Water, Fire, Earth, Air: the four classic elements. But those wise ancients forgot the fifth element, the one that turns a laughable error into a “natural” disaster: human folly.
WATER- Here’s Mud in Your Eye: Mud volcanoes may sound absurd, but these underground pools of pressurized mud can be just as dangerous as their fiery cousins. In May 2006, drilling company PT Lapindo Brantas chose to drill for natural gas in East Java, Indonesia despite warnings from geologists that their find was on a fault line. The company drilled down to nearly 9,300 feet, cracking through the limestone above an undetected highly pressurized mud reservoir. Even then, disaster might have been averted had the company not illegally decided to forgo the standard a protective steel cage to stabilize the area. The mud quickly fractured its casing and a fountain of hot mud swept down to the nearby villages, forcing over one and a half million people to flee their homes. The mud volcano continues to pump out around 100,000 feet of mud every day and will continue to do so for another 30 years. Despite attempts by the company to blame an earthquake from two days before and 200 miles away from the volcano, they were eventually fined $278 million for their shortsighted arrogance. Currently, the company is trying to declare bankruptcy to avoid paying.
FIRE- Feel the Burn: Pennsylvania was long a hub of coal mining, but after the mines were exhausted, the local towns were left with deep caverns under the Earth. Many towns, including Centralia, used nearby abandoned mines as landfills. Every year, the town firemen would set the landfill on fire as a cleaning measure. To contain the fire, layers of trash were sperated by layers of clay. Unfortunately, the town forgot te clay one year and in May 1962, a deliberate fire set in an abandoned strip mine used as a landfill spread underground. Soon, the fire spread to the remaining coal seams under the town, making every attempt to put it out futile. The fire released carbon monoxide and other poisonous gases into the town as well as creating dangerous sinkholes. The town was officially evacuated in 1981 although there are still a few diehards living in the fiery ghost-town. Scientists estimate the fire will continue to burn for another 250 years.
EARTH- Dust Follows the Plow: In the late 19th century, many farmers believed that agricultural activity on semi-arid plains leads to increased rainfall and more fertile soil. The “rain follows the plow” theory (based on limited, circumstantial evidence) was used as justification by the United States government when it gave away thousands of grassy, unproductive prairie to farmers in the beginning of the twentieth century. Thousands of families took the government up on the offer, and plowed over the grass that protected the soil from drying out. Without the grass to hold the soil and keep it moist, the soil rapidly became dust. The notorious Midwestern winds then whipped up the dust into enormous storms so that during the 1930’s; the drought plaguing the area only grew worse. If that wasn’t enough, whatever crops were left got eaten up in a jackrabbit and grasshopper population boom. At the same time, tarantulas, black widow spiders, and centipede numbers also grew enormously. Unsurprisingly, over half a million Americans fled the situation to seek jobs in the West. The lessons of the Dust Bowl are still being taught. Today there are several candidates for new dust bowls around the world, especially in China and Africa, and no guarantee it won’t happen again.
AIR- Sparrow Sorrow: When Mao Zedong and the Communist Party took over China, they announced a series of social and economic plans jointly called the Great Leap Forward. One of the first to be implemented in 1958 was the Four Pests campaign, a concentrated attack on the most problematic pest animals: mosquitoes, flies, rats… and sparrows. Prompted by the sparrows’ grain seed eating habits, the Chinese government encouraged people to drive sparrows off with pots and pans, destroy nests, kill nestlings, and otherwise get rid of the perceived menace. But in their zeal to destroy the sparrows, the fact that sparrows mainly eat insects, not grain was forgotten. The result: a veritable plague of locusts devouring crops. This disaster, compounded by other Great Leap Forward projects (encouraging farmers to start their own personal steel furnaces, implementing new farming techniques based on very flawed Soviet science) led to the Great Chinese Famine, also known as the time when 30 million peasants starved to death.« « Previous Post ~ Unconventional Beauties: Four Endangered Species That Need Our Protection| Next Post ~ The Genetics of Fancy » »