The Most Destructive Environmental Disasters of the 2010s

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In the last ten years, environmental awareness has shot up around the world. This likely stems from the increased frequency of large-scale environmental disasters.

These colossal weather systems have caused devastation around the globe, displacing an average of 21.5 million people a year between 2008 and 2015. In an effort to improve climate justice, take a look at the financial and human costs of the largest environmental catastrophes of the last ten years.

Port-au-Prince Earthquake, 2010

At the start of 2010, Haiti experienced a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince. The quake lasted somewhere between 35 to 60 seconds, which was enough time to destroy a devastating amount of property and lives. On January 12, roughly 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings suffered severe damage or were completely destroyed.

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The city of Port-au-Prince experienced the most damage from the quake. The estimated death toll from the massive earthquake ranges from 100,000 to 316,000, with more than 850,000 people reportedly left homeless. Over time, the damages will likely cost $13.9 billion to repair.

Canterbury Earthquake, 2010

In September 2010, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck the South Island of New Zealand, impacting the city of Christchurch the most. The initial earthquake caused significant damage and power outages in Christchurch, but the destruction was just beginning. Within a year, the area experienced over 11,000 recorded aftershocks.

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A magnitude 6.3 aftershock quake struck Christchurch in February 2011. Already weakened by hundreds of aftershocks, the city was ill-prepared for a quake of this size. It resulted in 185 deaths and cost $2.3 billion to repair the damages from all of the aftershocks. In total, it was the fifth largest insurance event in the world since 1953.

Typhoon Megi, 2010

Typhoon Megi, or Super Typhoon Juan as it’s called in the Philippines, was one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record. Megi killed 31 people and caused 255.1 million in damages, making it one of the most costly typhoons in the Philippines. But it wasn’t done yet.

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After striking the Philippines, the storm moved to the South China Sea, landing in Taiwan. It caused an additional $42 million in damages and killed 38 additional people. Overall, Megi was the deadliest storm to hit Taiwan in the entire decade. It later caused $411 million in damages over Fujian, China.

Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, 2011

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0-9.1 magnitude undersea earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. It was the fourth largest earthquake in recorded history. It instantly triggered powerful tsunami waves that reached upwards of 130 feet in height. Residents of nearby Sendai had only eight to ten minutes to flee from the waves that traveled at 435mph.

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The tsunami waves also struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing one of the world’s worst nuclear meltdowns. More than 19,000 lives were lost as a result of the tsunami, and it took $300 billion dollars to clean up after all the devastation.

Slave Lake Wildfire, 2011

The Slave Lake wildfire of May 2011 started as a small brush fire 9 miles away from town. Within three hours, the fire spread through 1,200 acres. The fire quickly evacuated all of Slave Lake’s 7,000 residents. Before evacuation, one resident caught a glimpse of the flames and said, “it looked like hell.”

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In just two days, the fire completely destroyed one-third of Slave Lake. 732 residents were left homeless, and 374 properties were destroyed. The Slave Lake wildfire destroyed a total of 433 buildings and cost $750 million in damages. It was the second costliest insured disaster in Canada’s history.

East Africa Drought, 2011

Starting in July 2011 and running through mid-2012, a drought of epic proportions affected the entire East African region. Seasonal rains disappeared for roughly two years before the drought, leading to widespread loss of livestock, freshwater and crops.

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The UN declared a widespread famine throughout several regions. Relief efforts in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and other neighboring countries impacted by the famine cost roughly $1.3 billion. Tens of thousands of people are also believed to have starved to death throughout the drought.

Thailand Floods, 2011

Severe Tropical Storm Nock-ten made landfall in July of 2011 in northern and central Thailand, kicking off the annual monsoon season. The storm had a severe impact on northern and central Thailand, flooding both the Mekong and Chao Phraya rivers. By October, floodwaters had spread to the capital city of Bangkok.

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The flooding remained in parts of Thailand until January 2012, and is estimated to have killed 815 people throughout the season. 65 out of Thailand’s 76 provinces were considered flood disaster zones, and $46.5 billion was spent on disaster cleanup. It was the 4th largest disaster cleanup at that time.

Hurricane Irene, 2011

A well-defined Atlantic tropical wave brewed the disastrous Hurricane Irene in August, 2011. While it continued to gain steam, it made its way through St. Croix, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and the Bahamas. By the time it reached Virginia, it had developed into a Category 3 hurricane, peaking at 120 mph.

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It was the first hurricane to make landfall in the United States since 2008. President Obama preemptively declared a national emergency to prepare the nation for impact. Irene caused massive destruction throughout the Caribbean and North America, totaling upwards of $14 billion in damages. It also cost the lives of 49 people.

North American Derecho, 2012

In late June 2012, a disastrous derecho barreled across America. A derecho is a storm consisting of multiple severe, fast-moving thunderstorms, hurricane-force winds, tornadoes and flash floods. This particular derecho was one of the most destructive and deadliest in North American history.

Photo Courtesy: National Weather Service/Wikimedia Commons

The derecho started as a small storm in Iowa, but an uncharacteristically hot and windy climate gave it the power to evolve into a derecho with winds as strong as a Category 1 hurricane. The derecho left a trail of chaos all the way to the east coast, causing 22 deaths and $2.9 billion in damages.

Hurricane Sandy, 2012

Hurricane Sandy was the most destructive hurricane of 2012. In late October, the storm first touched down in Jamaica before growing stronger in the Caribbean Sea. It later tore through Cuba and the Bahamas, continuing to wreak havoc and grow in strength.

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When it reached America, Sandy tore through 24 states before reaching Ontario and Quebec in Canada. It notably destroyed New Jersey’s iconic shoreline in Seaside Heights. The storm killed 233 people across eight different countries and damaged $68.7 billion worth of property. It remains the fifth costliest hurricane in United States’ history.

Western Plains Drought, 2012-2013

As a result of a record-breaking heatwave across the United States, the country experienced its worst drought in 2012 since 1988. The drought expanded throughout North America and affected parts of Mexico and Canada. It took until June 2013 for the eastern half of the United States to recover from the arid conditions.

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The drought continued into the next year, making 2013 the driest year in some states in over 130 years. A record 36 states were primary natural disaster areas during the drought. The drought also had a negative impact on crop production throughout the country, equating to $75 to $150 billion in lost revenue.

Alberta Floods, 2013

Heavy rainfall in June 2013 caused the worst flooding in Alberta, Canada’s history. Throughout Canada, a total of 32 states declared emergency zones with over 100,000 people displaced. Within 36 hours, almost half of some area’s annual rainfall poured onto the ground.

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Rivers throughout the region flowed at five times their normal rate at the peak of the flood’s destruction. When the flood waters finally receded, a massive federal and volunteer-led clean up was underway. An estimated $5 billion in property damages made the Alberta floods the costliest environmental disaster in Canadian history.

Pakistan’s Earthquakes, 2013

On September 24, 2013, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck the Balochistan province of Pakistan. More than 825 people died from the initial quake and its many aftershocks. Many of the deaths were the result of poorly constructed homes and buildings easily collapsing from the tremors.

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The earthquake was also powerful enough in the region to raise a small island in the Arabian Sea. The island, called Zalzala Jazeera, translates to “quake island”. It likely surfaced as a result of a subterranean mud volcano that erupted due to the earthquake’s powerful tectonic shifts.

Typhoon Haiyan, 2013

Typhoon Haiyan is one of the deadliest typhoons to strike the Philippines, killing at least 6,300 people. In early November 2013, the storm reached a Category 5 level, with winds as strong as 195 mph. The storm also harmed parts of Micronesia, Vietnam, Taiwan and South China.

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The damages totaled over $4.5 billion across Southeast Asia. Tacloban City, one of the Philippines’ wealthiest areas, experienced mass looting and violence as a result of the devastation. Relief trucks, shopping malls and grocery stores were all emptied as residents were desperate to provide food, water and shelter for their families.

North American Polar Vortex, 2014

From January to April 2014 the American Northeast experienced a devastating North Polar Vortex. Record-low temperatures spread throughout the area as heavy snowfall closed schools, businesses and canceled thousands of flights. Many communities received warnings to stay inside as temperatures dropped as low as -37 degrees Fahrenheit.

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On January 6, the average daily temperature for the United States was 17.9 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest national average has been since 1997. More than 200 million people felt the impact of the polar vortex, with 21 casualties and $5 billion in damages.

Drought in California, 2014

California experienced the most intense drought in its history from 2011 to 2017. But 2014 was the driest California has been in 1,200 years. According to the State Water Project, February 2014 saw California’s first shortage of state water supplies. By mid-May, the U.S. Drought Monitor analysis announced 100% of California was experiencing severe-level drought.

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Governor Jerry Brown ordered a series of statewide water restrictions in response in April 2015. Residents received an order to avoid washing their cars or sidewalks and stop watering their lawns. By 2015, the drought cost the state $2.7 billion in lost revenue and damages.

Typhoon Rammasun, 2014

Typhoon Rammasun was the first Category 5 super typhoon in the South China Sea since 1954. The storm caused devastation across the Philippines, South China and Vietnam in July 2014. This was a mere eight months after Typhoon Haiyan wreaked havoc on the Philippines.

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Before the storm touched down on the island nation, more than 350,000 citizens received evacuation notices. In the aftermath, over 7,000 homes were destroyed, particularly in impoverished areas. More than $8 billion in damages was reported throughout the affected regions.

Earthquake in Nepal, 2015

The Gorkha earthquake in April 2015 was the worst natural disaster to hit Nepal since 1934. The 7.8 magnitude quake triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing 21 people. It was the deadliest day in the mountain’s recorded history.

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Hundreds of thousands of people in Nepal were homeless as a result of the earthquake, with over 9,000 reported casualties. Because the earthquake primarily struck relatively poor communities, it took years to provide support to the affected civilians. The damages were reportedly upwards of $10 billion, which makes up 50% of Nepal’s annual GDP.

Texas Oklahoma Flood and Tornado Outbreak, 2015

After a week of heavy rain, a powerful storm system flooded parts of Texas and Oklahoma in May 2015. In addition to the record-breaking floods, many areas also experienced thunderstorms and tornado activity. 58 people perished as a result of the floods and tornadoes from the weather outbreak.

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Studies from Utah State University and Scripps Institution of Oceanography attributed the rising rainfall in the region to climate change. They also projected that storms like these were going to continue as greenhouse gas emissions contributed to El-Niño induced precipitation.

The Great Smog of Delhi, 2015

The Great Smog of Delhi was the worst level of air quality in Delhi in over 15 years. A combination of factors contributed to the toxic air quality, including garbage fires, burning of crops, and road dust. The smog lasted from November 1st to the 9th of 2015.

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During this time, smog levels shot up from a normal 60 micrograms to a devastating 999. The recommended limit of smog exposure is 100, so you can imagine the devastating air quality when it’s nearly ten times that amount. Schools, construction sites and other outdoor activities were cancelled in an effort to keep residents indoors from the toxic fumes.

South Indian Floods, 2015

South India experienced one of the costliest natural disasters of 2015. From November 8th to December 14th, the region fell victim to massive flooding. More than 500 people were killed and almost 2 million people were displaced from their homes.

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In the poorest regions where the flood occurred, basic necessities saw a spike in cost. It made survival all the more difficult for displaced residents. he large scale of this catastrophe meant that it affected a wide population, causing between $3 billion to $14 billion in property damage.

Bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, 2016

The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system, resides off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Between 2016 and 2017, the reef experienced a mass bleaching, destroying 89% of its baby coral. Coral bleaching is a phenomenon that can result in widespread death of coral life.

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According to a study on the mass bleaching, Professor Andrew Baird attributed the destruction to climate change. “Our study shows that reef resilience is now severely compromised by global warming.” 95% of the reef’s northern section is now bleached, making it incredibly difficult for the reef to ever recover.

Louisiana Flooding, 2016

A historic, unprecedented flood hit the southeast region of Louisiana in August 2016. Over the course of 10 days, 20 inches of rain fell in certain regions, overflowing the Amite and Comite rivers. Thousands of homes and businesses were submerged as a result of the excess rainfall.

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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided disaster aid to the region after it was dubbed “the worst US natural disaster” since Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The flooding resulted in 13 deaths and cost somewhere between $10-15 billion in property damages.

Hurricane Harvey, 2017

Hurricane Harvey is tied with Hurricane Katrina for the title of the most expensive storm in American history, costing $125 billion in damages. The cost largely stems from flooding throughout Houston and Southeast Texas. Many regions in the area suffered through 40 inches of rain over the course of just 4 days.

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An estimated 300,000 structures were destroyed in Texas alone. Over 330,000 people were left without electricity and 13,000 required rescue from the flooding. Nearly 50,000 homes were affected by Harvey throughout the state, including 1,000 that were completely destroyed.

Hurricane Irma, 2017

Hurricane Irma was the first Category 5 storm to develop in the 2017 season. The storm had winds as strong as 180mph before making landfall in Cuba and later touching down in Florida. It was the most intense hurricane to strike the United States since Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

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It was also the costliest hurricane to ever strike Cuba, costing the island country $13.2 billion and 10 lives. In the United States, the hurricane ranks as the 5th costliest storm with $77 billion in damages and 92 deaths.

Hurricane Maria, 2017

In September 2017, the Category 5 Hurricane Maria followed Irma and caused widespread devastation in Dominica, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. It is the worst environmental disaster to strike any of those regions and was the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane on record.

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Winds exceeding 175mph tore apart Puerto Rico, causing upwards of $91 billion in damages to the island. In Dominica, the entire island suffered a communication blackout, making it impossible to check on survivors. Over 3,000 lives were lost as a result of the deadly storm.

California Firestorm, 2018

The 2018 wildfire season in California was the deadliest and most destructive ever recorded. Over 8,500 wildfires burned almost 2 million acres of land throughout the year. Many experts attribute the increase in fires to climate change, and under-regulated power lines.

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At one point, San Francisco’s air quality index was the lowest in the world due to the air pollutants from the devastating nearby Camp Fire. In total, more than $3.5 billion in damages occurred across the state and 97 Californians died in the destructive flames.

Japan Floods, 2018

An unprecedented surge of heavy rainfall lead to devastating floods in southwestern Japan in 2018. More than 8 million people evacuated their homes across 23 of Japan’s prefectures. From late June to mid-July, it was the deadliest freshwater disaster in the country since 1982.

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Many areas experienced the greatest rainfall totals on record, with some regions getting more than 39 inches of rain in three days. Damages from the floods totaled nearly $10 billion to personal and industrial properties. Even with 50,000 rescue workers distributed throughout the area, there were 225 casualties from the floods.

Indonesia Earthquake and Tsunami, 2018

In September 2018, a large earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia. The 7.5 magnitude quake is one of many that struck the island nation during that period, but it was the tsunami that caused widespread devastation in Palu.

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A combination of geography, timing and inadequate warnings meant that Palu faced a worst-case scenario. Earthquakes happen quite frequently in the region, but the tsunami came as a surprise to the government and Palu’s residents, with over 4,300 fatalities and over 70,000 residents evacuated from their homes.

Extreme Heat Strikes Europe, 2019

A deadly, record-breaking heatwave took Europe by storm during the summer of 2019. All-time temperatures hit Germany, France, Poland, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic. France hit an outrageous high of 113.2 degrees Fahrenheit, alerting the world that Europe was in serious danger.

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The heat contributed to thousands of livestock deaths as containment areas lacked necessary ventilation. Certain railways throughout Europe have had to impose speed restrictions to reduce buckling rails. By the end of June, 13 people had already died from excessive heat-related conditions.

Amazon rainforest wildfires, 2019

In the summer of 2019, an alarming surge of fires spread throughout the Amazon rainforest. Fires occur naturally during Brazil’s dry season, but this year’s fires were far worse. Many of the fires are believed to have been started deliberately.

Photo Courtesy: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

A lack of government regulation on rainforest protections in Brazil could be the culprit of this catastrophe. Many believe local farmers and industries benefit from destroying areas of the forest for farming. Some areas of the Amazon could take centuries to fully recover.

Hurricane Dorian, 2019

Hurricane Dorian was a long-lived Category 5 storm that destroyed the northwestern part of the Bahamas. As Dorian ripped through the Bahamas as a Category 5, the storm slowed its speed dramatically, remaining almost stationary from September 1 to September 3.

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Catastrophic damage was made to Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands, leaving 70,000 residents homeless. The storm later made its climb up North America, impacting parts of America before ending in Canada. The death toll stands in the low forties after the storm, but many thousands remain missing.