10 Worst Manmade Environmental Disasters
Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone—Ongoing
Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico has experienced a disproportionate amount of ecological trauma. In addition to the recent BP oil spill, a 6,000-square-foot area of the Gulf is classified as a "dead zone," which means that it is so low in oxygen that it can't support sea life. To blame are fertilizers, pesticides and nitrogen-rich livestock waste that have seeped into the water from farms along the Mississippi River. Researchers suggest that this year's oil spill could aggravate the already troubled area by restricting the natural oxygenation of the water and fueling the growth of algae that promotes dead zone climates.Photo by Alejandro Díaz.
TennesseeCoal Ash Spill—2008
Just before dawn on December 22, 2008, the walls of a dam at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Fossil Plant that holds back 80 acres of coal ash waste crumbled. The sludge—1.1 billion gallons of byproduct from coal combustion—flowed out of the plant and covered 300 acres of the surrounding countryside. The deluge uprooted homes from their foundations, and many other houses now sit on land that is toxic with arsenic, mercury and lead. Families reported puzzling health problems such as respiratory issues, infections, headaches and fevers.Photo courtesy of the United States Tennessee Valley Authority.
A sulfur plant near Mosul, Iraq, is responsible for the largest manmade release of sulfur dioxide in history. Twenty-one thousand tons of sulfur dioxide permeated the atmosphere each day after a fire (which was thought to be deliberately started) raged within the plant for nearly a month. Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, wipe out crops and lead to acid rain. Many people were hospitalized, and most of the area's vegetation was destroyed.Photo courtesy of NASA, Blue Graph.
Gulf War Oil Spill—1991
The Gulf War led to one of the biggest oil spills in history. In 1991, Iraqi soldiers leaving Kuwait purposely spilled 8 million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf in order to prevent a landing by the U.S. Marines. The long-term effects were staggering––wildlife was damaged within the Gulf as well as in the areas surrounding Iraq and Kuwait—due to the large volume of oil spilled and the fact that there was virtually no shoreline cleanup. Ten years later, researchers found that marshlands and tidal flats still contained significant amounts of oil.Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
On March 24, 1989, the ExxonValdez, an Alaskan oil tanker bound for Los Angeles, ran aground and spilled an estimated 10.9 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound. Just one hour before the tanker struck land, ship captain Joseph Hazelwood had retired to his cabin and left an unqualified mate at the helm. Due to the volume of oil released, it is considered to be one of the world's largest oil spills. The remote location of where the tanker hit––Prince William Sound, which is accessible only by airplane, boat and helicopter––didn't help relief efforts for the 1,100 miles of coastline, beaches and ecosystems that were contaminated.Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
When the nearly 1,000 residents of Love Canal, a neighborhood near Niagara Falls, New York, began to notice dying vegetation, strange odors, and substances cropping up in their basements and yards as well as a litany of health problems, they knew that something was amiss. Investigations by the local newspaper revealed that 21,800 tons of chemical waste—a combination of 80 toxins—had been buried beneath the neighborhood by Hooker Chemical. The plant had sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board, and when the city started developing the site, the chemical waste was released. It was the first declared Federal Disaster Area due to manmade causes.Photo by Getty Images.
Ecocide in Vietnam—1960s & '70s
The termecocide, which refers to any large-scale destruction of the natural environment, was coined after the herbicide disaster in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. In order to prevent Communists from hiding in and subsisting on the jungles' vegetation, the U.S. Army sprayed a variety of herbicides, like Agent Orange, into the foliage. The side effects of the toxic spray were devastating: Cancer, birth defects and disabilities are among the myriad health problems that plague survivors and their children to this day.Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.
A lab error was to blame for a giant radioactive disaster at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean that wreaked havoc on the surrounding islands. The United States was testing Castle Bravo, a thermonuclear weapon, which upon detonation released 15 megatons of radiation—almost three times stronger than they expected, and 1,000 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Due to the enormous scale of the explosion as well as high winds during detonation, the radioactive fallout reached surrounding islands and caused birth defects, illness and death.Photo courtesy of the United States Department of Energy.
The feral cats that roamed Japan's Minamata Bay should have been an indicator of the toxins that were polluting the water. Soon, residents of the town began to experience symptoms as well—including tremors, brain damage and vision problems. In 1968 it was finally determined that the Chisso Corporation, a petrochemical plant, had been dumping a toxic mercury compound into the bay. In total, the company dumped 27 tons of poison into the water. Repercussions included death, insanity, birth defects (like mangled limbs) and deformities, including vision and hearing loss.Photo by AFP/Getty Images.
The Dust Bowl—1930s & '40s
Extensive farming and severe drought were to blame for a series of detrimental dust storms that caused severe ecological damage to prairielands in America and Canada. Farmers were in the habit of plowing the Great Plains' virgin topsoil, which kills the natural gases that keeps the soil stable. The drought turned the soil to dust, and since there was no natural barrier to hold it in place, it formed giant dark clouds that blew as far as the east coast and into the Atlantic Ocean. Visibility was impaired, farming came to a standstill and as many as 2.5 million people were displaced.Photo courtesy of the United States Oceanic and Atmospheric Authority.
Video: Top 10 Man-Made Disasters
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