We can’t truly respect the power of nature when the air is warm and there’s a light breeze fluttering gently against our skin. We bask in all those summer smiles and fluffy clouds — and even the crisp, cold air — but forget that Mother Nature can be downright terrifying.
From a destruction standpoint, mass floods and tornadoes ripping through entire towns can outdo some of the worst man-made devastation devices. In fact, a ranking of history’s costly natural disasters prove that Earth herself is holding the reigns, and she can be a fickle beast.
20. Hurricane Katrina: The Gulf Coast of the United States was slammed with unrelenting rains and deadly winds during this 2005 Category 4 tropical cyclone. The city of New Orleans was eviscerated, and about 1,200 people died.
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19. Johnstown Flood: The catastrophic failure of the Little Conemaugh River’s South Fork Dam in Pennsylvania was the cause of the 1889 tragedy. About 2,200 died as a result of poor planning of the dam’s structure.
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18. San Francisco Earthquake: Bright and early one morning in 1906 a massive magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck San Francisco and destroyed 80 percent of the city. About 225,000 people were left homeless, and up to 3,000 lost their lives.
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17. Hurricane Maria: The island of Puerto Rico sat helpless as this category five storm ravaged them in 2017. It was the worst recorded storm in history for the island, and it stripped the country of over 3,000 lives.
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16. Great Galveston Storm: Also known as “The Great Storm of 1900,” this aggressive storm destroyed nearly all of Galveston, Texas. Somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people died, and many others were left homeless.
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15. North Pacific Coast Tsunami: In 2011, Japan recorded its most powerful earthquake to date — a magnitude 9 — in the Tohoku region that claimed over 15,000 lives.
14. Typhoon Nina: For three consecutive days in 1975, a typhoon ripped through China. The storm was so bad it caused the collapse of the Banqiao Reservoir Dam, which resulted in over 100,000 deaths.
13. Cyclone Nargis: The worst disaster to ever strike the country of Myanmar occurred in 2008 when this cyclone rained hell down on the residents. Not only were homes and buildings destroyed, but almost 140,000 people died.
12. Aleppo earthquake: Northern Syria saw one of the world’s deadliest earthquakes in 1138. Almost the entire city was destroyed, and it’s estimated that 230,000 deaths occurred after all was said and done.
11. Indonesian Tsunami: In 2004, just off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, massive tectonic plates shifted, causing an earthquake under the Indian Ocean. The ensuing tsunami affected Sri Lanka and Thailand, killing nearly 230,000 people.
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10. Antioch Earthquake: Centuries ago in 526, a massive earthquake struck the Byzantine city of Antioch. Because the accounts are so old, the numbers are a little muddy, but it’s said about 250,000 people died.
9. Tangshan Earthquake: The Chinese city of Tangshan — and some smaller nearby cities, as well — were rocked by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in 1976 that killed 255,000 and injured about 700,000 more.
8. Haiyuan Earthquake: In 1920, the Eurasian tectonic plate and the Indian plate drastically shifted and caused a horrific earthquake in Central China’s Haiyuan Country. It’s estimated about 273,400 people perished, with most of them in buried in landslides.
7. Haitian Earthquake: A magnitude 7 earthquake completely rocked the country of Haiti in 2010. Haiti lost about 300,000 people, and still to this day the country has never fully recovered from the billions of dollars in damage.
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6. Indian Cyclone: In 1839, a massive cyclone touched down on the port city of Coringa. Not only were about 300,000 people killed, but the storm also tore through roughly 20,000 ships.
5. Haiphong Typhoon: Another deadly typhoon that ravaged parts of Asia, this one struck Haiphong, Vietnam, in 1881. This, too, laid waste to the area, and it’s estimated about 300,000 people lost their lives.
4. Bhola Cyclone: Bangladesh saw immense flooding in 1970 after a cyclone caused a 20-foot storm surge. Death toll estimates greatly vary, but between 300,000 and 500,000 supposedly perished.
3. Shaanxi Province Earthquake: Also called the “Jiajing Great Earthquake,” this walloped China in 1556. About 621-square miles were reduced to nothing more than splintered debris, and geophysicists estimate the magnitude 8 quake took about 830,000 lives.
2. Yellow River Flood: In 1887, silt deposits built up around the dikes in China’s Yellow River, causing the water to elevate. The river eventually spilled over and washed out nearly 5,000-square miles of land, killing 900,000 people.
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1. Central China Floods: In 1931, China saw absolute devastation at the hands of flooding. The Yangtze River overflowed, overwhelming about 70,000-square miles. Roughly 3.7 million people died as a result. There is so much for us to learn about our own planet.
The Earth, in fact, isn’t as round as you might think. Don’t get too excited there, Flat Earthers! Just because the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere doesn’t mean it’s a disc — in fact it’s actually a geoid, meaning it has a slight bulge at the equator.
2. There Are Rocks That Race Across the Desert: Death Valley has its own racetrack, but it may not be exactly what you think. People still aren’t exactly sure what makes the boulders of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley move around, leaving tracks behind them.
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3. Earth’s Lakes Can Explode: There can be lots of dangerous things lurking in the waters of Africa like hippos and crocodiles, but the water itself can also be deadly. In 1984, magma beneath the surface of Lake Monoun caused it to emit a burst of carbon dioxide.
4. The Earth is Getting Slower: We all tend to get slower with age, and the planet is no exception. Earth’s rotation is gradually getting slower, but we won’t get 25 hour days for another 140 million years.
5. A Day Isn’t Actually 24 Hours: If you feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day, well, you’re actually being short-changed. It takes Earth 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4 seconds to finish a rotation. Maybe those extra 5 minutes sleeping in were worth it after all.
6. And A Year isn’t Actually 365 Days: Ever wonder why we have leap years? That’s because a year is actually 365.2564 days long. That extra amount adds up to an additional day every four years.
7. Scientists are Still Discovering New Deep Sea Life: You would think that by now we’d have discovered everything there is to see on this planet, but new forms of microbial life are being discovered 400 feet below the seafloor.
8. 70% of Earth is Made of Water: This one may not come as a surprise. Earth is called the “Blue Marble” for a reason after all. If you take a deeper dive though, you’ll find a few unexpected surprises with Earth’s water supply.
9. Most of that Water Isn’t Drinkable: Of all the water on the planet, nearly all of it — 97% in fact — is salt water. So that leaves us with only 3% of fresh water right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
10. Even Less of that Water Is Readily Available: Of that remaining 3% of freshwater, only a whopping 1% can be found in lakes and rivers. The other two percent is actually contained in glaciers and icebergs in the arctic.
11. The Core of the Earth is as Hot as the Sun: If you thought getting a Sun burn was bad, you probably won’t want to take a trip to the center of the Earth. According to geochemists, both the Sun and the Earth’s core are almost 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
12. The Distance to Earth’s Core is Shorter than Route 66: This famous route was one of the first highways ever created in 1926, and it’s even more impressive when you consider that, at 2,448 miles, it’s actually longer than the distance between Earth’s mantle and core.
13. The Hole in the Ozone Layer is Still Healing: Ever since its discovery in 1985, the hole in the Ozone Layer has been a major source of concern for hair spray users everywhere. While it still hasn’t completely closed up, environmentalists have found that the tear is slowly healing.
14. The Size Of An Earthquake Can Be Incredible: If the Earth ever experienced a Magnitude 12 earthquake, it would likely split the globe in half. Thankfully, Earth has never experienced anything stronger than a 9.5.
15. Moss Can Grow Anywhere on Earth’s Surface: Unlike other plants, mosses have developed a special trick. Using special hairs in their leaves, moss can suck the moisture straight from the air, letting them survive in even the driest deserts.
16. Earth is a Massive Radioactive Heat Engine: According to planetary scientists, the Earth can generate heat on its own through the decay of radioactive elements in its core, and can redirect the sun’s rays to warm up colder areas on its surface.
Paul VanDerWerf – Flickr
17. But It’s Not a Very Good One: Don’t go trying to cancel your monthly heating bill just yet, though. While the Earth can redistribute the Sun’s heat, it’s only about 1% efficient at doing the job.
18. The Earth Weighs an Astonishing Amount: Just how heavy is the planet we live on? It would take over 55 quintillion of the heaviest creature known to man — a Blue Whale — to match Earth’s weight of 6 septillion kilograms.
19. Clouds Control Earth’s Temperature: While you may think that cloudy skies just bring rain, they also help cool things off. The amount of water in clouds is relatively tiny, but they can cool the Earth by almost 13 degrees Fahrenheit.
20. The Amount of Viruses on Earth is Staggering: The stars you can see in the night sky can seem vast and infinite, but it’s estimated that there are 10 nonillion viruses on the planet — that’s a number with 30 zeros!
21. There’s An Eternally Burning Flame In The Karakum Desert: It’s called the Darvaza crater, but locals have a different name for it: “The Gates of Hell” or “The Door to Hell.” Given the apocalyptic scene, whoever nicknamed the crater didn’t have to push their imagination too hard.
Craziest of all, this massive inferno has been burning for decades with no sign of slowing down. Hundreds of tourists flock to the pits each year, vying to catch a glimpse. Nearly all of them have the same question: how the heck did this happen?
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Well, the story behind the mysterious inferno is almost as incredible as the sight of the flames themselves. Inquiring tourists are taken back to 1971, when the republic was still a part of the Soviet Union. Geologists had a plan.
A group of Soviet geologists ventured into the desert to locate potentially profitable oil fields. They came across an area that they thought might be rich in oil, and they started drilling immediately. But there was a problem.
It didn’t take long for them to realize there was no oil. They were instead drilling on top of a massive reservoir of natural gas. Even worse, the area couldn’t support the weight of their heavy equipment and began crumbling beneath them.
Soon, the Earth opened up and swallowed all their equipment, leaving a cavernous hole in the middle of the desert. In the chaos, other pits opened up nearby and completely changed the terrain of the desert forever — and this wasn’t even the most shocking consequence.
While no one was injured in the event, there was, however, a problem. The huge craters were leaking natural gas at an unbelievable rate. Methane was billowing into the area around the craters and robbing the desert of oxygen.
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In the weeks after the collapse, animals in the area dropped dead because of the lack of oxygen. Because the desert was not home to a dense animal population, losing even a few was making a huge impact. Meanwhile, gas kept streaming into the sky.
Desperate, the group of scientists came up with an alarmingly simple — and very extreme — idea to combat the leak. Suffocating any fears of an explosion, they decided to set the crater on fire in hopes that it would burn itself out.
But skeptics of the plan pointed out that adding fire to a gas leak would have catastrophic consequences. The experts retorted that when it comes to oil or natural gas drilling operations across the world, “flaring” isn’t unheard of.
Flaring consists of burning excess natural gas that cannot be processed immediately so it can be eliminated safely. In North Dakota, over a million dollars of natural gas is burned each day. So, why wouldn’t this work for our Soviet scientists?
Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune
The government assumed the fire would last a few weeks, but they had no idea exactly how much natural gas they were dealing with. When they lit the flame 50 years ago, nobody suspected it would still be burning — or the consequences that would follow.
In 2010, the president of Turkmenistan visited the site and expressed concerns about the massive flames. Nearby gas fields couldn’t be developed if the Gates of Hell kept burning. He ordered the local authorities to develop a plan to extinguish the crater for good.
Nothing came of that order. Ten years passed, and the flames were burning brighter than ever. The fires burned so bright, in fact, that they began attracting more than just tourists.
Animals, too, are attracted to the crater, which can be seen from miles away. Most spectacular once the sun goes down, the site is full of details that blows the average traveler’s mind.
The massive craters have no protective guard rail on the outside and the area is not patrolled or regulated in any way. The site is only for the brave and very sure-footed, as one wrong move could send you plummeting into the merciless flame.
Sure, the Darvaza crater doesn’t make it onto most traveler’s bucket lists. Yet few people realize how close one of the world’s most beloved national parks is from becoming a “Gate to Hell” itself.
It’s no secret that Yellowstone is a hotbed of volcanic activity. Sometimes for hours, tourists will wait near one of the park’s famous geysers to witness a magnificent eruption. But rarely do they think about what’s happening underground.
Fortunately, we have expert geologists who do nothing but investigate the mysteries waiting beneath the Earth’s surface. Scholars from London’s Royal Holloway University had a particular interest in the American West in 2017.
Dr. Saswata Hier-Majumder and his colleagues placed over 500 seismic sensors throughout the region, which included Yellowstone’s vast landscape. They set out to analyze a deep region of the planet, one that most people don’t even know exists.
David Broad / Wikimedia Commons
The Earth is far less solid than many realize. Dozens of miles beneath the crust lies the mantle, the thickest layer of our planet. Warmed by the core, the mantle is liquid in many parts.
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The tectonic plates, in essence, float and drift across the mantle like surfboards on water. Hier-Majumder and his colleagues were interested in finding out more about these inner movements. Their sensors recorded every vibration from the mantle.
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“It would be impossible for us to drill far enough down to physically ‘see’ the Earth’s mantle,” explained Hier-Majumder. But they could create a detailed map thanks to their ambitious technical layout.
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While the geological community was no stranger to the seismic sensor, the Royal Holloway team set up the largest array of its kind. Years of preparation — not to mention a large portion of the university’s budget — went into the endeavor.
National Park Service
As excited as the geologists were once the data gathering was complete, a silence fell across the room when they took in the results. The subterranean region looked far different from what they expected, not to mention more deadly.
Because 217 miles below, they found a “carbon lake” — a body of molten carbonate acting as a reservoir of poisonous carbon dioxide. Not even the most seasoned geologists on the staff had seen anything like it.
Most troubling, the lake dwarfed Yellowstone in size. According to the university’s measurements, it spanned over 700,000 square miles, making it large enough to pose a problem for the entire planet.
U.S. Geological Survey
To put that number in perspective, the body was approximately the same size as Mexico. Granted, the lake couldn’t do much hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust. But what if, in the worst-case scenario, the gas got out?
Simply put, that gas could destroy the planet as we know it. The geologists estimated that releasing just 1% of it into the atmosphere would be the equivalent of burning 2.3 trillion barrels of oil at once.
Thanks to manmade climate change, our world is already suffering from extreme weather effects, rising sea levels, and desertification. That carbon lake represented an increased threat that we might not survive, which is why the next realization was really bad news.
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Based on their knowledge of volcanic activity, the geologists knew that the carbon dioxide reservoir would have to come out sooner or later. But before you start sweating over that eventuality, know that it can play out in a couple different ways.
Hier-Majumder explained that a type of eruption known as arc volcanism would spew 30-40% of the gas into the atmosphere, which would be a devastating blow. Who knew that climate change could theoretically be accelerated by forces inside the Earth?
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But that rush of gas would be very unlikely. When the carbon reservoir eventually does make its way to the surface, it will probably ooze out in small amounts. That’s the far safer alternative for mankind.
Of course, the geologists deduced that carbon lakes like this typically remained dormant for about 1 billion years. That made any threat seem far from imminent, so there’s no need for anyone to try to drill to the center of the Earth.
Meanwhile, Yellowstone will probably remain a beloved natural treasure for generations to come. The chances of its famous prismatic volcanoes erupting are about 1 in 700,000 in any given year. Those odds should cool down your panic a bit.
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Ultimately, the massive carbon lake is an exciting discovery, one that Hier-Majumder hopes will shed more light on the Earth’s cycles and our changing atmosphere. At the same time, these London scientists weren’t the only ones curious about Yellowstone’s unusual chemistry.
United Nations Photo
When Brian Wilcox joined the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense, the mission laid before him was simple: find the realistic ways the world might end, and then, stop them from happening. He never could’ve predicted where his research would take him.
At first, his job mostly entailed drawing up schemes to prevent Earth from getting smashed with an asteroid or comet (none of which involved a Bruce Willis Armageddon situation). But because of his research, Brian’s attention — and worries — turned away from space debris.
What really started to concern Brian was in Yellowstone National Park, the 3,500-square-mile stretch of rivers, canyons, forests, and sights like Old Faithful that draws tourists from all over the world. Beneath the beauty, trouble was brewing.
Five miles under the surface is a pool of magma with access to the surface. In laymen’s terms, it’s a volcano. But because it holds so much explosive potential, scientists classify it as a super volcano, one of twenty on the planet.
University of Cambridge
“I came to the conclusion during that study,” Brian, who eventually transferred to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “that the super volcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.” When diving into the possibilities, it’s easy to see why.
Every 100,000 years or so, a super volcano erupts, and Yellowstone’s, according to the doomsday experts, could potentially be due: throughout history, it’s burst three times, about once every 600,000 years. It’s been about that long since the last blast.
US Geological Survey
Of course, eruption models aren’t exactly a precise science. Just because we’re at the 600,000 year mark doesn’t guarantee another magma blast. But Brian, focused on doomsday, couldn’t ignore the potential devastation of an explosion.
Three feet of ash could blanket states like Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. Atmospheric cooling would induce a “volcanic winter,” wiping out crops and making it impossible to grow more. Food reserves, according to the UN, would run out 74 days later.
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After studying the destructive potential, NASA scientists were left scratching their heads. The chances of such a devastating eruption were low, sure. But they couldn’t sit around, fingers crossed, hoping the odds were in humanity’s favor.
At the drawing board, scientists considered what they knew about volcanoes, namely that they erupted once the magma inside reached a certain temperature threshold. So, these experts thought, why not simply cool the volcano down?
Soon, a hazy plan started to form: all they needed to do to prevent potential volcanic annihilation was dump enough water into Yellowstone’s super volcano to cool it down. It was oddly archaic, but crazy enough to work. Still, others voiced criticism.
Creating the infrastructure to transport all that water would never get mainstream support. “Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult,” said Brian Wilcox, “People don’t want their water spent that way.”
New Zealand Herald
He went on: “People are desperate for water all over the world, and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a super volcano, would be very controversial.” So, what could be done?
The plan needed another layer, more depth. Back at the drawing board, experts tossed around cooling methods, keeping in mind that any infrastructure necessary would likely have to get Congress’s approval. Finally, their collective brainpower has an answer.
Instead of transporting water into the mouth of the super volcano, experts can drill down just over six miles into the earth on each side of it. Then, recyclable water will be pumped in at high pressure, cooling the magma from the bottom up. This has an additional perk.
“Through drilling in this way,” Brian Wilcox said, “it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices.” Unfortunately, the strategy isn’t without seriously catastrophic risks.
Drill at the wrong angle, and scientists risk damaging the cap over the magma chamber, which could release toxic gasses into the atmosphere or only expedite any volcanic eruption. The project also comes with a serious price tag.
At $3.46 billion, cooling the super volcano will not be cheap. Worse, those who start the project will never see it finished: lowering temperatures to “safe” levels will take tens of thousands of years. Still, the rewards outweighed the risks.
That’s why NASA experts hope they’ve created a blueprint to tackle every super volcano threat in the future. More importantly, scientists hope they’ve brought mainstream attention to a true potential threat to the world.
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the super volcano threat,” Brian Wilcox said. “People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’”
“Well,” he said, “it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth.” Experts are hoping their plan does the same for this super volcano.
However, even with their attentions turned to Yellowstone, experts haven’t forgotten about meteoric threats. Lindley Johnson, a 23-year veteran of the Air Force, joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.
But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.
While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.
However, what if an asteroid — say, one that is multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.
That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.
After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.
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Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.
For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.
Los Angeles Times
With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.
NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.
The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.
With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.
Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.
NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.
The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.
Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.
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In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.
In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.