Nature is a funny thing, in that it can provide for us just as easily as it can lead to our destruction. From extinction events to tsunamis to volcanic eruptions, Mother Nature has proven to be deadlier than the biggest cinematic kaiju. Given the rampant amount of these events that have happened here on Earth, it’s honestly amazing that we’re still here today. With that in mind, these are 10 times that humanity was nearly stomped out by events beyond our control.
10. The 1811–1812 New Madrid Earthquakes
When it comes to natural disasters, earthquakes are definitely high on the ranking for the most dangerous and unpredictable. Case in point, the New Madrid Earthquakes that occurred in Missouri in both the years 1811 and 1812. Per the United States Geological Survey, there were a total of three earthquakes that devastated the region over the course of three months. These nearly-rapid-fire earthquakes are still regarded as some of the most significant ever recorded in North America, even having a lasting effect on the area.
When the first quake kicked off in December 1811, the shocks only grew in magnitude, with the most powerful arriving on January 23, 1812. Given the destructive power of the seismic activity, it was felt from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, causing widespread destruction! Not only that, but they were so powerful that they created new lakes and dramatically changed the course of the Mississippi River.
These quakes were so powerful that the tremors that followed persisted for months, with aftershocks still being felt years later. It was because of the 1811–1812 New Madrid Earthquakes that research into earthquakes was taken far more seriously for the sake of preparedness and monitoring in the United States.
9. The K-Pg Extinction Event (Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction)
Let’s discuss arguably one of Earth’s biggest mass extinction events. That being the K-Pg (Cretaceous-Paleogene) Extinction Event, often referred to as the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) Extinction, occurred close to 66 million years ago. Serving as a brutal transition between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods, the event is best known for wiping out the dinosaurs.
As noted by Britannica, the event is commonly accepted to have been caused by the impact of a gigantic asteroid colliding with Earth’s surface. After crashing into what is now known as Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, the impact not only caused massive wildfires and tsunamis, it also released ample debris into the atmosphere. This scattered debris resulted in a quasi-nuclear winter which, after blocking out the sun, resulted in reduced temperatures and the death of plant life.
But, as mentioned previously, the biggest casualty of this event was, of course, the dinosaurs, which went completely extinct as a result. Nowadays, all we have to remember about these once mighty creatures is their fossilized remains and the Jurassic Park movies. More importantly, the event still stands as one of the most major instances of Earth surviving, what could have been, a world-ending event.
8. The Toba Supervolcano Eruption
Nearly 74,000 years ago, the Toba Supervolcano eruption rocked what is known in the modern day as Indonesia. Per Communications Earth & Environment, the volcanic eruption released a staggering 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash and smoke into the atmosphere. Volcanic ash and atmospheric debris seem to be a recurring factor among many extinction or near-extinction level events and this is no exception.
Much like with K-Pg, a volcanically-induced winter covered the earth, massively affecting the ecosystem once again, but this time with a twist. According to the Max Planck Institute, early humans, or Homo sapiens, were severely affected by these negatively altered conditions, severely reducing the previously existing amount of them. Unlike with the dinosaurs, however, this near-cataclysm was not a full extinction of another species, evidenced by the fact that you are reading this article right now. One can even make an argument that it was the conditions brought on by the Toba Supervolcano Eruption that resulted in humanity’s genetic diversity.
It is impressive that the Earth was geologically sturdy enough to survive something like this, same goes for the surviving Homo sapiens as well. While not brought up as much as the K-Pg Extinction Event, the Toba Supervolcano Eruption is another prime example of humanity dodging a sizable bullet.
7. The 1815 Tambora Eruption
During April 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted with a force that can only be likened to the wrath of an actual god. As explained in the pages of Smithsonian Magazine, the eruption sent volcanic ash, smoke, and fumes more than 40 kilometers into the air and into Earth’s atmosphere. What followed were destructive bouts of pyroclastic flows, tsunamis, and rain comprised of ash and pumice, all of which devastated the nearby areas.
However, it didn’t end there, as the debris now littering the sky resulted in a sizable cooling of the Earth’s climate. In 1816, the Earth experienced what is now referred to as “The Year Without a Summer,” causing people’s crops to die en masse. This resulted in famine in both North America and Europe, which was then compounded by the ensuing destabilization of the economy and everyday life as well.
It’s a harsh reminder of just how devastating volcanic eruptions can be, especially for the inhabitants of the planet. Additionally, it’s more than a little terrifying to imagine a year without the sun, as well as the aggressive effects it would have on our daily rhythms.
6. The Magnetic Wandering Event
Breaking from meteoric impacts and volcanic cataclysms for a moment, it’s time to dive into the Magnetic Wandering Event. It’s a curious piece of Earth’s history and one that, once explained, really makes you consider the importance of magnetic shifts. Per information provided by GeoScience World, roughly 40-42 thousand years ago, Earth’s magnetic field underwent a major change, causing the magnetic poles to begin moving erratically. Magnetic Poles are defined as regions at each end of a magnet where the external magnetic field is strongest.
Acting as a force field of sorts, Earth’s magnetic field mainly protects it against cosmic radiation, but when the poles switch, much like with the Magnetic Wandering Event, the shield weakens, which leaves the Earth vulnerable to high-energy particles. With this in mind, recent research has led scientists to theorize that this particular event is very likely a major culprit in the extinction of the Denisovans and Neanderthals.
With Earth’s magnetic force field in flux, the planet found itself bombarded by cosmic radiation, evident by an increase in carbon-14 levels. These conditions caused an ice sheet to envelope North America, more than likely making conditions quite tough for the population at the time. Prof. Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales even stated, “It probably would have seemed like the end of days.”
5. The 536 AD Mystery
You very well might’ve lived through some tumultuous years in your life, but just be thankful that it wasn’t anything like 536 AD. This is one of the more mysterious events on this list as, even today, historians and scientists are still debating its cause. However, as noted by the Science publication, the most likely cause has been determined to have been a volcanic eruption. This eruption in question was located in either Iceland or North America, releasing a surplus of debris into the atmosphere. This thick layer of volcanic materials led to a volcanic winter which sent Earth spiraling into a state of extreme cold and prolonged darkness.
This prolonged winter led to crop failures, famine, and widespread starvation, which resulted in not only social unrest but mass migrations of various populations as well. Given these harsh, volcanically induced conditions, this means that it has a lot in common with the 1815 Tambora Eruption and the Toba Supervolcano Eruption as well. It also serves as another prime example of humanity surviving another twist of fate from Mother Nature when it very easily could’ve been wiped out entirely.
4. The 1908 Tunguska Event
In the year 1908, Siberia experienced an event that, even to this very day, is still being discussed and studied. The Tunguska Event was a powerful explosion that was so powerful it was able to knock down close to 80 million trees. Thankfully, the area of impact wasn’t heavily populated. There were no human casualties. Research has led many to believe that the event was caused by the airburst of a meteoroid or comet fragment in Earth’s atmosphere.
As far as cosmic events go, it’s still regarded as one of the most significant in recorded human history, and it’s not hard to see why. Looking at pictures of the event’s aftermath it almost feels like something you’d see in a piece of fiction but unbelievably, it’s genuine. Not only did the Tunguska Event obliterate 2,000 square kilometers of forest, but it also caused seismic shockwaves that were felt worldwide.
Curiously, when scientists conducted expeditions to study the event’s aftermath, they discovered no visible impact crater of any kind. This supports the idea that the object more than likely disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere before what would’ve been its impact. The 1908 Tunguska Event still stands as a sobering example of just how important it is for humanity to keep watching the skies.
3. The Threat of Near-Earth Objects
Expanding our scope for a moment, let’s discuss the threat of Near-Earth Objects, or NEOs, and what exactly they’re capable of. NEOs include the likes of asteroids and comets that have orbits strong enough to bring them close to Earth. The threat of these NEOS remains a significant concern for organizations like NASA, who see them as a significant concern for planetary safety.
The Chelyabinsk meteor event in 2013 serves as a prime example of just how dangerous NEOs can be and why they warrant constant vigilance. Caused by a powerful airburst over Russia, the event created a flash on par with the brightness of the sun and created a shockwave equivalent to 500 kilotons of TNT. Further still, the event proved to be so powerful that it resulted in the injuries of several people and extensive property damage.
This is just one example of how devastating NEOs can be and shows why they’ve become a primary concern for NASA. In fact, NASA continues to develop technological innovations and strategies for NEO prevention alongside various international partners. These innovations and strategies include the development of spacecraft and various techniques to change an impending NEO’s trajectory should one be detected.
2. Modern Day Climate Change
The topic of climate change will never leave the spotlight and, in all honesty, it never should. While some may still choose to ignore or even downplay the effects of climate change, its consequences have become too widespread and significant to ignore.
For starters, there has been a global increase in temperatures, resulting in severe mortality rates, reduced productivity, and damage to infrastructure. This is due in major part to the excessive release of greenhouse gasses, most notably carbon dioxide, which is often the result of burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and negligent industrial processes.
These increases in temperature ducktail right into another unfortunate byproduct of climate change, the rise of sea levels. With polar ice caps and glaciers melting at increasing speeds, this means that coastal communities are at greater risk of both flooding and erosion. Add to that the risks that it presents to wildlife, as well as underwater ecosystems, and the whole situation becomes exceedingly more dire. However, this is still an ongoing situation, with many working hard in an attempt to mitigate the effects and even course-correct certain contributing factors. Most notably, the Paris Agreement’s main goal is seeking to lessen the impacts of climate change and develop strategies for a more sustainable future.
1. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
When it comes to more modern disasters, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami is still one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. On December 26, 2004, a massive undersea earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1–9.3 began off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The energy of this quake was enough to displace the seafloor and generate a series of powerful tsunami waves that radiated outward across the Indian Ocean.
Not long after, coastal communities in 14 countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India, were rocked by sizable waves. None of these countries were prepared for the resulting waves which, having reached heights of 100 feet, caused widespread devastation along various coastlines. The damage was immense, with entire villages swept away by the waves, resulting in an estimated 230,000 to 280,000 lives lost.
In addition, not only were millions left displaced or homeless, but the damage done to the local environment and economy was just as severe. The resulting destruction was so widespread and immense that it prompted a global response for humanitarian aid and disaster relief efforts. It’s honestly horrifying to imagine your entire way of life being literally swept away by a disaster of this magnitude.