The Worst Energy Disasters of All Time

While natural disasters such as floods and tornadoes have captured our attention this summer, the scale of destruction is very slight compared to the worst man-made disasters.

How does as an event like the triple meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear complex in Japan rank among other energy disasters? It depends somewhat on who you ask. Chernobyl is routinely sited as the benchmark for the worst nuclear accident in history. And yet, nearly all of the major energy industries have experienced catastrophic disasters in recent memory. 


We noticed two lists in particular recently. The "edgy" business site Business Insider compiled this list of 24 disasters that happened just within the past year. The green-friendly Mother Jones offers a slightly different spin, offering up its list of the biggest "Dirty Energy Disasters." Big Think is digging deeper, and more broadly, examining the worst energy disasters of all time. This was an admittedly tricky assignment. In ranking these disasters we had to consider multiple factors, but settled on two in particular: the number of human lives lost, and the scale of the environmental impact. 

1. Chernobyl (1986)

Whether one is a supporter or opponent of nuclear power, the human impact of the Chernobyl nuclear accident is horrific and alarming. A large-scale Soviet cover-up notwithstanding, we now know that in terms of human deaths, the Chernobyl nuclear accident was the worst energy accident in human history. A report published by the New York Academy of Sciences concludes that based on available medical data, 985,000 people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

2. Gulf War Oil Spill (1991)

Saddam Hussein's forces retreating from Kuwait during the First Gulf War executed a scorched earth policy. They set fire to over 700 oil wells, which burned out of control for ten months. The American astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan compared the effect on the atmosphere to the 1915 Mount Tambora eruption, which resulted in the "Year Without Summer" of 1816. In addition, the Iraqi forces purposely opened the valves at the Sea Island Oil Terminal, which sent between 4 to 8 million barrels of oil spewing into the Persian Gulf. 

3. Ixtoc 1 Oil Spill (1979) and Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill (2010) (Tie)

In 1979, a Mexican oil platform in the Bay of Campeche collapsed after an accidental explosion, spilling an estimated 3.2 to 3.5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over the course of a year. Until 2010, when BP spilled an estimated 4.1 to 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Ixtoc 1 was considered the largest accidental spill in history

4. Bhopal Disaster (1984)

A toxic gas release at a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India resulted in 2,259 immediate deaths and some 11,000 deaths following the disaster. The impact is still debated today. A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 "temporary partial" and approximately 3,900 "severely and permanently disabling" injuries. 

5. China's Coal Mining Industry (ongoing)

In terms of human cost, China's ongoing coal production ranks among the greatest energy disasters in human history. Last year, 6.6 coal miners died in China every day, down from 9 deaths per day in 2009, and sharply down from the 19 deaths per day (6,995) in 2002. China's mines have long been the deadliest in the world due to lax regulation and corruption. Energy demand in China is only increasing. 

By comparison, it is estimated that 100,000 mining deaths occurred in the U.S. during the 20th century, with a high of 3,200 in 1907. However, only 28 coal mining deaths were reported in the U.S. in 2004. That same year there were 6,027 coal mining deaths in China. Some watchdogs estimate that the true death tolls might be twice what is reported by the Chinese government. 

Do you have an energy disaster in mind you think should have made this list? Let us know. 

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What do we see from watching birds move across the country?

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  • A total of eight billion birds migrate across the U.S. in the fall.
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The migration of birds — and we didn't even used to know that birds migrated; we assumed they hibernated; the modern understanding of bird migration was established when a white stork landed in a German village with an arrow from Central Africa through its neck in 1822 — draws us in the direction of having an understanding of the world. A bird is here and then travels somewhere else. Where does it go? It's a variation on the poetic refrain from The Catcher in the Rye. Where do the ducks go? How many are out there? What might it encounter along the way?

While there is a yearly bird count conducted every Christmas by amateur bird watchers across the country done in conjunction with The Audubon Society, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently released the results of a study that actually go some way towards answering heretofore abstract questions: every fall, as per cloud computing and 143 weather radar stations, four billion birds migrate into the United States from Canada and four billion more head south to the tropics.

In other words: the birds who went three to four times further than the birds staying in the U.S. faired better than the birds who stayed in the U.S. Why?

Part of the answer could be very well be what you might hear from a conservationist — only with numbers to back it up: the U.S. isn't built for birds. As Ken Rosenberg, the other co-author of the study, notes: "Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that."

The other option is that birds lay more offspring in the U.S. than those who fly south for the winter.

What does observing eight billion birds mean in practice? To give myself a counterpoint to those numbers, I drove out to the Joppa Flats Education Center in Northern Massachusetts. The Center is a building that sits at the entrance to the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge and overlooks the Merrimack River, which is what I climbed the stairs up to the observation deck to see.

Once there, I paused. I took a breath. I listened. I looked out into the distance. Tiny flecks Of Bonaparte's Gulls drew small white lines across the length of the river and the wave of the grass toward a nearby city. What appeared to be flecks of double-crested cormorants made their way to the sea. A telescope downstairs enabled me to watch small gull-like birds make their way along the edges of the river, quietly pecking away at food just beneath the surface of the water. This was the experience of watching maybe half a dozen birds over fifteen-to-twenty minutes, which only served to drive home the scale of birds studied.

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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

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  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

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It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.