What is the worst environmental disaster in history?

A sign warns of nuclear radiation at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
A sign warns of nuclear radiation at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Our planet has weathered many disastrous events since it banged into being around 4.5 billion years ago. Most recently, Hurricane Katrina, the Chernobyl nuclear explosion and global warming come to mind. Older contenders vying for this dubious title include the great ice age or the mass dinosaur extinction. But which one was the worst? What event caused the most lasting damage? It's a difficult, contentious question to answer, but this article will try.

First, it helps to define what we mean by the term environmental disaster. Definitions vary considerably. Disasters can be naturally caused or human-induced. They can be one-time occurrences or spread out over decades. In addition, their effects can take many forms. They may impair air quality, pollute the water, take human lives, destroy pristine landscapes or harm wildlife. For the purposes of this article, environmental disaster refers to occurrences that were one-time, human-induced events that had a long-lasting, negative impact on the environment.

Chernobyl, global warming and Hurricane Katrina seem like reasonable guesses. The nuclear reactor that exploded in the Ukraine spewed 50 tons of radioactive material, burned for 10 days and forced the evacuation of at least 30,000 people. Elevated radiation levels caused thousands of people to eventually die from cancer and other illnesses. In addition to the human casualties, the radiation carried by the wind contaminated millions of acres of forest [source: History Channel].

Despite the initial environmental damage, contaminated trees recovered within three years. And forests in the "exclusion zone," the area closed to humans because of dangerous radiation levels, are now thriving. In a surprising turn of events, nature once threatened by radiation is now blossoming in the absence of human interference, while the land outside the exclusion zone now is harmed by the actions of humans living there. Thus, although Chernobyl dealt a devastating blow to the people in the region, its long-term damage seems largely constrained to human life [source: Chernobyl Forum].

Likewise, global warming is a prolonged process rather than a one-time event, and Hurricane Katrina was a natural phenomenon. So what does meet our criteria? Find out on the next page.

The Number One Environmental Disaster: Exxon Valdez

A fisherman carries a bird coated with oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez tanker that ruptured off of the Alaskan coast.
A fisherman carries a bird coated with oil that spilled from the Exxon Valdez tanker that ruptured off of the Alaskan coast.
Chris Wilkins/Getty Images

Ironically, the worst environmental disaster in history was an oil spill that doesn't even rank among the top 50 largest oil spills [source: Lovgren]. Yet the Exxon Valdez oil spill is widely considered to be the most disastrous oil spill in the world in terms of its environmental impact [source: Exxon]. The 11 million gallons (or 257,000 barrels) of oil that eventually escaped from the tanker's hull continue to affect the surrounding area [source: Lovgren]. As soon as the ship hit Bligh Reef, the Alaskan body of water known as Prince William Sound became forever changed.

As you might remember, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker left Alaska on March 23, 1989, at 9:12 p.m. carrying more than 53 million gallons (1.26 million barrels) of oil. Just three hours later, after the ship ran into a reef, thousands of gallons of oil coated everything within site. All told, the amount of oil spilled was enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool 125 times [source: Exxon]. While 11 million gallons was the official number given by the U.S. Coast Guard at the time, some people involved in the cleanup effort estimate that the amount of oil spilled was nearly three times that [source: Knickerbocker].

Despite the relatively small amount of oil released, several factors contributed to the spill's severity: timing, location, abundance of wildlife and substandard cleanup efforts. In comparison, one of the largest oil spills in history, the rupture of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico that released 140 million gallons (3.3 million barrels) of oil, caused relatively little damage because it happened in the open sea where currents and winds contained it until it disintegrated [source: Stevens].

By contrast, the Exxon spill occurred inside a body of water that housed an abundance of wildlife rather than in the open ocean where oil could dissipate and be broken down by wave action. The following animals were killed by the spill:

  • 250,000 seabirds
  • 2,800 sea otters
  • 300 harbor seals
  • 250 bald eagles
  • 22 killer whales

[source: Knickerbocker]

The 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) and 1,500 miles (2,414 kilometers) of shoreline covered with oil encompassed a national forest, four wildlife refuges, three national parks, five state parks, four critical habitat areas and a state game sanctuary [source: Knickerbocker].

Ten years later, only two of 23 animal species injured by the oil slicks had fully recovered [source: Knickerbocker]. As of 2004, populations of loons, harbor seals, harlequin ducks and Pacific herring were still affected by the spill [source: Lovgren], and the entire food chain was altered.

Thousands of workers participated in the cleanup efforts, but since little was known about effective cleanup methods, the workers weren't as successful as they could have been. In addition, cleanup didn't begin until three days after the spill, after a storm had spread much of the oil onto the coastline before it could be contained. Despite the cleanup effort, several miles of shoreline are still contaminated, and up to 200 tons of crude oil remain [source: Hoare, National Wildlife]. Even in areas where the surface waters appear clear, oil often lurks beneath the surface in little pockets buried by sediment.

It may take decades for Prince William Sound to heal fully. The oil remaining in the sound is almost the same composition it was decades ago -- an unknown factor has slowed down the rate of oil decomposition to only 4 percent a year [source: Hyder].

­Other events, though less well-known, have done considerable environmental damage as well. Learn about some other ecological disasters next.

More Environmental Disasters: Amoco Cadiz and Baia Mare

Firemen work to pump crude oil off the coast of France after the Amoco Cadiz oil spill.
Firemen work to pump crude oil off the coast of France after the Amoco Cadiz oil spill.
Keystone/ Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The world's insatiable demand for natural resources indirectly causes much of the damage that humans inflict on the Earth. On this page, you'll learn about two more of these far-reaching catastrophes.

Amoco Cadiz Oil Spill

In 1978, more than a decade before anyone had heard of the Exxon Valdez, a tanker named the Amoco Cadiz ruptured its tank on rocks in the English Channel. Before rescue workers could get to it, a storm split the ship, causing its entire load of 68 million gallons (1.6 million barrels) of oil to leak into the waters off the coast of Brittany, France [source: Stevens].

Like the Exxon Valdez spill, the Amoco Cadiz accident was difficult to clean up because of the violent seas. Soon after the tanker split, a dangerous patch of oil and water formed that polluted everything it drifted over. An oil slick 18 miles wide by 80 miles long (29 kilometers wide by 128 kilometers long) contaminated 250 miles (400 kilometers) of coastline and killed 300,000 birds [source: BBC].

Much of the oil worked its way into protected areas in marshes or under sediments where it didn't degrade easily. Scientists on the scene observed entire species wiped out. Bottom-dwelling creatures like urchins and clams suffered "massive mortality," according to a study published by the National Research Council, and the growth rates of several species of fish subsequently slowed. At the time, researchers estimated the ecosystem would not return to pre-spill levels for several decades, and indeed, 20 years later animal populations still showed the effects [source: Stevens, Cedre].

Baia Mare Cyanide Spill

Oil, however, is not behind every toxic spill. On Jan. 30, 2000, the dam restraining contaminated water from a gold mining operation in Romania broke. The 26 million gallons (100 million liters) of polluted liquid and waste contained 55 tons to 110 tons of cyanide and various other heavy metals. The spill travelled through the rivers of Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, eventually reaching the major waterway of the Danube River. Both Hungary and Yugoslavia observed massive amounts of dead fish killed by the toxic metals. Hungary reported 1,367 tons of them [source: UNEP/OCHA].

Cyanide is an extremely toxic pollutant that blocks oxygen absorption; fish are almost one thousand times more sensitive to it than people [source: UNEP/OCHA]. Exposure can cause death, reproductive problems and a reduced ability to swim and fight off predators. In addition to the fish killed, plankton also were completely wiped out. However, due to cyanide's short life span, they recovered relatively soon after.

Although cyanide does not remain in the environment for long, the other heavy metals released by the dam do. Zinc, copper, lead and other metals build up in organisms over time and increase in toxicity, posing a long-term threat. For example, copper levels after the accident were at least 1,000 times higher at four different locations tested and lead levels two times to thirty times higher. Each of these metals is toxic to plants [source: UNEP/OCHA].

The spills discussed in this article are just the tip of the iceberg. Countless other environmental disasters, like wars, wildfires and tsunamis, have occurred and continue to occur that don't meet our narrow criteria. To learn more about how these disasters affect the world, look into the links on the following page.

Related Articles

More Great Links


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  • BBC. "1978: Tanker Amoco Cadiz splits in two." (April 15, 2008) http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/march/24/newsid_2531000/25312 11.stm
  • Cedre. "Amoco Cadiz: Twenty, then thirty, years later." Feb. 29, 2008. (April 15, 2008) http://www.cedre.fr
  • Chernobyl Forum. "How has the environment been affected by the Chernobyl accident?" 2006. (April 11, 2008) http://www.greenfacts.org/en/chernobyl/index.htm
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  • History Channel Web site. "Life After People: Chernobyl." 2008. (April 10, 2008) http://www.history.com/minisite.do?content_type=Minisite_Generic&content_typ e_id=57785&display_order=6&mini_id=57517
  • Hoare, Natalie. "Exxon spill lingers." Geographical. Vol. 78, Issue 8. August 2006.
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  • Knickerbocker, Brad. "The big spill." Christian Science Monitor. March 22, 1999. (April 10, 2008) http://www.csmonitor.com/1999/0322/p1s1.html
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "Exxon Valdez Spill, 15 Years Later: Damage Lingers." National Geographic News. March 22, 2004. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/0318_040318_exxonvaldez.html
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "Chernobyl Disaster's Health Impact Remains Cloudy." National Geographic News. April 26, 2004. (April 10, 2008) http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/04/0426_040426_chernobyl.html
  • National Wildlife. "Exxon Valdez Revisited." Vol. 44, Issue 6. Oct/Nov. 2006.
  • Stevens, William K. "Size of Oil Spill May Be No Guide to Its Impact." The New York Times. April 4, 1989. (April 15, 2008)
  • UNEP/OCHA. "The Cyanide Spill at Baia Mare, Romania." June 2000. (April 15, 2008) http://www.rec.org/REC/Publications/CyanideSpill/ENGCyanide.pdf