Natural disasters are the stuff that fear is made of. We can prepare for them, but we can't prevent them; we can anticipate them, but we can't accurately predict them. (If we could, they wouldn't be much of a problem.)
Natural disasters put us in our place on a fairly regular basis, letting us know that the planet, and not humanity, is in charge.
No. 01 - "The Great Flood," sometime a long, long time ago
Be it a historic deluge or merely a historic delusion, the theme of an ancient, destructive flood appears across a wide variety of cultures, from the Judeo-Christian Noah's Ark to Sumerian, Indian and Native American legends. And it certainly is the stuff of legend: the whole world submerged! Sinners wiped out! Species threatened! There's just one problem: the flood may not actually have happened.
So did the flood actually take place, way back when, eons ago, or is it just a catchy story, perpetuated by humanity's collective fascination with the idea of "washing things clean" and influenced by a few bad floods in ancient times?
Most of the scientific community seems to regard the legend as nothing more than a myth, but just for its longevity and continuing role as a basis of comparison for every flood to occur in modern times, the "Great Flood" makes the list.
No. 02 - Indian Ocean Tsunami, Dec. 26, 2004
It all started with an earthquake - a very big earthquake. The 9.1 magnitude Sumatra quake, centered off the coast of that Indonesian island, was the third largest recorded quake in history.
It was also the longest. The earth shook for over eight minutes when the fault slipped at the Andaman-Sumatra subduction zone, where the Indian Plate is slowly sliding underneath the Burma Plate. The quake was so severe that the entire planet vibrated as much as 1 centimeter.
However, the quake was just the start of Mother Nature's reign of terror.
The tsunami that it unleashed was the most destructive in recorded history. Spreading over 14 countries, it killed nearly 230,000 people and displaced some 1.7 million more. Water levels rose worldwide and waves up to 100 feet high inundated smaller islands, eventually providing the impetus for a new Indian Ocean tsunami warning system.
No. 03 - Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 Atlantic Hurricane Season
The Category 5 storm named Katrina that roared through the Gulf Coast in August 2005 is now infamous. More than 1,800 people lost their lives as Katrina challenged an infrastructure that was never designed to handle such might. Eighty percent of New Orleans flooded as levees failed and stormwaters surged, providing a powerful and humbling message about the destructive power of nature.
Katrina's maximum sustained winds of 175 mph made it the fourth most severe Atlantic hurricane on record, but it would be surpassed by both Hurricanes Rita and Wilma in the coming months. By the end of the 2005 hurricane season, forecasters had exhausted the full alphabet of storm names and turned to Greek letters to do the job. Fifteen hurricanes made the season the worst on record, with some experts wondering what role global warming might have played and whether the season was a warning of future years to come.
No. 04 - Krakatoa (aka Krakatau), Aug. 26-27, 1883
When it exploded in a series of four blasts in August 1883, the Indonesian volcano of Krakatoa released three cubic miles of magma and as much energy as an atomic bomb. At least one of the blasts was heard thousands of miles away.
The volcanic boom that shook nearly the entire Pacific took out an entire island as the volcanic crater sank to the ocean floor and unleashed a tsunami that submerged over 100 villages on nearby islands. Over 36,000 people died, most in the resulting tsunamis.
The ash Krakatoa spewed into the air traveled as far as New York and cooled temperatures globally for years to come, but its legacy as one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in history has lasted much longer than that. Today, a smaller volcano island has emerged in its place. Named Anak Krakatau (meaning "child of Krakatau"), it emerged about 80 years ago and though it is prone to spewing ash and lava, geologists think it's unlikely it will repeat its parent's fate anytime soon.
No. 05 - Pompeii, 79 A.D.
Your average disaster has a shelf life ranging from a few months to a few years … rarely much longer than lifetime or two, which makes the volcanic eruption at the Italian city of Pompeii all that more impressive.
You've probably heard of it even though it happened nearly 2,000 years ago, way back in 79 A.D. The eruption lasted almost a full day and buried the city in a fast-moving cloud of ash and pumice (called a pyroclastic flow). Bad news if you were a resident in the year 79, but good news if you were an 18th- or 19th-century archaeologist. The ashes preserved the ruins, including the remains of the inhabitants, for thousands of years.
Mount Vesuvius, the local volcano and guilty party, is still active, but hasn't erupted since 1944. During World War II, when an eruption destroyed several villages and a whole bunch of U.S. Army planes.
No. 06 - Tangshan, Earthquake, 1976
When we think of earthquakes in China, the most vivid images may be of the recent 2008 Sichuan earthquake. That quake killed 69,000 people, many of them schoolchildren who were the victims of shoddy engineering and a construction boom that tossed seismic standards by the wayside.
But while the Sichuan quake was deadly, it can't compare with China's 1976 Tangshan quake.
The official death toll there was placed at 255,000, but the real number may be more than double that, leading 1976 to be considered a cursed year in China. The 7.5 magnitude quake (and its powerful aftershocks) was the second deadliest earthquake ever recorded, second only to another Chinese quake that occurred in 1556 and took an estimated 830,000 lives. In that 1556 quake, too, engineering played a role: Many area residents were cave dwellers whose homes collapsed under the heavy shaking.
No. 07 - The Super Outbreak, April 3-4, 1974
In what can only be described as a terrifying demonstration of weather at its worst, the 148 tornadoes that roared through 13 states (not one of which was Kansas) during 24 terrifying hours in the spring of 1974 left 330 people dead and over 5,000 injured.
Put together, those tornadoes ravaged through 2,500 square miles, making it the worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history. No small accomplishment in a country that is the world leader in tornadoes.
The destructive funnel-shaped clouds have a special place in North America, where a unique topography encourages the shifting winds and clashing air masses that foster a young tornado's growth.
A later analysis of the outbreak showed that most of the nearly 150 tornadoes were spawned from just 30 thunderstorm cells.
No. 08 - Great Chilean Quake, May 22, 1960
It wasn't the deadliest or most destructive quake on record, but in terns of brute strength, the 9.5 magnitude earthquake centered in Valdivia, Chile, was the strongest ever recorded. The 1960 quake, the result of the Nazca Plate's slow and steady push under the South American Plate, took place at one of the most seismically active faults in the world.
The Valdivia quake left at least 1,600 people dead (though some sources estimate as many as 5,700 dead) and 2 million without homes. Whole villages were submerged as an earthquake-triggered tsunami roared up on shores both near and far. The tsunami eventually reached as far away as Hawaii, where 61 people were killed, and Japan, where 138 lost their lives. Several powerful foreshocks (one with a 7.9 magnitude) increased the overall destruction.
Today, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey are attempting to use foreshocks to set up an earthquake forecasting system.
No. 09 - "Storm of the Century," March 12-15, 1993
Eleven tornadoes, hurricane-force winds in the South, a snowed-in Eastern Seaboard and torrential rain elsewhere characterized March 1993's "superstorm."
The monstrous weather event stretched from Cuba to Canada and may indeed have been the "storm of the century." What made the storm so powerful?
A merging of weather systems: As storms brewed in the Gulf of Mexico, the jet stream carried a frigid, high pressure system down from the Midwest. When they collided and then combined forces, it was a recipe for a disaster that moved up the coast, pushing 44 million acre-feet of precipitation with it. The storm caused up to $6 billion in damage and left millions without power. It also cost 300 people their lives.
No. 10 - Peshtigo Wildfire, Oct. 8, 1871
You probably haven't heard of it, but the wildfire that raged through Peshtigo, Wis., and more than a million acres of surrounding land in October 1871 was the worst recorded wildfire in U.S. history. Eyewitness accounts described the blaze as a "tornado of fire" and almost 1,200 people were reported dead. Most sources place the blame for the fire on an unusually hot, dry summer and the slash-and-burn logging techniques that were common at the time.
Today, water-dumping jumbo jets, high-pressure water lines and fire-tracking Doppler radar help us tackle forest fires and keep them from taking lives, if not property. All that was still a long way in the future back in 1871, though, and rural areas like Peshtigo were nearly defenseless against raging fires.