26 Biggest Man-Made Disasters

Environmental disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, are largely out of human control. However, some of the most destructive calamities in history were caused by humans. Here's a list comprising 26 of the worst man-made disasters in the world.
HelpSaveNature Staff
Did You Know?
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster, with an estimated damage of USD 235 billion, was the costliest man-made disaster to have occurred in world history. While the event caused the immediate deaths of 31 people, it is estimated to have killed between 10 and 20 thousand people in the long term.
Man-made (anthropogenic) disasters are caused either due to human error or intent, or as a result of failed safety systems. The extent of damage caused by these disasters vary greatly, both in terms of economy and how human lives were affected by the event. For example, if the calamity occurs in a developed country with a dense population, the cost will be very high. A similar disaster occurring in a developing country would cost lesser.

In regards to the death toll, developing countries are hit much harder, due to the lack of resources and assets to handle the disaster. Since classifying man-made disasters according to their effects is subjective, this list (in no particular order) will include events that have had a massive impact on the surrounding people and environment.
Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
One of the worst man-made disasters in U.S. history, the Exxon Valdez oil spill had an important role to play in the formation of several policies by the government regarding oil spill prevention and response and clean-up. Before the Deepwater Horizon event, this was the largest oil spill to occur in United States coastal waters. The incident occurred on March 24, 1989, when an oil tanker named Exxon Valdez struck the Bligh Reef, resulting in the spilling of around 600,000 barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska, polluting around 500 miles of coastline in the region. It was estimated to have killed over 250,000 seabirds, 2,700 otters, 300 bald eagles, and 300 seals, and many fish like herring and salmon. Over 11,000 people were needed in the clean-up operation. However, there are patches which haven't been cleaned as yet; one can find oil on Alaskan beaches even today.
Exxon valdez oil spill
Swans Covered in Toxic Crude Oil
Castle Bravo
The first test of a dry fuel thermonuclear hydrogen bomb by the U.S. was given the code name 'Castle Bravo'. It was detonated on Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, on the 1st of March 1954. it was the most powerful nuclear device used by the United States at the time. Due to inaccurate estimations about the spread of radiation, the test caused a significant amount of accidental contamination, affecting around 20,000 people in the nearby islands.
Castle bravo
Castle Bravo Nuclear Detonation
Three Mile Island Accident
The Three Mile Island Accident was caused due to the partial meltdown of one of the reactors of a nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. It resulted in the release of small amounts of radioactive gases and iodine, which caused schools to shut down, and necessitated the evacuation of sensitive people, such as children and pregnant women. Since then, a number of livestock deaths, premature human deaths, and birth defects have been blamed on this incident.
Three mile island
Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant
Kuwaiti Oil Fires
Over six million barrels of oil were burned in 1991 by the Iraqi military, as they retreated against United States forces in the Gulf War. They burned over 600 oil wells in their 'scorched earth' operation, most of which burned for nearly 7 months, causing heavy soil and air pollution. Over USD 1.5 billion was spent by Kuwait in their efforts to extinguish these fires.
Kuwait oil fires
Burning Oil Wells of Kuwait
Door to Hell
In Derweze, Turkmenistan, a drilling rig made by Soviet geologists in 1971 fell into a large methane gas reservoir. Afraid of the potential damage of such a large release of methane gas, scientists decided to set the gas on fire. The fire was expected to burn for a few day at the most. Unfortunately, due to the large size of the methane deposit, the gas is burning even today after four decades, and is estimated to continue for a long time to come, causing untold amounts of air pollution and wastage of usable fuel.
Door to hell
Door to Hell Methane Pit
1966 Palomares B-52 Crash
On the 17th of January, 1966, a U.S. Air force B-52 bomber aircraft crashed into Palomares village in Almeira, Spain, after hitting a KC-135 refueling aircraft. The B-52 was carrying four Type B28RI hydrogen bombs. Of these explosives, two detonated and caused plutonium contamination across the village, raising political tensions between Spain and the U.S.
Palomares bomber
Boeing B-52 Stratofortress Bomber
Sidoarjo Mud Flow Disaster
Sidoarjo, Indonesia, is the largest mud volcano in the world, which erupted in May 2006 due to gas blowout wells that were drilled by petroleum company PT Lapindo Branta. The volcano pushes out over 180,000 m3 of mud everyday, submerging large areas of the surrounding city. This activity is expected to go on for 20 - 30 more years, which is expected to affect not only the inhabitants of the city, but also wildlife and water sources in and around the region.
Montana Asbestos Contamination
Happy that the vermiculite mines in Libby, Montana, were giving the locals jobs, heavy mining went on for many years. However, since the start of these activities in 1919, the high use of asbestos in the mining plants caused several disorders, such as mesothelioma. The asbestos dust from the mining plants covered the town for years, until the negative effects of the material became common knowledge. Despite the closing of the mine, asbestos is still present in Libby, in large quantities. The effects of the mining plagues the residents even today.
Montana asbestos
Warning Sign for Asbestos Removal at Libby, Montana
Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill
Arguably the largest man-made environmental disaster, the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill was the biggest oil spill in the history of the global petroleum industry. The event occurred due to the explosion of an oil rig, which sank into the sea. The event claimed 11 human lives, and wasted around 5 million barrels of oil, leading to severe threats to more than 8,000 species of marine life. Despite the clean-up efforts, these ecological losses could continue for many years to come.
Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone
This is the most infamous coastal dumping ground in the U.S. for several pollutants, such as nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich pesticides, fertilizers, and animal waste. The pollutants originate from farms near the Mississippi river in such high quantities, that no aquatic life can survive in this area of the gulf near Texas, due to a severe lack of oxygen. The dead zone has steadily increased in size over the years, and with the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the affected area is feared to have widened massively.
Electronic Waste in Guiyu
Guiyu in China is informally known as the e-waste capital of the world. More than 52 square kilometers of land is buried in PCs, iPhones, and other electronic devices. These devices leak out large amounts of heavy metals, which enter the air, water, and land. Samples taken at Guiyu show nearly 400 times more lead and over 100 times more copper than samples taken 25 kilometers away. This staggering amount of pollution has resulted in many cases of lead poisoning, miscarriages, and premature death of several people, which is why Guiyu is also called an 'electronic graveyard'.
Electronic waste guiyu
E-waste at Guiyu, China
Aral Sea Crisis
Considered as one of the worst environmental disasters on the planet, most of the Aral sea, located between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has now disappeared due to the diversion of river sources for irrigation purposes. Due to inefficient construction, what was once the 4th largest inland body of water, is now a dry, salty plain, with little marine life, killing a flourishing fishing industry. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff from nearby farms polluted the remaining water, leaving behind toxic dust when the water evaporated. The event has resulted in many poisonous sandstorms, which kill plant life, and have negative effects for hundreds of miles around.
Aral sea
Remains of Ships at the Aral Sea
Bhopal Gas Tragedy
Arguably the world's worst industrial disaster, over half million people were affected by many toxic gases, such as methyl isocyanate, in Bhopal, India, in December 1984. The event occurred when the pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited leaked due to poor maintenance and inadequate safety measures. More than 2,000 people died, while others suffered from burns and several other health issues. The effects of the Bhopal gas tragedy were felt for decades after the event.
Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster
This event is one of the two nuclear accidents to be classified as level 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale. On the 26th of April 1986, the Chernobyl power plant of Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic had a major meltdown, due to the failure of an experimental test of the cooling systems. The Chernobyl disaster is possibly the worst nuclear power plant incident, as it released 400 times more radioactive material than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, with effects reaching as far as Ireland. Both, humans and animals suffered from deformities, birth defects, and long-term illnesses, such as cancer, due to the incident. The event is estimated to have caused more than 100,000 premature deaths. Over 350,000 people were evacuated, and over 500,000 workers were needed to stop the meltdown. Also, a 30-kilometer area around the power plant is expected to remain dangerously radioactive for any activity for nearly 200 years more.
Chernobyl kindergarten
Kindergarten Classroom Near Chernobyl
Great Smog of 1952
With the increase in industrialization, the people of London had become used to seeing sooty polluted air. However, in 1952, the city of London was covered in an extremely thick layer of smog, for nearly five days. The event occurred when the inhabitants of the city burned high amounts of coal to combat the cold weather. Due to unusual windless conditions, the pollutants from the coal, such as soot, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide, hung over the city like a black blanket. Thousands of people died, and nearly 100,000 fell ill during this period.
Dust Bowl
Heavy industrialized farming and drought conditions were the primary causes of the Dust bowl in the 1930s. When the farmers in California plowed deep into the soil, the natural grasses died, making the earth prone to erosion. The drought-like conditions turned the topsoil into dust, which was then blown away by stormy winds. The events caused massive dust storms, which blotted out the sun, blew vehicles off the roads, and a lot of the soil landed into the Atlantic ocean. More than two million people lost their homes, and immense tracts of farmland became useless, increasing the impact of the Great Depression.
Dust bowl farming
Farming During the Dust Bowl Period
Gulf War Oil Spill
This event occurred along with the Kuwait oil fires, as the Iraqi army dumped several million barrels of oil into the sea, to make it difficult for the Americans to land on their shores. This defense maneuver affected nearby wildlife severely, with a few local species disappearing for good. After the war, Iraq found that the amount of oil was too much to clean up, so now the oil has settled on the water bed. Although nature is slowly making a comeback, there is a very long way to go before things are back to normal.
Gulf war oil spill
A Turtle Struggles to Escape the Crude Oil
Kingston Fossil Plant Coal Fly Ash Slurry Spill
In the early hours of December 22, 2008, an ash dike of the solid waste containment area of the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant ruptured. The containment area held more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash slurry, which flowed out, causing a massive mud wave. Although there was no loss of life at the time, the huge wave of slurry damaged several private and government properties in the city, worth around USD 675 million. However, the ash slurry is believed to have had elements such as arsenic, selenium, lead, and radioactive material. The complete effects of the event are still not known clearly, but there is a risk of diseases such as cancer, neurological problems, etc., that can surface in the years to come.
Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Another example of a man-made disaster, occurring due to human waste, the great Pacific garbage patch is a vortex of plastic debris, such as bags, bottles, etc., floating in the North Pacific Ocean, in an area that is hundreds of miles wide. This patch formed because all the plastics and other buoyant garbage being dumped into the ocean is collected by the water currents, and brought into this area. The patch is estimated to carry around 100 million tons of trash, which affects sea life, such as turtles, fish, and marine animals. Also, since sunlight breaks down the plastic, toxic chemicals enter the water and become a part of the food chain, affecting people all around the world.
Jilin Chemical Plant Explosions
On 13th November 2005, poor handling of operating systems caused a series of explosions in the No.101 petrochemical plant in Jilin City, Jilin Province, China. The blasts killed six of the workers, and injured several more. The event necessitated evacuations for several thousand residents living in the area. The explosions also heavily polluted the Songhua river with over 100 tons of benzene and nitrobenzene sludge, among other pollutants, leaving millions without a vital water source.
Ecocide of Vietnam
During the Vietnam War, a vast range of herbicides, such as Agent Orange were used by American forces on farmland and rice fields which fed a large part of the Vietnamese population. Along with these agricultural lands, large parts of the wild flora and fauna was destroyed. Nearly 5 million Vietnamese people were exposed to these chemicals, leading to severe diseases like cancer, Parkinson's disease, heart and lung problems, etc.
Al-Mishraq Fire
In June 2003, a government-run sulfur plant, named Al-Mishraq, in Mosul, Iraq, caught fire. The fire was suspected to have been started deliberately. It was not put out for nearly a month, and over 21,000 tons of sulfur dioxide was released into the air everyday, which made it the largest man-made release of sulfur dioxide ever recorded. The event caused severe respiratory problems for people living in nearby areas, and was also estimated to have caused acid rains, which had an adverse effect on the crops at the time.
Love Canal Tragedy
In the 1940s, over 20,000 tons of toxic industrial waste of chemical dioxin was buried near the Love Canal neighborhood near Niagara Falls by a company named 'Hooker Chemical'. This toxic dump immediately led to severe health problems, such as cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects in the local residents, which brought in international attention, and the eventual evacuation of the people from this area by the federal government.
Minamata Poisoning
One of the four major pollution-related diseases in Japan, Minamata is caused due to extreme mercury poisoning, which damages the nervous system of affected people. The name of the disease came from the event where Chisso Corporation dumped industrial waste water containing methylmercury into the Miramata Bay, consequently contaminating the food chain. Along with the nervous disorder, over 2,000 deaths were attributed to this event.
Seveso Disaster
In 1976, a blast in a reactor of a chemical plant near Milan, Italy, led to a large quantity of highly-toxic Tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin getting released into the atmosphere, which severely affected the nearby town of Seveso. More than 3,000 animals died, and several more were culled to avoid contamination into the food chain. Over 30,000 residents had to be hospitalized due to acquiring skin lesions and inflammation.
Baia Mare Cyanide Spill
After the Chernobyl disaster, the cyanide spill in Baia Mare, Romania, is considered as the worst environmental disaster of Europe. The event occurred on 30th January, 2000, when more than 100,000 cubic meters of water contaminated with more than 100 tons of cyanide leaked out from a dam of a gold mining company, due to poor management and lack of monitoring. Cyanide is used to extract the precious metal from the ore. The poisoned water killed huge numbers of fish and aquatic plants. Several people who ate the fish had to be hospitalized. The water supply of over 2 million people in Hungary was destroyed.
In most of these man-made disasters, careless negligence and a lack of regard for life have been largely responsible, with horrifying effects. It is important that the people being appointed to handle projects with such damaging potential are thoroughly vetted, before being given such heavy responsibilities. If this is not done, it is only a matter of time before history repeats itself.