1. Haiti Earthquake
2. Iceland Volcano
3. Chile Earthquake
4. Pakistan Floods
5. Guatemala Sinkhole
6. Machu Picchu Landslide
7. Nashville Floods
8. China Earthquake
9. East Coast Blizzard
10. Russia Wildfires
The year 2010 will be remembered as one of extremes in nature. Thick blankets of snow brought the United States government to a standstill for a week. Massive floodwaters consumed a full fifth of Pakistan. A relentless heat wave destroyed one-third of Russia's wheat crop as weeks of wildfires crept uncomfortably close to that country's radioactive wasteland.
Some people insist that none of this chaos is related to global climate change, placing the blame squarely on El Nino, a natural warming of the Pacific, and La Nina, a corresponding ocean cooling. Scientists working for the United Nations suggest otherwise: Ghassem Asrar, director of the U.N.'s World Climate Research Programme, pointed the finger at climate change, saying it has created "blocking episodes." These in turn prevent humidity or heat from dispersing naturally, thereby creating long-lasting snow or rain storms, or extensive hot, dry spells.
If this is true -- and we know with certainty that the ocean temperature has risen by one degree Fahrenheit -- the world will have more of these freak storms and unbearable heat waves in 2011.
Of course, not all catastrophic natural disasters can be blamed on changing weather patterns. A horrific earthquake ripped through Haiti, followed shortly by two more in Chile and China. The trio caused people to wonder if the number of earthquakes was on the rise. The short answer has been no; however, more quakes hit densely populated areas in 2010.
As distant as some tragedies may seem, they disrupt the delicate balance of the international food economy. Floods and fire that wipe out crops in Russia, Pakistan, and Peru drive up food prices for the poorest nations, which spend more than 75 percent of their household incomes on imported grains.
Bets are on that more extreme events will take place in the coming year -- just look at how much people are spending on disaster insurance. And stock up on nonperishables and get your snowshoes ready; we're now in La Nina, and she's promising a blisteringly cold winter.
Lisa Hix is a freelance writer and former Yahoo! editor who's been published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Glamour, and Bust. She's currently an associate editor at Collectors Weekly and a KQED Arts blogger. Find her on Twitter.
Before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, the Caribbean nation was already holding on by a thread. Haiti struggled with political corruption, desperate poverty, and starvation. Because of overfarming, floods, and deforestation, the country could not feed itself: Just two years ago, hungry Haitians stormed the presidential palace when rising world food prices caused a food shortage. With the country's infrastructure already precariously close to collapsing, the Haiti quake made for the most devastating impact that the world has seen in a century.
The temblor, with its epicenter located 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, radiated waves of destruction through the Haitian capital. Most of the poorly constructed buildings toppled as if they were made of paper.
Countries around the world pledged money and resources, but aid workers found getting help through Haiti's damaged port and limited airport a logistical nightmare, and they had no way to manage the Haitians' overwhelming needs.
Relatively wealthy Americans returned home to tell stories of spending days trapped in the rubble of high-end hotels. The death toll climbed to an estimate of more than 250,000 people: Haitians rescued from being buried underground were dying in the makeshift hospitals from secondary infections or dehydration. Some locals questioned how foreign rescue squads prioritized searches, if luxury hotels were deemed more important.
Further scandal erupted when American missionaries were arrested after they tried to take 33 Haitian "orphans" out of the country. Many of the kids actually had parents who thought that giving up their children would offer them a better future. The scandals weren't restricted to misguided outsiders: Refugee camps were set up right next to luxury nightclubs, which returned to business as usual within a few weeks.
Chaos aside, the tragedy was at the forefront of the American public's consciousness. Many rushed to give during the star-studded Hope for Haiti Now telethon, hosted by George Clooney and Wyclef Jean, which raised $61 million. The quake brought political foes George W. Bush and Bill Clinton together to assist in the crisis. By October, the American Red Cross reported raising $476 million.
At the end of 2010, however, Port-au-Prince is nowhere near rebuilt, the Haitian government remains barely able to distribute aid and health care, much less hold a presidential election. Only a small percentage of the $5.3 billion in aid promised by world governments has arrived in Haiti. The U.S. waited until November to release 10 percent of a $1.2 billion pledge towards rebuilding, withheld for months out of fear the money would be misspent. The cholera outbreak from unsanitary conditions, which has left hundreds dead, however has urged another round of handouts, and the World Bank pledged a $10 million emergency grant, largely to NGOs already handling the medical response.
Yet it's precisely the co-dependent relationship between thousands of NGOs (non-governmental organizations and charities) and an unstable government that has refueled a backlash against more giving. (NPR's This American Life compellingly walked through the impossibly entangled bureaucracy trying to help the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.)
As people work to coordinate the funds, the specter of another devastation may be at hand: Scientists have discovered a "blind" fault that is likely to produce an even larger earthquake in Haiti in years to come.
Miraculously, Eyjafjallajokull took no lives after it erupted on April 14. Still, the Icelandic volcano prompted millions of people around the world to shake their fists at it, while non-Icelandic speakers feared to pronounce its name. This mountain spewed a stream of steam, tiny pieces of rock, and minuscule glass particles, and winds carried a tremendous ash cloud (330,000,000 cubic yards) directly into the flight paths of almost every major European airport.
As it happens, volcanic glass particles can get into an airplane's engines and cause them to fail. Fearing the worst, the European Union immediately halted all flights in and out of 23 European countries for six full days. More than 100,000 flights were canceled, and some 8 million travelers had to make other arrangements -- giant slumber parties at airports, or opting for trains, ferries, and cruise ships. "Monty Python" co-founder John Cleese coughed up $5,500 for a cab to take him from Oslo to Brussels.
Airlines and the EU government squabbled about who had to pay for the stranded passengers' room and board. The chaos seemed like a cosmic joke played by a wily Norse god. Governments may have overreacted in closing airspace, though: Scientists weren't convinced that Eyjafjallajokull produced enough specks of glass to down a jetliner.
Outside the collective stress the ash cloud caused, the halted air travel -- costing airlines about $250 million a day -- was a stark reminder of just how interconnected the world's economies are. Grounded planes stopped the exchange of food products, factory machine parts, and other vital goods, and kept businesspeople at home. Wounded soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, normally sent to Europe for medical care, were rerouted to America.
European air traffic shut down briefly once more in May, before the volcano stopped spewing ash -- a big relief to those who feared the eruption would go on for years, or wake up its much larger and even more dangerous sister volcano Katla.
Near Eyjafjallajokull, more than 800 residents were forced to stay indoors for days as the ash caused respiratory problems in the healthiest of adults. Farmers even closer to the mountain range warily watched for a lava flow that would scorch their land.
Homebound Icelanders probably cheered themselves by cruising YouTube for all the non-Icelandic newscasters stumbling over the proper way to say "Eyjafjallajokull" or avoiding the word altogether. Not that people didn't gamely try, as searches shot up for "how to pronounce Eyjafjallajokull."
As for why Eyjafjallajokull threw a geothermal fit, University of Iceland volcanologist Freysteinn Sigmundsson told OurAmazingPlanet that "two or more discrete magmatic sources were involved, with magma of different composition." The interaction between these two may have caused the volcanic temper, and underscored the "complexity of the plumbing system." Sigmundsson and his team published their findings in the November 18 issue of Nature.
While Eyjafjallajokull is done tripping newscaster tongues, this may not be the last time an Icelandic volcano trips up world travel. Geophysicists fretted in early November when Grimsvotn spouted melted-glacier water. So far, thankfully, there are no signs of an eruption.
On February 27, six weeks after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake wreaked havoc on Haiti, an 8.8-magnitude temblor struck just off the coast of Maule in Chile. A tsunami swept through the fishing village of Constitucion and other coastal towns. The quake, with an epicenter 70 miles from the country's second-largest metropolis, Concepcion, and 186 miles from the capital of Santiago, shook the six major Chilean states and parts of Argentina.
More than 500 died, and the disaster caused more than $30 billion in damage, leaving more than 200,000 Chileans homeless and destroying about 20 percent of the country's wine. The number of fatalities, though, was notably small in comparison to the horrors that befell Haiti. This wealthy country, well aware of the seismically active fault located on the sea floor, had much more rigorous earthquake standards for its structures. The outgoing government of Michelle Bachelet even refused international aid at first, asserting with pride that Chile had the resources to take care of itself.
Many Chileans, however, criticized Bachelet for being slow to act and for underestimating the damage. Others went after Chile's navy and emergency management department for failing to warn coastal residents about the tsunami, a mistake that cost hundreds of lives. Looting spread across the devastated cities. Still, the government and local organizations, which eventually accepted foreign aid, were able to build shacks and temporary schools, and to provide toilets, drinking water, food, and clothes.
That said, some quake refugees still live in the tent cities, and feel their situation has been overshadowed by a man-made disaster that captivated the world: The 33 miners who emerged alive after spending 68 days trapped underground.
The government of President Sebastian Pinera (who took office two weeks after the quake) and the Chilean National Congress insist that more than 90 percent of hospitals, ports, roads, and schools damaged in the quake have been rebuilt or made functional. Pinera's government has promised $8.4 billion in recovery money, and Congress passed a $1 billion construction package in October, so that within two or three years, most of the survivors who lost their homes will receive government-sponsored housing.
One scientific phenomenon captivated people's attention: NASA scientists speculate that this quake -- the fifth largest ever recorded -- was so strong that it may have shortened Earth's days by 1.26 microseconds (a little more than one-millionth of a second). Even odder: The temblor may have shifted the entire city of Concepcion 10 feet to the west; Santiago, 11 inches to the southwest; and Buenos Aires, 1 inch to the west.
The monsoons come every July in Pakistan, but the 2010 torrents were the worst in 100 years. By the time the rains subsided, a full one-fifth of the country was underwater -- an area of land that, if located in the U.S., would stretch from Minnesota to Texas. So far, the floods have taken the lives of around 2,000 Pakistanis, and the death toll is likely to rise, especially among children, as diseases like cholera and dengue fever threaten to spread, and as 6 million left homeless face the brutal cold of winter.
The disaster, causing an estimated $9.6 billion in damages, inflicted poverty and starvation on 3 million young women and 6 million children as it washed away entire villages and livestock and devastated 7.8 million acres of farmland. And, as the Independent noted, in a "place used to wretched ironies," a particularly cruel one has been the lack of safe drinking water, a crisis that will persist for decades.
Perhaps more devastating is just how little international relief Pakistan received in the first desperate days. In the immediate wake of the Haiti quake, more than $742 million in international aid was committed to the relief effort, and $920 million pledged. For Pakistan, however, governments worldwide had committed only $45 million by August 9, and pledged an additional $91 million. By September, the United States had provided $200 million for the Pakistan relief effort -- less than half of what went to Haiti -- and no troops or online social networking to coordinate relief efforts on the ground.
The sluggish donations from otherwise generous Americans may come from many reasons: Recession-plagued people suffering from "donor fatigue," rising anti-Islam sentiment, and outrage toward extremist organizations in Pakistan funding al-Qaida (which also were linked to local relief groups). Reluctance may also stem from fears that the government, which flat-out rejected any Western oversight, will misuse the funding.
However, some people fear that lack of funds could end up being a diplomatic mistake, and that signs of U.S. compassion could turn the tide on the growing anti-American fervor in the country and diminish support for Islamist extremists. It may not be too late. The U.N. just put out a renewed plea for international donations to the Pakistani relief fund, which was countered by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who demanded that the Pakistani government prove it is fighting corruption before it receives any more relief money.
Reports from the ground, though, show that Pakistanis are helping themselves. With less than half of the $1.9 billion needed received by the U.N. and winter fast approaching, that spirit is needed. "“We appreciate all the outside help, including seeds being supplied by the US," one Pakistani told a UN news service reporter, "but the Pukhtoon are proud people and we are determined to help ourselves.”
What could be more surreal than a giant hole opening up beneath your feet? Sinkholes are a phenomenon in which groundwater weakens bedrock, causing it to cave during a storm, and they are not uncommon. In fact, in Florida sinkholes are so common that the state is considering creating a sinkhole insurance program.
Among the more astounding craters this year were one in Tampa that ate a Camry, one in rural Canada that took out a road, one in Milwaukee that swallowed a Cadillac, one in Los Angeles that pulled in a fire truck, and another in China. However, none of these was quite as large, as mysterious in origin, and even as startlingly beautiful as the sinkhole in Guatemala's capital city.
In the wake of Tropical Storm Agatha on May 30, a perfectly round hole spread from the middle of an intersection in downtown Guatemala City, eventually reaching 66 feet wide and 100 feet deep. The crater formed overnight, stunning scientists and riveting people, as the gaping maw grew large enough to swallow up a three-story clothing factory.
Theories circulated widely. A popular one with Guatemalan media suggested that a steady stream from a broken sewage pipe gnawed at the earth until the surface caved. A scientist disputed the theory, saying that whatever ate away at the earth would have wrecked the pipes long ago. Another scientist insisted that it wasn't a true sinkhole but a "piping feature" caused by the pumice fill, or ash flows, from ancient volcanic eruptions. The strange phenomenon became a search sensation as armchair scientists and alien conspiracy theorists puzzled over it.
Soon, Guatemalans got sick of all the gawking global media attention over the hole and its peculiar symmetry -- so much so that one local paper temporarily banned sinkhole stories. The country had real problems to focus on: Pacaya volcano's ash cloud in May, followed almost immediately by Tropical Storm Agatha, which in addition to the sinkhole caused landslides, left thousands homeless, and killed 180 people across Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Months later, Guatemala's sinkhole had been upstaged by an even larger (130 feet wide and 65 feet deep) "mystery" sinkhole in a residential area of the German town Schmalkalden. The German pit sucked down a car and a garage door, and forced nine families to evacuate.
It's a tourist's nightmare: One minute you're marveling at the breathtaking mountain vistas and polished drystone walls of Machu Picchu's Incan ruins, and the next you're caught in a brutal storm that washes away the only train tracks. You have to spend days sleeping in a train station and paying the locals too much for food.
That scenario befell 1,900 tourists visiting the Andes in Peru. The January 24 storm was, of course, far worse for the 26 who died and the 20,000 villagers near Cusco. Resulting landslides wiped out straw-and-earth huts, farms, and economically vital roads and bridges.
The travelers, who included babies and young children, were airlifted out by their respective countries -- around 400 Americans, 700 Argentines, and 300 Chileans. The Peruvian government closed Machu Picchu and demanded that the Bermuda-based Oriental-Express Hotels hustle to rebuild the PeruRail track that whisks 68,000 tourists a month from Cusco to Machu Picchu.
The Lost City of the Incas was shut down for more than two months, costing Peru about $1 million a day in tourism revenue. The April 1 reopening was such a big event that even American actor Susan Sarandon made an appearance.
The shutdown prompted conservationists to express some concern that the site -- one of the seven wonders of the world, discovered in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham -- won't hold up. In fact, fears of environmental degradation were voiced as early as 2002. Fortunately, the landslides, common during El Nino years, have not sent the structures crumbling down the mountain. Not this time, at least.
The Cumberland River flows directly through downtown Nashville. In a once-in-500-years event, the river crested in May, suddenly overwhelming thousands of Tennesseans with 13 feet of water coming in through windows and forcing them to huddle in attics. The Nashville flood, washing over the center of America's Music City and a good portion of the South, killed more than 30 people and caused at least $2 billion in damage in Nashville alone.
The national media, though, had been distracted by two other man-made dangers when the waters came. They were preoccupied by 5,000 barrels of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico each day, threatening wildlife and livelihoods on the Louisiana coast. News services that weren't covering the BP oil spill were rubbernecking at the scene in New York's Times Square, where a would-be terrorist had left an SUV packed with explosives.
Who was paying attention to Nashville? Musicians. Iconic country-music mecca the Grand Ole Opry House and Opryland Convention Center was drowned in flood waters and closed for months. Concerts were moved to the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville, where the Opry was located from 1943 to 1974. Hundreds of working performers, including musicians such as John Fogerty, Keith Urban, Michelle Branch, and Brad Paisley realized that their favorite instruments -- as well as costumes, gear, and audio recordings -- had been destroyed in the storms. Water filled the basement of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the famous Gibson Guitar Factory, maker of the beloved Les Paul, was awash, many of its guitars in storage ruined.
The musicians who owe much of their success to Nashville didn't forgotten their roots. Urban, Paisley, and others auctioned off their damaged instruments to help fund relief efforts. Garth Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, announced a benefit concert for the flood victims.
For many, the May floods -- which could be one of the most expensive disasters in U.S. history -- were their own personal Katrina. A full recovery could be years away, as many people have given up their jobs to restore their family homes, combating mold and rebuilding wrecked structures.
Some landmarks however have reopened in parts of Nashville: The Grand Ole Opry went back into business September 28, and the Gaylord Opryland Resort opened its doors in time for the holiday season, although the shopping mall next door will likely take another year. The four-year-old Schermerhorn Symphony Center, suffering $40 million in damages, has a New Year's Eve gala planned.
Bridgestone Arena, home of the Nashville Predators, had been among the first institutions to open after the floods, and hosted Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's Nashville Rising fundraising concert. It's also where Brooks will perform nine benefit concerts, scheduled for December 16-22: They sold out within six hours. Scalpers who bought the $25 tickets and resold them as high as $875, will also add to the flood relief: StubHub announced it would donate all profits to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.
Just two years after a terrifying, 7.9-magnitude quake devastated the Sichuan province in China, another tremendous quake rumbled through nearby Qinghai province on April 13. This temblor was less deadly -- more than 2,000 people died, compared to 90,000 killed in Sichuan.
This quake, though, had quickly followed two other monster earthquakes. On the scales -- a 6.9 by the U.S. Geological Survey and a 7.1 by the Chinese earthquake agency -- the Qinghai quake was about as strong as the one that killed around 250,000 in Haiti, but not as powerful as the 8.8-magnitude temblor that killed more than 500 in Chile.
The epicenter was in Yushu County, a mountainous region sparsely populated by ethnic Tibetan farmers and herders, most of them extremely poor. Ninety percent of the homes, made of wood, mud, and brick, simply gave way. The quake took one-third of the campus of a large vocational school. In neighboring Tibet, a reported 70 percent of the school buildings collapsed in the Yushu prefecture -- classes, luckily, were not in session. Because of the altitude, above 16,000 feet, freezing temperatures, snow, and sleet are regular occurrences on April nights.
The remote nature of the region and the treacherous mountain passes slowed the recovery effort as the Chinese military attempted to deliver tents, blankets, coats, and food to those who lost their homes. The region had lost electricity and telecommunications, as four aftershocks stronger than 4.8 rumbled through. Workers raced against the clock to repair a crack in a reservoir; Buddhist monks in burgundy robes dug through the rubble to find survivors; while many outside rescue workers suffered altitude sickness. Because of the treacherous conditions, Chinese officials initially declined help from foreign rescue teams.
In the end, China agreed to accept $4 million in international aid. Although the country devoted substantial resources to the recovery, more than $100 million, reconstruction was painfully slow because of the difficulty of transporting supplies to the icy, rugged mountain region. The silver lining in this disaster is that the reconstruction efforts have brought to the region modern technologies for purifying river water and building structures that will resist the next big one.
On February 7, the day after the first major winter storm of the year dumped two feet of snow on Washington, D.C., President Obama met with the Democratic National Committee and vowed -- with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek -- to face the weather with a "flinty toughness." He scoffed that his daughters' schools would be closed on a weekday. Democratic Party chair Tim Kaine joked that the weather resembled "Chicago in April," even as one vehicle in the presidential motorcade slid into another on the White House driveway.
The president should have known that attitude would not go over well with Mother Nature. Snow fell all weekend, and, after a day and half of respite, a fierce blizzard walloped D.C. -- along with the rest of the mid-Atlantic coast -- bringing another two feet of snow. The federal government came to a screeching halt on Friday and stayed shuttered for four and half days, costing the American people $450 million in productivity.
An immobilized Capitol couldn't have been more symbolic for the president, who was already experiencing a freeze of sorts in Congress. His push for the health care and jobs-creation bills was getting shut down by the opposition, and the "yes we can" fervor of his supporters seemed to have chilled. The weather only served to further stymie the president's agenda.
Both the health and jobs bills have passed in some form. For people in D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York, the "Snowpocalypse" (also called "Snowmaggedon" by locals, the media, and the president himself) will be remembered for the snowdrifts that caved in roofs (even at the Smithsonian), caused an SUV to flip over, led to at least two deaths, canceled flights, closed schools, cut off power, and generally kept people indoors.
The time, however, may have been used productively: East Coast hospitals reported a recent baby boomlet in October, about nine months later.
Around the same time that one-fifth of Pakistan was drowning in flood waters, seven Russian regions were aflame, covering more than 300,000 acres. In July the hottest heat wave on record in Russia ignited widespread wildfires across the country's peat marshes, filling the air with toxic fumes in a plume that could be seen from outer space. Dense smoke covered Moscow, delaying flights. Tourists in St. Petersburg saw czarist monuments shrouded in a gray smog.
As the fires raged for weeks, killing more than 50 and leaving 3,000 homeless, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin -- ever the showman -- joined the firefighting effort, dumping water onto flames from an airplane. Meanwhile, the world watched as the flames moved toward the Chernobyl site, raising the possibility of a worst-case scenario: the fires spreading to the radioactive waste and creating a nuclear nightmare.
Fortunately, in late August a sudden temperature drop and rainfall helped firefighters beat the flames into submission in the nick of time. Moscow residents, who'd been choking on 6.6 times the normal level of carbon monoxide, were able to walk the streets without surgical masks for the first time in days. The balmy weather was welcome after months of brutal heat and toxic smoke that had killed hundreds.
Although nuclear disaster was narrowly averted, Russia still faces grave consequences from the fires. The drought dried out one-third of the country's wheat crop, and forced the country to stop grain exports through July 2011. The damage means that the country can't sustain itself with its own grain supply and will have to import food. The steep increase in food prices is likely to nudge 1.4 million Russians into poverty, and the elderly are expected to be among the hardest hit. Furthermore, the tremendous cost of the recovery, estimated at around $15 billion, will certainly prevent Russia's economy from emerging from the worldwide recession.