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10 worst man-made environmental disasters

As oil threatens the Gulf Coast, a list of 10 other disasters both forgotten and infamous, from the Dust Bowl to Bhopal.

The oil crisis

Although it is the most infamous oil spill in history, the Exxon Valdez catastrophe that dumped 11 million gallons of oil into the Prince William Sound of Alaska in 1989 is actually far from the largest on record. The Gulf War oil spill in 1991, for example, resulted in at least 160 million gallons of oil entering the Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, Exxon Valdez heightened public awareness of the great environmental costs of oil spills and led Congress to pass the Oil Pollution Act in 1990. Tragically, clean-up efforts such as high-pressure washing of shorelines that followed Exxon Valdez also had detrimental effects on the once pristine ecosystem of the sound.

Oil spill
A bird stained with oil after a 2007 spill near Russia. (Alexander Natruskin/Reuters)

Dying oceans

When the cod population crashed in the historically abundant waters off of Newfoundland in 1992, 40,000 people lost their jobs and the effect on the region’s marine ecosystem was devastating. Today, fishing stocks from Iceland to Chile are overfished and suffering. The writing on the wall couldn’t be clearer: The world’s oceans are being pushed to their ecological limits. And, diminishing populations of fish don’t just affect the great predators of the seas, they bring the economies and livelihoods of their human predators down with them.

Bangladesh market
Wholesale market in Bangladesh. (Andrew Biraj/Reuters)

Perfect storm over Lake Victoria

Today, the largest lake in Africa is the center of a perfect storm of environmental crises: chemical and raw sewage pollution; overfishing; a plague of water hyacinth plants; exploding algae blooms that suffocate flora and fauna. Additionally, the lake’s border is shrinking by as much as 150 feet in some places. Forty million Africans in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are dependent on Lake Victoria for their livelihoods and sustenance making this one of the worst unfolding environmental disasters.

A highly endangered shoebill. (Reuters)

Rape of the Amazon

Twenty percent of the Amazon rainforest has been lost to logging, soy-farming, cattle ranches and roads in recent decades. The damage to the forest’s biodiversity is inestimable and the release of large amounts of carbon held in the forest’s flora could be accelerating global warming. Some experts now believe the way to mitigate deforestation of the Amazon could be to create better jobs through sustainable development. "It's no good people saying the Amazon has to be the sanctuary of humanity and forget that there are 20 million people living there," said Brazil's President Luiz Lula da Silva.

The Amazon near Mandaquiri, Brazil. (Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

Our warming planet

Jellyfish swarms. Melting glaciers. Lakes turned to desert. Spreading disease. The effects of global warming caused by increased greenhouse gases read like descriptions of the Great Tribulation in The Bible. The first climate change conference was held in 1963 and with increasing urgency, scientists have been raising red flags ever since, warning us that because of unchecked consumption of fossil fuels, the human species is approaching a critical threshold where we will no longer be able to influence the warming climate.

Jellyfish near Majorca, Spain. (Inaki Relanzon/Oceana)

Read about the animal species most at risk from the Gulf oil spill.