Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Seven Strangest Man-Made Disasters

by Jared Wade on June 16, 2010

Yesterday, Emily did a post recounting Aon’s list of the top five global hotspots for earthquakes. Given the seemingly relentless seismic activity and destruction wrought by shifting tectonic plates just in 2010 alone, such natural disasters should be high on everyone’s watch list.
But as we are seeing right now in the Gulf, man-made disasters can present enormous perils of their own. And it just so happens that I came across Spike’s list of “The Top Seven Most Bizarre Man-Made Disasters” today.
You can head over there for a full rundown of all the incidents (including Bhopal, the Texas City devastation and the new-to-me Boston “Molassacre”), but these are the three I find most interesting.

3. The Gates of Hell

This pit of fire that has been burning for 40 years looks more like something out or Mordor than Turkmenistan. But the burning crater of natural gas began shortly after a Russian drilling rig collapsed into the Underworld and no one knew what to do.
Having opened this huge poisonous gas cavern up, the atmosphere and the nearby residents in the village of Derweze decided the next logical move would be to set this huge crater on fire, and it has been burning ever since.
Sure, light it on fire. Why not? What could go wrong? Seems logical enough.
Here’s video of some tourists enjoying the incredible, football-field-wide hole to hell (not literally).

2. The Centralia Underground Coal Fire

Our former publisher and Pennsylvanian Bill Coffin used to talk about this one all the time, so I have been familiar with its existence for some time. Nevertheless, it’s completely nuts. Like the Gates of Hell, it has been burning for decades — since 1962 in fact. But unlike the Turkmenistan fire, its genesis is not so clear.
It is suspected to be a blunder by the local fire department in 1962 which had been tasked with cleaning up the local landfill, which itself sat on top of an abandoned strip mine. To accomplish this, they set the landfill on fire, apparently not an unheard of method at the time. However, the theory goes that the fire was not put out properly, and heated up veins of coal underneath the landfill, which began to smolder over time.
Eventually the reaction lit an underground fire which continued to burn, which caused little concern from local authorities until almost two decades later when in 1981, a 12-year-old boy fell into a 150-foot sinkhole which suddenly opened up in the backyard underneath his feet.
“Blunder” seems to be putting it lightly. A “blunder” is forgetting to send out an email before you leave work for the night. A “blunder” is perhaps running into a parked car while trying to do a u-turn. Or a “blunder” may even be leaving the iron on when you run out the door on the way to brunch. Accidentally igniting a 1,200-degree coal fire that has burned for a half century — and is expected to continue burning until around 2260 — is more than a “blunder.”
I think we can all agree that it should at least be considered a “my bad.”
Centralia Pennsylvania Sign
An actual sign in Centralia, PA.

1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

This is one of the neatest, worst things I have ever found out about. Discovered by chance by Captain Charles Moore some 12 years ago, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an unfathomably immense, floating, amorphous collection of trash in the middle of the planet’s largest ocean. It is located between Hawaii and California due to the fact that that is where multiple sea currents meet — and there the (mostly) plastic mass churns in the water at twice the size of Texas.
Pretty cool, huh? But sorry, folks, it’s not all beautiful pollution.
There is also a downside.
Over the decades the garbage patch has been developing, much of the debris has been broken down into smaller and smaller particles, comprised largely of various kinds of plastics, which is then mistaken for food by the marine life, which in turn contaminates the ecosystem all way up the food chain.
Since the area is so massive in scale (both in terms of width and depth underwater), many scientists believe it is nearly impossible to cleanup the contamination at sea, and that it would likely do even more damage to the surrounding sea life in the process. When people talk about our need to recycle plastics, this is why.
All cavalierness aside, this is obviously a terrible problem and represents one of the unforeseen — and, until relatively recently, unknown — risks of our modern society. What can be done? Who knows. Perhaps nothing. But it’s just another lesson for all of us about what types of unexpected disasters can compile — little by little, day by day — when you’re no one is paying attention.
Below, Cpt. Moore speaks about the problem with Stephen Colbert.
Stephen speaks much truthiness.

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