The human race and planet Earth are fragile. We like to think of ourselves as pretty technologically advanced and prepared for just about anything. However, cosmically speaking, it’s pretty darn easy to wipe us from existence. Over the past few million years or so, we’ve had several close calls. We’re always in some grand danger from nuclear apocalypse, solar storms, meteor impacts, or global pandemics. What keeps us going is that we usually are unaware of it all. Yes, ignorance is bliss. Now, not all of it is doom and gloom. Sure, a giant asteroid might be out there with our name on it, but hopefully we would see it well before it became a danger. As for earthquakes, volcanoes, massive hurricanes and tsunamis, well, hopefully we get to the point where we’re better off at predicting their occurrences (at least before the super volcano at the U.S. Yellowstone National Park erupts and takes half of America with it!).
We’ve seen it all before. The movie industry makes big bucks in generating flicks about global catastrophes. They’ve covered every type of apocalyptic theme you can think of. It’s a huge draw for audiences and they’re fun to watch! But would they be as much fun if they knew just how close we’ve come to it actually happening? I’m not talking about when the dinosaurs were killed off. No, we are thinking of more recent events. We will cover some of the more major near-catastrophic events from recent recorded history. These are 15 times dear old planet Earth almost got wiped out and we had no clue!
15 The Damascus Missile
The U.S. Titan II Launch Complex 374-7, north of Damascus, Arkansas, was the site of the most publicized disaster involving a Titan II nuclear missile. It was September 19, 1980, during routine maintenance, when an Air Force repairman dropped a heavy wrench socket, which fell toward the bottom of the missile silo. The socket struck the missile, causing a leak from a pressurized fuel tank. The complex and surrounding area was immediately evacuated. A specialized repair team was called in but it was too late. The missile exploded 8 hours later; one airman did not make it, 21 other military personnel were injured. The blast destroyed the silo, and blew the 740-ton silo door of reinforced concrete and steel over 200 feet into the air. Luckily the 9-megaton nuclear warhead was blown over 600 feet away, but it did not detonate. Safeguards operated correctly and tests revealed that there was no radioactive contamination. The Air Force sealed the complex with soil, gravel, and concrete debris.
14 The Spanish Flu
The 1918 influenza pandemic infected 500 million people and killed upwards of 40 million people, 3-5% of the entire globe's population, making it one of history's deadliest natural disasters. It struck just after World War I, in 1918, and was first seen in Europe. It spread with soldiers returning home to the United States and parts of Asia. Because of the Spanish Flu, the lifespan of a United States citizen was reduced by ten years. Many victims were young and otherwise healthy. There were no medications that were able to treat this malady and the public was ordered to wear breathing masks in public. Research later indicated that this particularly strong strain of influenza struck most victims’ lungs and caused fatal pneumonia. In the end, like with any flu virus, the world had to wait for it to run its course before the strength of the remaining strain reduced to one less lethal.
13 November 1961 Fiasco
On November 24, 1961, all communications between early-warning radars stations and the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) went dead. Were they taken out by a sneak attack, so that they couldn’t warn of an impending Soviet nuclear barrage? Then, it was discovered that phone lines were also dead, cutting off SAC’s communication with the North American Air Defence Command (NORAD). This definitely signalled a sneak attack. The U.S. military prepared and ordered B-52 bombers to start their engines and ready their nuclear payloads. Then radio contact was made with a lone B-52 squadron on airborne alert flying over Alaska. They confirmed it was a false alarm – there were no inbound missiles. Ultimately, it was discovered that just a single relay station in Colorado handled the routing of all the communications out of those radar stations, as well as the phone lines. That relay station had simply overheated and shut down, nearly starting World War III!
12 The Black Death
This was without a doubt one of the worst pandemics in the history of civilization. An estimated 200 million people were killed by this plague between roughly 1346 and 1351, which diminished the overall population of the planet substantially. There are many theories as to the cause, but many place blame on fleas from black rats that spread it throughout Eurasia and Europe with traveling merchants. There are very few accurate accounts of the symptoms, but the ones that do exist tell of horrendous swelling of the lymph nodes in the groin and neck, along with an acute fever. The plague lasted for five terrifying years, spreading panic throughout Europe. Even doctors refused to see patients out of fear that the plague might be spread. The plague not only was a medical catastrophe, but it caused substantial damage to Europe’s financial, social, and religious health.
11 The Palomares Broken Arrow
It’s called a “Broken Arrow,” a euphemism the U.S. military uses for a lost nuclear weapon. That’s exactly what occurred on January 17, 1966. An American B-52 bomber was on patrol along the Turkish-Soviet border. In need of refueling, the bomber moved over the southern coast of Spain. A KC-135 Stratotanker was ready to conduct a mid-air refueling of the bomber when all of a sudden tragedy struck. The bomber came in too fast and collided with the tanker, triggering a violent explosion and the plane broke apart. Wreckage from the planes rained down upon Palomares, Spain, including four Mark 28 thermonuclear weapons. Three of the bombs landed safely, but the third parachuted into the Mediterranean a few miles off the coast. The nuclear warheads did not detonate, but the conventional explosives on two of them ignited, sending radioactive material across the community. As of 2015, the U.S. still aids Spain with radiation monitoring and contamination cleanup.
10 Mount Tambora Volcano
In April 1815, forever now known as "The Year Without a Summer," Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano, erupted. It was the biggest volcanic eruption in recorded history. 71,000 people died within seconds, and the volcanic winter that followed resulted in worldwide climate anomalies. The worst famine of the 19th century was a direct result of this volcano, as it killed livestock and crops all around the world, as well as lowering temperatures worldwide. The Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) is the system used to measure the explosive power of a volcanic eruption. For scale, two of the most famous volcanic eruptions in history, the Mount Vesuvius eruption and the island of Krakatoa that erupted in 1883, rated a VEI of 5 and 6, respectively. Mount Tambora had a VEI of 7. Krakatoa’s eruption was heard 4,800 km (3,000 miles) away and busted eardrums of sailors on ships over 64 km (40 miles) away. Tambora was estimated at ten times more destructive than Krakatoa.
9 The Shaanxi Earthquake
The Shaanxi Province in China was the location of a devastating earthquake that took place in the evening of January 23, 1556, killing nearly a million people. At that point in history, people lived a much simpler life with much less infrastructure, yet the disaster affected people and structures throughout Eastern China. With a magnitude of 8.0 to 8.3, this earthquake, with an epicenter about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi’an, resulted in ground fissures, liquefaction, landslides and uplift. City walls and most homes in the area collapsed, with aftershocks continuing through to the next day. There have been other earthquakes measured with magnitudes higher than 8.3; however, with this quake occurring in the middle of a densely populated region it is considered to be arguably the deadliest on record. If such an earthquake occurred today in a similarly densely populated area, the death toll and damage to infrastructure would be immeasurable, and possibly the world would never be able to fully recover.
8 June 1980 Computer Glitch
On June 3, 1980, a computer display at the then-named U.S. North American Air Defence Command (NORAD) indicated that 2 missiles had been launched. Normally, the missile alert system would display “0000 ICBMs Detected, 0000 SLBMs Detected.” When it suddenly displayed that two were inbound, then immediately increased to 200, a panic ensued! The President was informed and the top military brass immediately convened. World War III was about to begin. Nuclear bomber crews were moving onto the runway, preparing to launch. The president was placed onto the Airborne Command Post and put into the air. Missile silos went on full alert and started their launch checklists. Then it was discovered to be a false alarm. As it turns out, a single computer chip, costing less than fifty cents, had failed, causing the error on the display. That little computer chip almost ended up costing the world a whole lot more!
7 October 1962 Intruder
In October 1962, with Cold War tensions at an all-time high, a guard at Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a dark figure climbing the security fence. He immediately activated the sabotage alarm, which set off alarms at all surrounding U.S. Air Force bases. However, at Volk Field, Wisconsin, the wrong alarm went off. Instead of a sabotage warning, an alarm signalling an attack on Duluth had occurred. This couldn’t have come at a worse time. October 1962 was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the American military was on highest alert. Standard procedure was to launch an immediate counter-attack and a squadron of nuclear armed F-106A interceptors started to take off. Officers from Duluth called Volk Field to inform them of the miscommunication but the squadron was already on the runway. A single staff car raced down the runway, flashing its lights, and was able to stop the launch. The wiring mix-up was fixed, and it turns out the mysterious intruder was just a curious bear.
6 Petrov’s Cool Head
On September 26, 1983, the Russian early-warning missile detection system reported five ICBMs had been launched from the USA. The newly installed system was highly sophisticated and more accurate than any previous methods. Deep in a Soviet command center, Serpukhov-15, outside Moscow, the duty officer, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, had to decide whether to respond with a full scale nuclear retaliation or wait on the possibility that it was a false alarm. He reasoned, “When people start a war, they don’t start with only five missiles.” Knowing the Soviet Party Chairman Yuri Andropov was highly suspicious of the United States, he would surely launch a complete retaliatory strike before validating the initial detection. Petrov decided that it must be a false alarm. As it turned out, it was a false alarm. The new system relied on satellite telemetry and missile silhouettes. The autumn equinox brought naturally-occurring atmospheric anomalies that spooked the system resulting in what appeared to be incoming missiles.
5 War Games, November 1979
On November 9, 1979, in the United States, the Pentagon, NORAD, and the Strategic Air Command watched in disbelief as they saw the unmistakable pattern of Soviet nuclear missiles appear on their display screens. For six minutes the military prepared for a full-scale Soviet nuclear attack. American Minutemen ballistic missiles started their preliminary launch sequence, nuclear-armed B-52 bombers took off, and the president was raced to the Airborne Command Center. Then a technician noticed the Soviet attack looked remarkably similar to a war game scenario he had recently seen. Back then, the missile defence and warning system was stored on an old-fashioned data tape. The technician had a suspicion and checked his computer banks. He had loaded his war game simulation tape into the system by mistake. No word on if he was fired for almost ending the world, or given a medal for preventing it!
4 Oleg Penkovsky – The Spy Who Almost Destroyed The World
Oleg Penkovsky was a KGB double agent who worked out a system of telephone signals to give emergency warnings to the British and Americans to help alert them to an impending nuclear attack. He would give them enough time to strike first. In November 1962, both the American CIA and British MI6 received these signals from Penkovsky. The British believed it was a false alarm, but the CIA, not so sure, sent an agent to check an information drop location. Upon arriving, the agent was promptly arrested by waiting KGB. The CIA couldn’t believe the Soviets would risk war to simply catch a spy. Apparently Penkovsky had been arrested by the KGB and, knowing he would be executed for treason, decided to take the Soviet Union down with him. He attempted to get the West to launch a nuclear strike. The last act of a captured spy was to try and destroy the world.
3 The June 1992 Catastrophic Environmental Threat
A European biotech firm had developed a new bacterium, a variation of Klebsiella planticola. It was designed to turn food waste into ethanol fuel, with the byproducts left over being used as fertilizer for crops. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested the bacteria thoroughly in a controlled environment using sterile soil and deemed it safe to humans and the environment. One Oregon State University professor, Dr. Elaine Ingham, decided to go ahead and test the bacteria herself on non-sterile soil to monitor the effects. It was lucky for the world that he did, as the bacteria spread quickly killing every single plant it came into contact with. Had it been released, it would have spread worldwide and destroyed all plant life on the planet. Talk about a massive fail for the EPA! As for Dr. Ingham, she went on to become a leading microbiologist; however, most will never know of how she literally saved the world.
2 The Carrington Event
In 1859, a massive solar storm resulting from sunspot eruptions occurred that wreaked havoc with telegraph communications. When it occurred, at night, the sky was so bright that people could read the newspaper outside, a result of the solar flare that contained the energy of 10 billion atomic bombs (that’s right, "billion" with a "b"). The northern lights were seen as far south as Cuba and Honolulu. It was called the Carrington Event, after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who witnessed the mega flare and surmised its geomagnetic impact on Earth. If it happened today, the damage done to electrical plants, sewage treatment centers, satellites, cell phones, and just about anything we need to live on a daily basis, would be incalculable. Our financial infrastructure would collapse as all that banking information is stored on computers run off of electricity! Scientists believe recovery might not even be possible – it would be the Stone Age once again for many years!
1 The Bonilla Comet
In 1883, many hundreds of fragments from a comet narrowly missed Earth by only 400 miles. The comet, named for its discoverer, astronomer Jose Bonilla, broke up in front of the sun and sent those fragments towards Earth. He published his observations in a scientific journal of the day. Recently, scientists have analyzed his observations and believe this was truly a close call for Earth. The comet was massive in size, likely a few billion tons. When it broke up passing the sun, the resulting fragments ranged in size from approximately 150 feet (45 meters) to 2.5 miles (4 km) wide. Even the smallest of them would have struck the planet with the force of many atomic bombs, so imagine many hundreds of them bombarding us! A few of the larger ones by themselves, had they impacted, would have caused damage that would have been unprecedented and probably caused an extinction-level event.
Sources: coolinfographics.com, smithsonianmag.com, history.com, news.nationalgeographic.com, theweek.com, deseretnews.com, ranker.com, historytoday.com