Disasters: Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Terrorist Attacks & More
Find information about catastrophic natural and human-caused disasters. The following lists are not all-inclusive. Only disasters involving great loss of life and/or property, historical interest, or unusual circumstances are listed. For additional information and the latest disasters, see Current Events.
It's unfortunate, but many of the natural processes that keep the Earth moving can result in tragedy. The tectonic movement that protects us from solar radiation also causes earthquakes. The air pressure changes that bring rain and carry seeds also cause hurricanes. At their worst, these natural events can spell catastrophe for humans, and much of human history has been shaped by natural disasters. Read on to learn more about what these disasters are, why they happen, how we respond in afflicted areas, and some important historical examples.
An earthquake, the sudden and disruptive shaking of the earth, is a result of the Earth's tectonic plates moving (this is also what causes volcanic activity). Tsunamis are massive waves most often caused by earthquakes occurring out in the ocean. Earthquakes occur everywhere, but are most common (and most devastating) in coastal regions.
While these types of disasters generally occur within particular times of year, due to the prevailing climate, they are caused by very particular atmospheric conditions. These types of disasters are best looked at together, due to substantial overlap. Hurricanes specifically form over the ocean, and as such primarily affect coastal regions. Tornadoes also have a fairly limited range of areas where they regularly form. Thunderstorms occur much more broadly.
Other Major Natural Disasters
In addition to the other major categories of natural disasters, there are some dangerous conditions that don't neatly fit. Floods and avalanches, for instance, can be set off by a wide range of causes. For that reason we've separated them out here.
In the United States
With such a wide and varied natural landscape, it comes as no surprise that the United States has seen its fair share of natural disasters. The U.S. is the world capital for tornadoes, several states and territories are in hurricane-prone regions, and the entire west coast lies along a tectonic plate boundary. And, as one of the world's most populous and industrialized countries, there are no shortage of man-made disasters either. Learn more about some of the defining disasters in U.S. history.
If natural disasters were not enough, humans have contributed their own share of catastrophic accidents. As new technology develops, unseen risks or improper precautions can result in tragedy. Even when every safety measure is taken, extreme weather can lead to disastrous consequences. Upon the invention of trains, we had train derailments. Upon splitting the atom, we had nuclear disasters. Learn about some of the most (and least) common man-made disasters, some historical examples, and how we try and prevent them.
Mines, factories, and other industrial centers have been at the heart of some of history's worst accidents. These places can contain volatile materials, or undergo immense structural stress due to the labor conducted there. In worst case scenarios, these sites can suffer from explosions or collapses, leading to loss of life and potential environmental damage.
Nuclear & Chemical Disasters
Though they've been infrequent since the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s, there have been a few instances where attempts to harness nuclear power have gone horribly awry. These disasters can leave miles of land uninhabitable for decades, or even centuries. Leaks of dangerous chemicals can have a similar effect, though these are generally less severe.
Anyone who's driven a car knows that getting from point A to point B can sometimes be dangerous. Errors in judgement, minor technical malfunctions, and even the interference of animals can cause serious problems. When these problems occur with mass transit vehicles like trains, those problems can be disastrous.
Though substantially more niche than the other categories, sporting events can be unfortunately ripe for tragedy. With many people packed into tight areas, and huge amounts of movement and commotion, disaster has befallen a non-trivial number of races, games, and more.
Acts of terror stick out from the rest of this page as they are the result of deliberate, politically-motivated aggression and violence. However, we've included them on this page as the worst terror attacks deserve no lesser word than "disaster." We have featured here some notable terrorist actions of the last decades. You can find more info on important terrorist acts under our Current Events.
In instances of disaster, you should always first check official advisories and protocols, and follow the directions put out by local emergency personnel. In addition, Infoplease is happy to offer some resources to help you learn what to expect in these unfortunate circumstances.