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Barry A. Vann

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Natural Disasters: The World's Deadliest Places (PHOTOS)

Posted: 04/10/2012 10:38 am

Just like disagreeing fifteenth-century ship captains who thought Christopher Columbus was unwise for setting sail west to reach Asia, differing perceptions of environmental conditions have prompted discourse among scientists and even laypeople on the street.

Upon closer examination, the argument that the environment sets insurmountable limits on us is no different than those same debates that have raged across time and space.

It is easy to imagine that during the Ice Age, a group of, say, a dozen people stood on the shores of an icy sea and debated the merits of fashioning paddles to move along the coast in search of fish and seals. In a similar fashion, residents of New Orleans, for example, have disagreed over whether they should move to safer environs or if they should trust the technology that has allowed them to live in a place that is below sea level and virtually surrounded by water. Such has characterized life among humans since the dawn of our existence.

Still, whether in ancient or modern times, people have always wanted to live in places situated on or near water bodies where life is best supported. To some observers, this need is deeply felt and affects us in ways that border on the metaphysical. From such diverse and thoughtful people as President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) to the English professor and writer Norman Maclean (1902-1990), the mystical draw or pull that aqueous places have on the human heart have been poetically described.

There is nonetheless a delicate dance between living near our source of fluids that carries oxygen and nutrients through our veins and our own demise. As the author of The Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet [Prometheus Books, $26.00], I invite you to consider that many of the places we perceive to be dangerous are not as deadly as other parts of the planet.

Join me on a journey around the world in pursuit of the deadliest air pollution disasters, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and floods, while we consider the potential for catastrophic destruction should the world's climate return to its normal state.

Pollution Disasters
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New York City

On November 12, 1953, a stagnant high-pressure center descended over the Big Apple and lingered for ten days. Sky darkening soot accumulated in the air above the city. The city had a measured sulfur dioxide level that was five times its normal level. Airports were shut down due to poor visibility. Ferry trips to the Statue of Liberty were also cancelled due to the pervasive and unrelenting smog. Tens of thousands of people experienced burning eyes and uncontrollable bouts of coughing, but those were minor consequences of the unwelcome shroud that cloaked the city. By the time atmospheric conditions improved on November 22, some two hundred people were dead. Merely three years later, an even more devastating event occurred in New York City. In just an eighteen-hour period, at least one thousand people died from smog related illnesses.
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