06.01.10 10:46 PM ET
10 Bizarre Natural Disasters
Poisonous Gas Cloud
On August 21, 1986, in a valley in northwestern Cameroon, some 1,700 people and 3,500 animals suddenly dropped dead for no apparent reason. Scientists later discovered that Lake Nyos, sitting above the valley in the crater of a dormant volcano, had, over many years, slowly absorbed the carbon dioxide emitted by the magma far below it. When the water finally became saturated with the poisonous gas, it expelled it all at once in a toxic cloud moving at 125 miles per hour. The plume spread over 16 miles, suffocating many living things in its wake.
Mount Pelée, on the island of Martinique in the Caribbean, was the site of one the worst volcanic eruptions of the 20th century, killing tens of thousands in 1902. But days before it blew, dozens of people living in the small towns below it met an even grimmer fate. Hundreds of venomous snakes, sensing the impending blast, streamed into the streets, biting and killing at least 50 people and 200 animals along the way, according to San Diego State University’s Department of Geological Sciences.
What does it take to drive an elephant insane? Extremely high temperatures and not a drop to drink. In the spring of 1972, India's Chandka Forest, already scorched by drought, was hit by an unforgiving heat wave. The two events in combination began to affect the behavior of local wildlife. By mid-summer the local elephants, normally not a threat to humans, collectively lost their minds and stampeded through five villages, according to India’s news agency, leaving considerable destruction and 24 dead in their wake.
Your average heat wave, this was not. In 2003, record-breaking temperatures took the lives of 35,000 people across eight countries in Europe. France bore the brunt of the losses with 14,802 dead. According to a report on the climate phenomenon by the Earth Policy Institute, "Though heat waves rarely are given adequate attention, they claim more lives each year than floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes combined."
It was the real-life version of The Day After Tomorrow. In 1816, since known as the Year Without a Summer, waves of frigid air brought heavy rains, frost, and snowfall across parts of the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe throughout the entire year. The freak weather conditions decimated crops and led to widespread famine. A piece in The Quebec Gazette read, "Under circumstances so unfavorable to the productions of the earth throughout so great an extent of country, precautions against scarcity cannot be too strongly recommended....Nothing which may provide sustenance for man or beast ought to be neglected..." Over 100,000 died as a result.
The Tunguska asteroid event was so unusual that witnesses believed it was a visitation from a vengeful god. NASA now estimates that the 220 million-pound space rock hit the Earth’s atmosphere at 33,500 miles per hour over Siberia on June 30, 1908, and had an impact equal to 185 Hiroshima bombs. It felled an estimated 80 million trees, but because the area it hit was so sparsely populated, no one was killed as a direct result of the strike.
A fire tornado, or fire whirl, is perhaps one of Earth’s rarest and most terrifying natural events. Fire whirls form when the rising heat of a fire is spun by wind into a conical shape, creating a column of spinning fire that can become as strong as a tornado. After the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo, a firestorm that included fire whirls killed 38,000 people in just 15 minutes.
London’s 1952 killer smog was more than an eyesore, when 12,000 people died in four days from the toxic combination of fog and coal smoke. A sudden cold snap on December 5 of that year mixed with the city’s ubiquitous chimney smoke, causing dense fog to roll in. Within two days, visibility in London was down to one foot. By the fourth day, thousands were dead, animals were stricken with black lung, and then, as quickly as it had arrived, the deadly smog was swept out to sea by the wind.
Hailstorms are familiar to any regular reader of Little House on the Prairie,, but not hail that weighs 2.25 pounds like in the giant balls of ice that fell from the sky in the Gopalganj district of Bangladesh in 1986. The hail was considered the heaviest on record, and 92 people were killed when it pummeled the area.
Though not as deadly as some other disasters, the recent Icelandic ash cloud became a disaster in and of itself, shooting a cloud up 20,000 feet into the air. Over the next few weeks, winds caused the cloud to expand south and east, eventually hovering over most of Europe and even into Russia. Hundreds of thousands of flights were grounded, although scientists said the eruption was not strong enough to have a long-term impact on the climate.