In the last hundred years, there have been many tragic and unexpected events that led to death, destruction, and longterm environmental damage. Often, it's nature itself that wreaks havoc on the people of the world, but some of the very worst disasters in history were entirely the fault of humankind itself. Even forgetting war, the number of catastrophic explosions and contaminations of the environment have caused massive amounts of damage. Nearly every one of these events have not only cost millions or billions of dollars, but also cost the world many, many lives.
Though advancements in technology are almost always beneficial to society, safety measures are sometimes passed over in the interest of progress. Often, especially during the Cold War, people would sacrifice even the most obvious safety measures in the name of beating the enemy. While safety in countries with little to no regulation and independent oversight is always questionable, accidents happen even in today’s modern world of lawsuits and red tape.
If the thought of impending disaster has you spooked, don’t worry -they are usually few and far between. However, when they do strike, they can be absolutely devastating. Even worse, insurance does not typically cover manmade disasters, simply because they are just too expensive to cover. The same goes for war and terrorist attacks, though they’ve been excluded from the list to differentiate between attacks and accidents.
Through this article, we will look at the top five most expensive manmade disasters throughout recent history. Readers may be surprised to notice that one of the most famous events in history, the sinking of the Titanic, doesn’t even make the top five. In fact, it likely wouldn’t crack the top ten in terms of expense, unlike these other five, which caused billions of dollars of damage.
5 1986: The Challenger Explosion - $5.5 Billion Of Damage
At $5.5 billion, the Challenger Explosion comes in at #5 in our list of the most expensive manmade disasters in history. On January 28th, 1986, the Challenger rocket had been in the air for just over a minute when a faulty O- ring destroyed the rocket and killed the seven astronauts onboard. Through a combination of freezing conditions, faulty equipment, and poor organization, the rocket exploded mere seconds after launch. This horrifying tragedy rocked the United States and led to a long suspension of all NASA activities, pending a total revamp of safety procedures for subsequent missions.
A particularly tragic note: this was the first mission manned by a civilian. Christa McAuliffe, the first member of the Teachers in Space Project, was meant to be the first teacher in space. Sadly, she never reached space, and her name has instead made the history books for her involvement in one of the most tragic disasters in history. The Challenger Explosion forever changed how NASA operates. Since the explosion, it has been used in countless case studies in engineering safety, whistleblowing, and the dangers of groupthink.
4 2002: The Prestige Oil Spill - $12 Billion Of Damage
In 2002, off the coast of Galicia, the oil tanker known as the Prestige was trapped in a huge tropical storm. The combination of rough waves and the might of the storm resulted in one of the ship’s fuel tanks rupturing, compromising the structural integrity of the ship and spilling its cargo. They attempted to make port in Spain, but were unable to dock because Spain did not want to deal with the environmental consequences of the spill. After it was rebuffed by Spain, the ship tried to find a berth in France, where it was again turned away. Finally, after the ship tried to go to Portugal and was once more denied entry, the ship split in two in the massive storm.
The combined negligence led to the loss of many lives, destroyed the coast of Spain, and cost $12 billion to clean up. The ship spilled 77,000 metric tons (20 million US gallons) off the northern coast of Spain.
It took years to clean up the disaster, and the environmental costs were drastic. Due to the magnitude of this disaster, the EU and US are phasing out single- hulled freight ships. In comparison, the cost of cleanup for Exxon- Valdez was only about 3 billion dollars, making the pure size of the cleanup for the Prestige unprecedented at that time.
3 2003: Columbia Space Shuttle Disaster - $13 Billion of Damage
The Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated during re-entry on February 1st, 2003, costing over $13 billion dollars and the lives of all crew members aboard. The shuttle had completed many missions before this one, making the magnitude of this disaster a surprise to all. A small piece of insulating foam had broken off and struck the wing of the shuttle, dooming the crew’s re-entry attempt before they even left the atmosphere.
Before its destruction, the ship had run 28 manned missions, and spent countless hours in space. The 64,000 pieces of the ship are on display to the public at the Kennedy Space Center as a memorial to those lost in the explosion. The disaster was believed to be primarily caused by engineering failures, and was the first major aerospace disaster following Challenger.
2 2010: The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - $42 Billion of Damage
On April 10th, 2010, the second most-costly disaster in human history occurred. Also known as the BP oil spill, it is considered the largest man made petroleum disaster in history, with repair and cleanup costs surpassing $42 Billion dollars. After an explosion that took the lives of 11 of the workers on board the Deepwater Horison platform, oil began gushing into the ocean from the well at the sea floor. The spill was only capped in mid- July of that year, and eventually was permanently sealed off. Amongst the massive public outrage, there was a huge response to cleanup the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP was charged with 11 counts of manslaughter, a felony count of lying to congress, and two misdemeanors. There are ongoing legal proceedings not expected to be finished until 2014 at the earliest.
Not only did the spill cost billions of dollars, it destroyed the sea floor, and led to the deaths of thousands of protected and endangered ocean creatures. More important: almost 150 people that lived in the area appear to have been affected by the spill, with illnesses and potentially chronic health conditions popping up after the disaster. The total cost of the spill is still being calculated, but the disaster is already the costliest petroleum spill in human history.
1 1986: Chernobyl Reactor #4 - $235 Billion Of Damage
To this day, the Chernobyl power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, is something of a pop culture icon, often used as a setting in horror films and video games. The dreary, abandoned former soviet city is a shell of what it once was. It’s a haunting ghost town that looks like it was abandoned overnight - because it was. At a cost of $235 billion, the tragic disaster that befell Chernobyl is the costliest mistake in human history. The nuclear disaster was rated a 7 out of 7 on the nuclear disaster scale, only one of two nuclear disasters rated as such, the other being the Fukushima plant explosion of 2011.
A routine test early on April 26th, 1986 led to the most costly unnatural disaster in human history. A sudden surge of power led to the explosion, which blew up the entire reactor and released huge amounts of radiation. The explosion led to the immediate deaths of 31 people, and forced the evacuation of the entire town. The long term death toll is estimated to be between 10 and 20 thousand. To this day, it is considered dangerous to go near the Chernobyl plant, though there are guided tours tourists can take at their own risk.
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