On this day 1 937 years ago Mount Vesuvius started stirring – and in the same year tomorrow (24 August), one of the biggest and most devastating natural disasters occurred – essentially wiping out at least 2 000 lives – though it’s hard to estimate exactly how many deaths occurred.
You may think 2 000 is a small number compared to some of the natural disasters we’ve seen since, but if you look at in in the context of the year 79 AD, this devastating event essentially buried Pompeii – only to be discovered again more than 1 500 years later. In remembrance of those lives lost in the tragic eruption at Pompeii, we therefore observe Vesuvius day each year on August 24th.
There have, of course, been many natural catastrophes throughout the history of the world – and many predictions for more disasters coming our way. Let’s take a look at the natural shakeups of our past and those lurking in the future.
A history of natural disasters
27 797 984 BC – Colorado
Luckily we weren’t around to witness the biggest known supervolcano ever to erupt. This volcano erupted in an explosion in the San Juan Mountains which formed the La Garita Caldera. It is said to have spewed more than 5 000 cubic kilometres of lava over the area – enough lava to cover the whole of California in 12 metres of lava. Not only that, but volcanoes of this kind also have massive meteorological implications – not only does the massive release of ash block the sun, but the particles lend themselves towards the forming of condensation, triggering rain, thunder and storms. Moreover it also lowers the quality of breathable air.
70984 BC – Cape Verde Islands
The second step of our journey through the history of natural disasters takes us back 73 000 years ago to the Cape Verde Island of Fogo off the coast of west Africa. There were no cities or towns to witness the massive natural disaster at the time, yet this ancient natural disaster stands out as one of the biggest in history. It wasn’t the eruption of the volcano which caused the disaster – it was its collapse. The volcano which stood at 2 743 metres collapsed, sending an estimated 167 cubic kilometres of rock into the ocean which sparked a tsunami with waves up to 240 metres high.
Compare this to our biggest tsunami in recent history, the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which had waves reaching maximum heights of 30 metres.
1654 BC – Santorini
We’ll jump ahead now to the islands of Santorini. The year is 1654 BC and the Minoans occupy both islands. A massive volcano erupts which flattens the town of Santorini – just like Pompeii it would only be rediscovered in modern times. Although no bodies have been recovered, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of buildings and large belongings in this area.
1300 BC – Sahara
It is three hundred and fifty years later, the year 1300 BC, and the green valleys of the Sahara, Mesopotamia and Indus valley are slowly fading away. The area which once flourished has seen no rain in ages – it dries out, people abandon the area for more habitable areas and over a period of 150 years, the lush green valleys are abandoned, covered in dust and turn transform into a desert.
426 BC – Malian Gulf
The year is now 426 BC and the Spartans are planning their invasion of Attica during the Peloponnesian War. But their plans are thwarted as a massive tsunami, caused by a series of earthquakes, engulfs the coast of the Malian Gulf in three different places.
373 BC – Helike
About half a decade later, in 373 BC, there existed a thronging Greek metropolis called Helike. Today, what’s left of Helike is a submerged city – underwater ruins which were wiped away by a massive earthquake and tsunami. The city, along with other cities which have been found in the area, lies under the waters of the Gulf of Corinth.
115 – Antioch
After the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD comes the 115 AD earthquake in Antioch. This quake reached a magnitude of 7.5 and caused a tsunami – the two concurrent disasters killed an estimated 230 000 people and rattled the Roman Empire.
356 – Crete
Next we move on to 356 AD, where an earthquake and tsunami strike near the Greek island of Crete. An earthquake believed to have measured greater than eight on the Richter scale wipes out all the towns on the island as well as areas of Greece, Libya, Cyprus and Sicily. It also triggers a tsunami which causes significant damage in Alexandria.
526 – Syria & Antioch
170 years later in 526 AD another natural disaster would claim the lives of 250 000 people in Syria and Antioch. An earthquake measuring upwards of seven on the Richter scale shakes the earth and raises the port of Seleucia Piera by 1 metre before starting fires which ostensibly razed all buildings not destroyed in the earthquake.
856 – Damghan
It is 330 years before another disaster of such magnitude occurs. Known as the Damghan Earthquake, this natural disaster strikes the capital of Iran, Damghan, in the year 856 AD – killing 200 000 citizens and taking its place as the fifth deadliest earthquake in recorded history.
1202 – Syria, Sicily, Mesopotamia, Antolia & Egypt
An earthquake which would make many disasters pale in comparison would occur in the year 1202. On 20 May 1202 an earthquake strikes with an epicentre in southwestern Syria. This earthquake would be felt from Sicily to Mesopotamia, Antolia and Egypt. Though sources are unclear, this earthquake is said to have caused up to 1,1 million deaths, though the estimations vary greatly – some believing the death toll to stand at 30 000.
1556 – Shaanxi
It is now 1556 and the people in the Shaanxi province of northern China are not prepared for the disaster about to strike. On 23 January 1556 the earth quakes – and this quake would become the quake of all quakes. It kills 830 000 people and wipes out 60% of the Shaanxi and Shanxi populations.
1737 – Calcutta
The next great disaster would not be an earthquake, but a beast of a different nature. We’re in Calcutta, India – the year 1737. A cyclone (or typhoon) strikes the area – a tempest of such magnitude that it was at first thought to have been a tsunami triggered by an earthquake. The storm causes massive waves and flooding, wiping out 20 000 ships and killing an estimated 300 000 people in total.
1839 – Coringa
India would not be left at peace, as another cyclone would strike it some 100 years later. It is 1839 and the bustling port city of Coringa lies right in the path of one of a colossal storm. Winds and rain assault the city and produce a 12 metre storm surge which destroys the port with its 20 000 vessels and kills 300 00 people.
1887 – Yellow River
A decade and a half later, the people of China would see their next great natural disaster – one which transpires over two months in 1887. Persistent heavy rains dramatically raise Yellow River levels and on 28 September the river breaks through the dikes in Huayankou near the city of Zhengzhou. The resulting flood spreads over 130 000 square kilometres killing upwards of 900 000 people and leaving 2 million homeless.
1931 – China
We’ve reached the modern age now, it’s the twentieth century, the year 1931 and the world would see the greatest recorded death toll from a natural disaster. We are back in the Yellow River region of China where abnormal weather from the previous year have spurred heavy snowstorms and rains followed by several cyclones. This, in turn, creates massive flooding of the Yangtze and Huai rivers, killing an estimated 1 – 4 million people and affecting near 28,5 million people.
1958 – Lithuya Bay
The next devastating natural disaster would not cause massive loss of life, but instead wreaked havoc on the vegetation. An earthquake along the Fairweather Fault in Alaska plunges 30,6 million cubic metres of rock into the water from an altitude of 914 metres, triggering a megatsunami with the highest recorded tsunami waves. The massive wave reached altitudes of 525 metres inland and had a reported crest of 30 metres high. To put this in perspective, the Empire State Building is 450 metres tall – which means the tsunami would reached heights more than 50 metres above this. Luckily few people were in the area, and a total of five deaths occurred as a result of this tsunami.
1970 – Huascaran
Our next natural disaster would not have a massive death toll either, but in terms of avalanches it would be the biggest ever recorded. We’re in Huascaran, Peru, where an earthquake on 31 May causes an avalanche to north side of the Nevado Huascaran mountain. The avalance, estimated at 80 million cubic feet of ice, mud and rock, 800 metres wide and 1,6 kilometres long rushes down at a speed of 335 kilometres per hour – burying the towns of Yungay and Ranrahirca and killing more than 20 000 people.
1970 – Bhola
Another natural disaster occurs in the same year in a different part of the world. We’re in East Pakistan and West Bengal where the deadliest tropical cyclone strikes with winds up to 240 kilometres an hour. The rains and wind wreak havoc on the towns in the path of the cyclone – wiping out villages and killing up to 500 000 people.
1972 – Iran
Blizzards don’t cause as many deaths as other natural disasters, but one noteworthy disaster of this kind is the 1972 Iran Blizzard. Over a week-long period in February, low winds and severe storms would dump more than 3 metres of snow across different regions of snow. In southern Iran the snows reach a height of up to 7,9 metres – burying (and killing) more than 4 000 people.
1976 – Tahgshan
Our next victims are once more found in China, but this time it wouldn’t be storms and floods causing devastation. On 28 July 1976 the largest earthquake of the 20th century strikes Tangshan with a magnitude of 7.8. It lasts for up to 16 seconds and releases aftershocks of up to 7.1. The earthquake and its aftershocks would kill in excess of 225 000 people and injure a further 164 000.
1989 – Dualatpur-Saturia
Though the world is well aware of the devastation caused by tornadoes in tornado alley, USA, the most devastating tornado would hit thousands of kilometres away. It’s 26 April 1989 and the citiees of Daulatpur and Saturia would see the deadliest tornado in recorded history. The tornado was an estimated 1,6 kilometres with a path up to 80 kilometres. It would go on to kill 1 300 people, leave 80 000 homeless, injure 12 000 and completely destroy Saturia and Manikganj – leaving no trace of buildings or structures.
1999 – Vargas
15 December 1999, the Vargas State of Venezuela would see the worst torrential rains and flash floods in its history. Not only would this rain and resulting floods and debris kill up to 30 000 people, but it caused a complete collapse of the state infrastructure and burying complete towns in up to 3 metres of mud.
2003 – Europe
A disaster of another kind, and one scientists have warned we will see more of in future, is the 2003 European heat wave which caused the deaths of more than 70 000 people. Over roughly seven days, Europe saw temperatures in excess of 40 degrees – the hottest summer recorded at the time since 1540. Though many areas of the earth see these temperatures every day, the death toll is said to be due to the unexpected nature of the weather – as Europe is mostly known for mild summer temperatures.
2004 – Indian Ocean
On December 26 the world is still at rest after festivities the day before. Holidaymakers are enjoying the beaches over the Indian Ocean. But a massive earthquake of 9.1 – 9.3 magnitude suddenly strikes just off the coast of Sumatra. The quake triggers a tsunami reaching 14 countries with waves up to 30 metres high. It would go on to become one of the greatest tragedies in modern history, killing 230 000 people and destroying kilometres of infrastructure and spreading diseases like cholera, diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid and hepatitis through contaminated water.
2011 – Japan
A natural disaster still fresh in our memories is undoubtedly the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and resultant nuclear disaster of Fukushima. On 11 March, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 strikes off the coast of Japan. The earthquake would cause a tsunami with waves up to 40.5 metres tall. The tsunami would lead to the Fukushima nuclear disaster due to level 7 meltdowns of three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. Though the death toll was not that high, the radioactive leak has affected hundreds of thousands of lives and the effects on the oceans is still unclear.
Which natural disasters can we expect in future?
So what can we expect to see in future? What devastating natural disasters still await us? Scientists from around the world have made several predictions for the future of humanity, let’s take a look at some of those…
US wildfires: 2016 – 2050
Environmental scientists from Harvard have warned of high risks of extreme wildfires throughout the US which will be at least three weeks longer, twice as smoky and burn a much larger portion of the western parts of the US each year. In fact, since 1999 the acreage burned by wildfires has tripled. The increase in wildfires is said to be directly linked to climate change and rising temperatures.
Chilean Megathrust Earthquake: 2016 – 2065
An earthquake in April 2014 has purportedly caused fissures which could essentially lead to an even greater quake – measuring in excess of 8.5. Though the 2014 quake released some of the tension created by the movement of tectonic plates – it is said that it only released about 33% of the tension, which means Chile could see even greater devastation in future.
Twin earthquake Japan: 2017
It’s a rather exact date – and yet seismologist and submarine geologist Dr. Masaaki Kimura believes another earthquake measuring more than 9.0 on the Richter scale will hit Japan in 2017. The prediction is based on the ‘Kimura method’, a four-step, short-term earthquake prediction method which measures earthquake eyes – regions with many small earthquakes. The earthquake is also predicted to cause another tsunami.
Mt. Fuji Eruption: 2016 – 2053
After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, increased seismic activity in at least 20 of the 110 active Japanese volcanoes has been recorded. According to calculations by the Japan Meteorological Agency, Japan should see a major volcanic eruption every 38 years. The most likely volcano to erupt is Mt. Fuji – located a mere 100 kilometres from Tokyo – which would necessitate evacuation of at least 750 000 people from Tokyo and surrounding areas.
Oregon earthquake-tsunami split: 2016 – 2065
A group of 150 experts in the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission have predicted an earthquake of up to 9.0 magnitude within the next 50 years. Although the Cascadia subduction zone (where the earthquake is believed to originate from) is currently known as the calmest subduction zone on earth, experts have warned that it could stir one of the biggest seismic events of this century and trigger a massive tsunami off the coast of Oregon.
Yellowstone supervolcano: 2016 – 2096
Although the massive Yellowstone volcano last erupted 70 000 years ago, a team of scientists discovered a magma chamber underneath Yellowstone Park four times bigger than the chamber above it. The discovery was made after an increase in seismic activity in the region – prompting further exploration and research. This new chamber is said to contain enough molten rock to fill the Grand Canyon more than 11 times and experts believe it could erupt in the next eighty years.
Maldives submersion: 2016 – 2085
Due to rising temperatures and melting ice caps the sea levels have risen by 19 centimetres in the last century – and climate change is accelerating the process. Should the sea levels continue to rise, we will see more and more submersion of coastal regions around the globe. The country at greatest risk of full submersion is the Maldives, which is the most low-lying country in the world. In fact, scientists at NASA believe the entire country could be submerged in the next century.
Massive earthquake California: 2016 – 2045
An earthquake dubbed ‘the big one’ has been predicted to occur in the next thirty years, with NASA giving a 99% probability of at least a 5.0 magnitude in the Los Angeles area within the next three years. The Big One, however is predicted to have a magnitude of 8.0+ along the San Andreas or Hayward Faults. It is also believed that the shock waves produced by the earthquake will produce shocks travelling up to 11 600 kilometres per hour and sparking infernos throughout the region.
Solar Storms: 2016 – 2216
Though much of our rising temperatures on earth are due to climate change, the truth is that the Sun also has different cycles of increased or decreased activity. And according to NASA, we have 200 years of solar storms an increased solar radiation to look forward too. These solar storms not only increase temperatures due to solar flares, but the radiation also destroys electronic components, interfere with radio, GPS and satellite communication and cause surges in power grids which could lead to major worldwide blackouts.
Giant Asteroid: 2175 – 2880.
Okay, so none of us will be alive at this time unless science makes giant leaps in longevity in the next few year, but that doesn’t change the prediction for a massive asteroids colliding with earth. The largest of these is the asteroid dubbed ‘1950 AD’ which is predicted to hit earth in 2880. Two smaller asteroids are predicted to possibly collide with earth in 2175 and 2185 respectively. The one most likely to strike is said to be half a kilometre across and would cause devastating tsunamis and wipe out entire cities if not continents.
Magnetic Pole switch – 2016 – 6000
Whether humans will still be around in the year 3000 is a big question, but if we are, we’re in for one bumpy ride. Geophysicists have calculated that the earth switches magnetic poles once every half million years – making us due for a ‘pole switch’ in the next thousand years. The pole switch is also pre-empted by the fading of Earth’s magnetic field – our greatest barrier against the onslaught of the sun. Barring the harmful radiation we’ll experience without a magnetic field, this shift will cause changes in sea currents, weather systems, affect migratory animals and obviously nullify our GPS functionality. A strong indicator of this event is data which shows the earth’s magnetic field weakening over the past 160 years.
Unfortunately, humans seem to be contributing to a literal rotational pole shift due to climate changes. The massive melting glaciers of the world are said to affect the ‘weight’ of the earth against its axis. Mass losses and mass melting due to increased heat could ostensibly redistribute mass through the earth which changes the tilt of the earth and could also affect our rotational pole – which is believed to be shifting towards Europe.
Keeping our fingers crossed
We sincerely hope humans can put heads together to improve predictions, overcome climate change and develop disaster prevention programmes which can assist us in future. Hopefully none of us will be caught up in the next great natural onslaught – but we’d best listen to the scientists if we want to steer clear of a catastrophe. We also have a couple of earthquake tips if you do find yourself travelling to any earthquake-prone regions.