If you're of a certain age, you'll remember a series of commercials for Chiffon margarine featuring none other than Mother Nature herself. In one, she's handed a dish of the bright yellow spread and upon tasting it, declares it to be "her delicious butter." But when the narrator tells her no, it's actually Chiffon, she snarls, "it's not nice to fool Mother Nature," and angrily summons a flash of lightning.
If we as a species are honest with ourselves, we'd admit not only that it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature, but that it can be foolish as well. There have been many infamous incidents throughout history when we've tried to overcome the power and scale of our planet and its forces only to find out we just can't hang. Remember the "practically unsinkable" Titanic, whose maiden voyage in 1912 was cut short by an iceberg that sent more than 1,500 passengers to a watery death? [source: History.com staff] Or the Banqiao Dam in China, which collapsed in 1975 under pressure from heavy rains, causing the failure of 62 dams below it and killing 171,000 people? [source: Fish]
We could go on. But for the next 10 pages, let's forget about those failures and instead remember the times we fooled with Mother Nature — and actually managed to win.
One great way to show Mother Nature who's boss is to blast a hole through one of the planet's great mountain ranges. And that's exactly what Switzerland hoped to do in 1992 when voters approved funds to build the 35-mile (57-kilometer) Gotthard Base Tunnel through the heart of Europe's Alps. Upon its completion in 2016, it became the longest rail tunnel in the world.
Nothing about the project was easy, fast or cheap. To build the two parallel, single-track tunnels, 2,600 workers had to dig and blast their way through 73 different types of rock and remove 30.9 million tons (28 million metric tons) of debris. An additional 5.2 million cubic yards (4 million cubic meters) of concrete was then pumped back into the tunnel to finish it out. Not surprisingly, the massive project took a whopping 17 years to complete, a figure perhaps overshadowed only by its cost: $12.5 billion. Fully operational, the tunnel is expected handle 260 freight trains and 65 passenger trains a day, each making the trip through the tubes in as little as 17 minutes. That'll take a million trucks a year off the route and help keep the Alps beautiful and peaceful for generations to come [source: BBC].
Nature has been trying to kill off the human race with disease since the day we stood up on two legs, and for much of our history we've been powerless to stop it. It wasn't until the past 200 or so years that we really started to figure out what causes disease, how it spreads and how to treat it. Those discoveries have done wonders for improving overall health and lifespan and even given us some pretty outstanding victories.
One such discovery was made in 1854, during an outbreak of cholera in the London neighborhood of Soho, near the intersection of Cambridge and Broad streets. In just one week, some 500 people had died of the disease, which causes severe diarrhea and dehydration. Local officials dismissed it as an inevitable result of miasmas, or "bad air" tainted by particles of decomposing matter. John Snow, a London surgeon and physician, had other ideas. He began a detailed investigation in which he interviewed residents and mapped out cholera cases in the neighborhood.
The map was startlingly conclusive: it showed nearly all the deaths were clustered around — drum roll please — the Broad Street water pump. As a result of his findings, Snow convinced city officials to shut down the pump, which was later discovered to have been contaminated by nearby pools of raw sewage. The outbreak came to an end, and Snow showed that humans could sometimes outsmart disease through epidemiology, or the systematic study of patterns, causes and effects of disease [source: Kukaswadia].
Wind, earthquakes, floods and fires — they can all be ferocious forces of nature. But if you judge purely on persistence, the award for the planet's strongest force would have to go to gravity. It's constantly trying to pull down everything that humans build up. That's why the Akashi Strait Bridge, with its record-setting main span of 6,532 feet (1,991 meters), is such an amazing engineering victory [source: Encyclopedia Britannica].
Completed in 1998, the Akashi Strait Bridge carries a six-lane road between the Japanese cities of Kobe and Iwaya. Everything about it is big: It stretches a total of 12,831 feet (3,911 meters) across three spans that are suspended from two towers measuring 975 feet (297 meters) in height. Given its location in a storm-and-earthquake-prone part of the world, engineers had to design it to withstand not only the forces of gravity, but 180-mile-per-hour winds and magnitude 8.5 quakes [source: WGBH]. This was accomplished by placing 20 tuned mass dampers in each tower. These large, suspended weights are designed to swing in the opposite direction of the bridge and essentially cancel out any sway it might experience. Still, don't expect nature didn't go down without a fight. Remember the 6,532-foot (1,991-meter) main span? It was originally designed to be 6,529 feet (1,990 meters) across, but while the bridge was under construction an earthquake moved the towers three feet farther apart! [source: Encyclopedia Britannica]
Some philosophers and religions believe that humans are violent by nature. It's a notion that doesn't seem too far-fetched: Take Europe, which has experienced hundreds of conflicts over the past millennium resulting in the deaths of millions of people. Given this long and consistent history of discord, the formation of the European Union stands as a pretty amazing victory of cooperation for a species that just can't seem to get along.
In the 1950s the devastation of World War II was still fresh on the minds of Europe. Some leaders, like French foreign minister Robert Schuman, felt the best way to avoid such a horrific conflict in the future was to increase economic cooperation between countries. Enter the European Coal and Steel Community, a trade organization formed in 1951 that consisted of six European countries. It was the beginning of the economic and political process that eventually led to the formation of the European Union (EU) in 1993.
As of June 2016, the EU consists of 28 independent nations, which are required to adhere to the group's trade agreements involving the movement of goods, capital and services. Not only has this helped maintain the peace, but it's made Europe an economic powerhouse: The members' total gross domestic product, or the value of goods and services they produce in a year, is 14.3 trillion Euros. That means if the EU was one country it would rival the United States as the largest economy in the world [source: Wilkinson].
Along the Pakistan-China border are the world's highest mountain ranges — the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas — where peaks regularly soar above 20,000 feet (6,096 meters). The highest mountain in the region is the formidable K2, which, at 28,251 feet (8,611 meters), is second in height only to Mount Everest. It is through this impossibly rugged terrain that roadbuilders blasted a road that some now call the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
The Karakoram Highway, which roughly follows the route of the legendary Silk Road, was little more than a dirt path for donkey traffic before construction began in the 1960s. Over a period of two decades, 20,000 Chinese and 15,000 Pakistani workers slowly carved their way through deep gorges and along soaring mountainsides to complete the 800-mile (1,300-kilometer) road by 1979. Topping out at 15,397 feet (4,693 meters), the road was only open four months out of the year until it was paved in the 2010s, allowing snowplows to keep it open year-round.
Despite this impressive feat of engineering, nature did not go down without a fight. Blasts and falls killed more than 800 Pakistani workers and at least 82 Chinese (although many Chinese deaths likely went unreported) [source: Kazim]. In 2010 a landslide created a massive lake that inundated 13.7 miles (22 kilometers) of the road, forcing vehicles to traverse the stretch by boat. Even with that problem now fixed, crews are constantly working to repair damage from rockslides, washouts and other issues along one of the highest paved international roads in the world [source: Ziman].
Sometimes when you win, you also lose. That's the case with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, an agricultural miracle that helped feed a growing global population but also caused some pretty nasty environmental problems that we are still dealing with to this day.
To understand why synthetic nitrogen fertilizer was such a big deal, you'll need a quick biochemistry lesson. Plants need nitrogen. But most sources of nitrogen, like guano, saltpeter and by-products of coal production, offer a limited supply that isn't particularly potent. One untapped source was the air, which is 78 percent nitrogen, but for the vast majority of plants the element is useless in this gaseous form. That's where chemist Fritz Haber comes in. He figured out a way to take nitrogen from the air and transform it into ammonia, a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen that plants can absorb. The discovery led to the widespread use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, which helped improve crop yields, and, as a result, helped increase the world's population from 1.6 billion to 6 billion during the 20th century [source: Keifer].
So what's so bad about that? For one, fertilizers release nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, and nitrogen oxide, which reduces the atmosphere's ability to protect us from ultraviolet radiation and causes smog. Nitrogen runoff from agricultural lands has also created algal blooms that create huge dead zones in the world's oceans. And finally, Fritz Haber went on to make pioneering advancements in chemical warfare, which caused many scientists to protest his Nobel Prize in 1918 [source: Simpson].
It's one thing to be able to treat a disease or educate people about how to prevent it. But completely eradicating it off the face of the Earth? That's an extremely rare victory, but it's one humans have notched against the once-devastating smallpox virus.
Scientists believe smallpox got its start in northern Africa some 10,000 years ago, giving it plenty of time to wreak havoc on the human race. By the 18th century things were pretty bad: The disease killed 14 percent of the Europeans who contracted it, or some 400,000 annually [sources: Riedel, Whipps]. Even worse was the way it nearly wiped out the indigenous people of North and South America, who had no resistance to diseases brought over by European colonizers.
Then came a British doctor named Edward Jenner, who, like many people of the time, noticed that milkmaids rarely got smallpox. He figured it might be because they often came down with a similar disease called cowpox. So Jenner took a little bit of goop from a milkmaid's cowpox sore and gave it to a young boy whom he then tried to infect with smallpox (it was 1796 so no one called out his questionable ethics). The boy never got sick, and the vaccine was born. Thanks to the widespread use of the vaccine, the World Health Organization declared smallpox eradicated in 1980, saving as many as 5 million lives annually [sources: Whipps, UNICEF].
Sitting in our climate-controlled homes, it's easy to forget how humans tried to beat the heat for most of our history: With good old-fashioned hand fanning and sweat. Despite these and other primitive efforts to cool down, it was heat that always beat us — until air conditioning came along.
Air conditioning started off as an industrial tool before it slowly worked its way into the home. The story begins in 1902 when a young engineer named Willis Carrier (that last name should sound familiar) invented a system to control the humidity in his employer's printing plant by passing air through water-cooled coils. By 1922 Carrier had improved the design, making it small, efficient, reliable and affordable enough to be installed in movie theaters across the country. Soon the technology spread to office buildings, department stores and rail cars, but not so much in homes; by 1965 only 10 percent of American homes had air conditioning [source: Oremus]. Lower cost units eventually boosted that number to 87 percent by 2009 [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
The impact of air conditioning on American life has been huge. At work, the comfort it provides has helped to increase our productivity. It's also changed the way we build our homes, by reducing the need for high ceilings and operable windows. And it's changed where we live, too: Places like Arizona and Florida boomed with the availability of air conditioning [source: U.S. Department of Energy].
If you pay any attention to the news, you've probably heard something about genetically engineered (GE) foods, which include crops whose DNA has been altered to make them look, taste, grow or nourish better than they do naturally.
These crops tend to get a lot of negative press, which is understandable: Who doesn't get a little nervous when scientists start messing with nature? Certainly, there are important concerns that shouldn't be discounted, but let's take a minute to look at some of the ways we've benefitted from trying to beat nature at her own game.
In 1992 Calgene's Flavr Savr tomatoes became the first GE crop approved by the United States Department of Agriculture for commercial production, and their use has exploded ever since [source: Rangel].
Some of the biggest successes have been in the development of plants that resist typical stressors, like pests, disease, drought and frost. For example, scientists have developed a corn variety that essentially produces its own pesticide to fight off the European corn borer and a plum that resists the plum pox virus. GE crops can also be altered to increase nutritional content; it's a concept that's being implemented in rice to increase its vitamin A content and prevent a deficiency of that nutrient in the 50 percent of the world's population that relies on the grain.
And remember the Flavr Savr tomato? It's now one of many crops modified for a longer shelf life, a quality which may help reduce food waste [source: Phillips].
Did you know that man's best friend is descended from wolves? Yep, all dogs — even your sister's Shih Tzu, Fluffy — can trace their family tree back to those big, powerful, sharp-toothed killing machines. According to DNA and fossil analysis, this transition from wild to domesticated happened somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago [source: Gorman]. But what exactly was it that moved wolves out of the woods and onto our sofas?
Scientists don't know for sure, but they have some guesses. One theory is that humans took an active role in the process, actually removing wolf pups from their parents and breeding them for tameness. Current thinking, however, suggests a more passive role. Tamer wolves were more likely to wander up to human encampments and scavenge out of our trash dumps. With such abundant food, these tame wolves reproduced prolifically until, after many generations, they produced the cuddly pets we know today [source: Gorman].
Whether humans actively fought the wild nature of wolves or passively let nature do the work, we did decide to let them stick around as pets. Now look into Fluffy's eyes and tell us that's not a win for humanity.
Did Mount St. Helens really erupt in downtown Los Angeles? Sort real natural disasters from movie ones by taking this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Times Humanity Fought Against Nature (and Won)
There's one thing you learn pretty quickly when you're compiling a list of ways humanity has fought against nature and won: Humans often think they win, only to be disappointed by some unintended consequence down the road. Take open pit mining, in which humans accomplish the impressive feat of tearing down a mountain only to (in some cases) leave behind a pool of toxic water. Or think automobiles, which substantially increase the speed and endurance with which we can travel naturally, but are also among the largest greenhouse gas emitters. I guess there's a lesson to be learned here, and it's that victories over nature shouldn't be claimed based simply on the immediate results.
More Great Links
- BBC. "Gotthard Tunnel: World's Longest and Deepest Rail Tunnel Opens in Switzerland." June 1, 2016. (June 17, 2016) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36423250
- Fish, Eric. "The Forgotten Legacy of the Banqiao Dam Collapse." International Rivers. Feb. 8, 2013. (June 16, 2016) https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/the-forgotten-legacy-of-the-banqiao-dam-collapse-7821
- Gorman, James. "The Big Search to Find Out Where Dogs Come From." The New York Times. Jan. 18, 2016. (June 24, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/19/science/the-big-search-to-find-out-where-dogs-come-from.html
- History.com staff. "Titanic." History.com. 2009. (June 16, 2016) http://www.history.com/topics/titanic
- Kazim, Hasnain. "The Karakoram Highway: China's Asphalt Powerplay in Pakistan." Spiegel Online International. July 17, 2012. (June 20, 2016) http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/china-expands-karakoram-highway-to-pakistan-a-844282.html
- Kiefer, David M. "Capturing Nitrogen Out of the Air." Chemistry Chronicles. 2001. (June 21, 2016) http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/archive/tcaw/10/i02/html/02chemch.html
- Kukaswadia, Atif. "John Snow—The First Epidemiologist." Public Health Perspectives. March 11, 2013. (June 19, 2016) http://blogs.plos.org/publichealth/2013/03/11/john-snow-the-first-epidemiologist/
- Oremus, Will. "A History of Air Conditioning." Slate. July 15, 2013. (June 23, 2016) http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/07/a_history_of_air_conditioning.html
- PBS. "Akashi Kaikyo Bridge." Building Big. 2001. (June 18, 2016) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/buildingbig/wonder/structure/akashi_kaikyo.html
- Phillips, Theresa. "Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Transgenic Crops and Recombinant DNA Technology." Nature Education. 2008. (June 24, 2016) http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/genetically-modified-organisms-gmos-transgenic-crops-and-732
- Rangel, Gabriel. "From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology." Harvard University Science in the News. Aug. 9, 2015. (June 24, 2016) http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/from-corgis-to-corn-a-brief-look-at-the-long-history-of-gmo-technology/
- Riedel, Stefan. "Edward Jenner and the History of Smallpox and Vaccination." Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. Vol. 18, No. 1. January 2005. (June 23, 2016) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200696/
- Simpson, Sarah. "Nitrogen Fertilizer: Agricultural Breakthrough — and Environmental Bane." Scientific American. March 20, 2009. (June 21, 2016) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/nitrogen-fertilizer-anniversary/
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Akashi Strait Bridge." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010. (June 18, 2016) http://www.britannica.com/topic/Akashi-Strait-Bridge
- United Nations Children's Emergency Fund. "Vaccines Bring 7 Diseases Under Control." 1996. (June 23, 2016) http://www.unicef.org/pon96/hevaccin.htm
- United States Department of Energy. "History of Air Conditioning." Energy.gov. July 20, 2015. (June 23, 2016) http://energy.gov/articles/history-air-conditioning
- Whipps, Heather. "How Smallpox Changed the World." LiveScience. June 23, 2008. (June 23, 2016) http://www.livescience.com/7509-smallpox-changed-world.html
- Wilkinson, Michael. "What Is the EU, Why Was It Created and When Was It Formed?" The Telegraph. June 22, 2016. (June 22, 2016) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/20/what-is-the-eu-why-was-it-created-and-when-was-it-formed1/
- Ziman, Yang. "Karakoram Highway: Path to Riches for China, Pakistan." China Daily. Feb. 22, 2016. (June 20, 2016) http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2016-02/22/content_23585618.htm