the Gulf oil spill.)

The Dust Bowl

The market-driven agricultural practices of U.S. farmers — plowing the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains and monoculture farming — led to one of the most disastrous ecological events in the nation’s history. Between 1930 and 1940, drought conditions and depleted farmland caused severe dust storms, some reaching 10,000 feet in the sky and called “Black Blizzards.” An estimated 2.5 million people were displaced and the catastrophe compounded the Great Depression, creating what some have called the country’s “most hard time.”

Dust bowl
Dust bowl of 1935 in Stratford, Texas. (NOAA Photo Library, Historic NWS collection)

Poison in Minamata Bay

From 1932 to 1968, the Chisso Corporation of Japan released industrial wastewater with high levels of mercury into the sea around the city of Minamata. The mercury poisoned the marine food chain and in turn thousands of residents became ill, leading to the discovery of a new neurological condition called Chisso-Minamata Disease. To date, more than 1,700 people have died from the disease, which can cause convulsions, loss of sight and hearing, paralysis, coma and death.

Ecocide in Vietnam

The Rainbow Herbicides showered over the jungles of Southeast Asia included Agent Blue, Purple and Pink, but Orange accounted for more than half of the nearly 20 million gallons of deadly chemicals used by the U.S. military between 1961 and 1971. The cost to human life was horrifying and the large-scale destruction of the region’s environment led to the coinage of the word “ecocide.”agent orange victimNguyen Thi Thanh, 53 and her daughter, Tran Thi Le Huyen, 26, who has spina bifida. (Geoffrey Cain/GlobalPost)

Death in Bhopal

In what is considered the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, 32 tons of deadly chemical gases leaked into the city of Bhopal, India, on Dec. 3, 1984, and an estimated 9,000 people died immediately from the invisible, air-born poison. The final death toll over the ensuing weeks has been estimated at 20,000 and hundreds of thousands of residents suffered permanent injuries. Today, the Union Carbide plant, the site of the disaster, remains a toxic waste site contaminating the groundwater in Bhopal.

Mahmuda Bee, a survivor of the Bhopal disaster. (Raj Patidar/Reuters)

Catastrophe at Chernobyl

First there was Windscale in 1957, then Three Mile Island in 1979, but when a nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Ukraine had a meltdown in 1986, it became the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. The United Nation’s Chernobyl Forum Report estimated the total number of deaths from cancer caused by the radiation exposure to be 4,000.

A kindergarten in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Keep reading to learn about five more environmental disasters.

The oil crisis

Although it is the most infamous oil spill in history, the Exxon Valdez catastrophe that dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound of Alaska in 1989 is actually far from the largest on record. The Gulf War oil spill in 1991, for example, resulted in at least 160 million gallons of oil entering the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, Exxon Valdez heightened public awareness of the great environmental costs of oil spills and led Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act in 1990. Tragically, clean-up efforts such as high-pressure washing of shorelines that followed Exxon Valdez also had detrimental effects on the once pristine ecosystem of the sound.

Oil spill
A bird stained with oil after a 2007 spill near Russia. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)

Dying oceans

When the cod population crashed in the historically abundant waters off of Newfoundland in 1992, 40,000 people lost their jobs and the effect on the region’s marine ecosystem was devastating. Today, fishing stocks from Iceland to Chile are overfished and suffering. The writing on the wall couldn’t be clearer: The world’s oceans are being pushed to their ecological limits. And, diminishing populations of fish don’t just affect the great predators of the seas, they bring the economies and livelihoods of their human predators down with them.

Bangladesh market
Wholesale market in Bangladesh. (Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Perfect storm over Lake Victoria

Today, the largest lake in Africa is the center of a perfect storm of environmental crises: chemical and raw sewage pollution; overfishing; a plague of water hyacinth plants; exploding algae blooms that suffocate flora and fauna. Additionally, the lake’s border is shrinking by as much as 150 feet in some places. Forty million Africans in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are dependent on Lake Victoria for their livelihoods and sustenance making this one of the worst unfolding environmental disasters.

A highly endangered shoebill. (Reuters)

Rape of the Amazon

Twenty percent of the Amazon rainforest has been lost to logging, soy-farming, cattle ranches and roads in recent decades. The damage to the forest’s biodiversity is inestimable and the release of large amounts of carbon held in the forest’s flora could be accelerating global warming. Some experts now believe the way to mitigate deforestation of the Amazon could be to create better jobs through sustainable development. "It's no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget that there are 20 million people living there," said Brazil's President Luiz Lula da Silva.

The Amazon near Mandaquiri, Brazil. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

Our warming planet

Jellyfish swarms. Melting glaciers. Lakes turned to desert. Spreading disease. The effects of global warming caused by increased greenhouse gases read like descriptions of the Great Tribulation in The Bible. The first climate change conference was held in 1963 and with increasing urgency, scientists have been raising red flags ever since, warning us that because of unchecked consumption of fossil fuels, the human species is approaching a critical threshold where we will no longer be able to influence the warming climate.

Jellyfish near Majorca, Spain. (Inaki Relanzon/Oceana)

Read about the animal species most at risk from the Gulf oil spill.

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