We like to think that our cities are invulnerable, that whatever happens, the skyscrapers and roads that surround us will always be there. But that’s just not the case. There have been many examples of cities that have been completely destroyed, abandoned, and left to rot. There have even been instances of entire populations being wiped out. Finding a good location for a city is half that battle. Obviously, everyone wants to live by the sea, and the vast majority of the population lives on the coastline. But what these people often forget is that the sea can be an incredibly destructive force. Countless cities have been claimed by the fury of the ocean, smashed to pieces and drowned under the weight of immense tsunamis. And many of us also live next to volcanoes. These are sleeping giants that will send us back into the dark ages when they erupt, and many cities have been destroyed by these old gods.
Many of us today live on the outskirts of volcanoes, and although we might not want to admit it, we’re living on borrowed time in the shadows of these ticking time bombs. And then you have the fault lines. Places like Vancouver, BC are long overdue for a massive earthquake, the likes of which will probably mean widespread destruction for that city. And Vancouverites are not the only ones that live on points of the Earth where earthquakes are more destructive. Other times, it’s the simple hard truth of a failing economy that can shatter cities with just as much force as a tsunami or earthquake. War has also destroyed many cities. The only way we can learn from our mistakes is by looking into the past, at the times when cities have fallen.
15. The Chernobyl Disaster – Pripyat Abandoned
The Chernobyl disaster will live forever in infamy as one of the worst Nuclear disasters of all time, and in its wake an entire city was left abandoned. It took place near the city of Pripyat, which was the closest city in the country of Ukraine. In 1986, a safety test gone wrong caused an explosion in the Chernobyl power plant, which vented nuclear byproducts into the atmosphere, across the USSR and Europe. But the hardest hit location was Pripyat, which was in the immediate fallout zone. There was also the town of Chernobyl, which was the closest. Everyone in Pripyat and the town of Chernobyl had to be evacuated, and now both the city and the town are completely abandoned. It’s a complete ghost town, and one of the creepiest places on Earth. Years after the incident, researchers noticed a notable increase in cancer rates and other health problems. The city still stands, and is a constant reminder of the dangers of nuclear power.
14. The Atom Bomb – Hiroshima And Nagasaki
Few cities have witnessed destruction as great as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These two Japanese cities were the first and only that were ever bombed with an atom bomb. This was back in the closing stages of World War 2, when America was looking for a quick and easy way to end the war. In their minds, dropping the atom bomb would save millions of lives, because the conflict would not be drawn on and Japan would be left with no choice but to surrender. The initial blast killed 70,000 people. After the bombs fell, 166,000 people died of radiation poisoning, and 70% of the city’s buildings were destroyed. Today, Hiroshima has been rebuilt and is now a well-functioning city. But there can be no doubt that it was completely destroyed during the war.
The other city that bore the full brunt of atomic power was Nagasaki. The initial blast killed 35,000 people and completely destroyed the north end of the city. 68-80% of the city’s industrial capability was also destroyed. The rebuilding process of Nagasaki was slow and tedious, and took many years. The memory of the destruction still lives on in the city’s residual memory.
13. Nuclear Meltdown – Fukushima
Japan is a country whose cities have seen unparalleled destruction. One of the greatest disasters ever seen was the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant incident. Along with the Chernobyl disaster, it’s one of the largest nuclear meltdowns in history, ranking at Level 7, which is on par with the Chernobyl disaster. This area of Japan was hit by many things at once, as a 9.1 earthquake in 2011, called Tōhoku, caused a tsunami that triggered the nuclear meltdown. The tsunami caused flooding within the power plant’s generator, causing them to fail and spelling instant disaster.
Although the Japanese government tried to play down the effects and scale of the radiation, it was clear to see that something very serious had happened. They enacted a 20 km exclusion zone that once housed hundreds of thousands of people. Now it’s deserted, and no one is allowed inside. The government has also banned the consumption of food coming from that area, and recommends that infants not drink the tap water.
12. Volcanic Destruction – Pompeii
You have to go pretty far back in time to find one of the most epic destructions of a city ever recorded. I’m talking of course about the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was obliterated when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The entire city was buried under about 15 feet of volcanic ash. When the site was excavated, archaeologists were stunned to find perfectly preserved outlines of human bodies, frozen in time.
They were laying just as they had been when they died, and looking at them is like seeing straight into the past. These outlines of human bodies were then filled with plaster, and suddenly we were able to see just how devastating a volcanic eruption can be. If you think that these people only died because they were less technologically advanced than us, think again. A volcanic eruption of similar scale would be just as devastating to us today.
11. 2005 Kashmir Earthquake – Destruction Of Balakot
In 2005, one of the most devastating earthquakes in recent history hit the area of Kashmir, in Pakistan. It was a 7.6 scale earthquake, and it caused widespread destruction. Many municipalities were affected, and over 100,000 people were killed, but one of the areas that experienced the most damage was the town of Balakot. This city was unfortunate enough to be placed on top of a major fault line, and this meant the devastation was intense. 90% of the buildings in Balakot were destroyed, and the area has been completely abandoned.
With this level of destruction, there is no point in trying to rebuild. The surviving inhabitants of the town will be moved to a new city, and the city will be called New Balakot. There has been a lot of effort in recent years to make sure that these people have a home. Moral of the story – don’t build a town on top of a fault line.
10. The Fury Of Mount Etna – Catania
Pompeii wasn’t the only city to fall victim to a massive volcanic eruption. There was also the case of Catania. This city in Italy has been destroyed multiple times actually, both by volcanoes and earthquakes. The nearby volcano of Mount Etna has erupted several times during the city’s history, most notably in 1669, which caused incredible damage on the city.
But by far the most damage was caused by earthquakes, in 1169 and in 1693. The earthquake in 1169 is thought to have been as strong as 7.3. Catania was almost completely destroyed, and their Cathedral collapsed, killing a bishop and many other monks who had gathered inside for a feast. Then there was another earthquake in 1693, this time it was a strength of an estimated 7.4, the largest in Italian history. The city of Catania was again almost completely destroyed, with two thirds of the population losing their lives.
9. China’s Abandoned City – Beichuan
Few municipalities have seen as much destruction as Beichuan. Fortunately, the city is not going to be witnessing any more incidents in the future, as it has been completely abandoned. That’s what happens when your town gets hit with a 7.9 scale earthquake causing destruction on an inexplicable scale. This happened in 2008, and the damage was so bad that the Chinese government was forced to just abandon the entire city as a lost cause.
And they were totally justified in doing so – 80% of the buildings in Beichuan had been destroyed, along with half the city’s population being killed. A huge percentage of these casualties were children who had been crushed inside of a school. The surviving population had to be moved to a new town, and the ruins of Beichuan still stand, a testament to the devastating powers of earthquake. This was only one earthquake in China. There have been many others, and it’s certain that there will be many more.
8. The Invention Of Saltpeter – Humberstone & Santa Laura
Sometimes it’s not a tsunami, volcano, atom bomb or earthquake that destroys a city. Sometimes, a more destructive force is one you can’t even see. It sweeps through the city, reducing it to a desolate ghost town with extreme efficiency. I’m talking of course about the power of recessions and a failing economy. A great example of this is the destruction of two municipalities in Chile, Humberstone and Santa Laura. These towns were founded in the late 1800s, but they really began to boom with the growing nitrate mining industry.
But their fortune was short-lived. As soon as they started to feel the benefits of a booming economy, saltpeter was invented. This was a cheaper, synthetic form of nitrate, and it made nitrate mining completely obsolete, and by extension, the towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura. In only a few decades, these towns were completely abandoned. Now they are just sand-covered towns in the middle of nowhere.
7. Detroit’s Failed Auto Industry
No, this isn’t a picture of Chernobyl or another third-world ghost town – this is Detroit. Many people have commented that driving around some areas of Detroit is like driving through the ruins of some bombed out wasteland, much like Afghanistan or Iraq. The cause for this is simple: America’s failing auto industry. In the 50s, Detroit was one of the most important cities to America’s economy, producing an incredible number of cars. The city was the third biggest in America, and it was decorated with advanced and beautiful architecture. In short, it was a very rich city.
But in the 70s and 80s, the American auto industry entered a sharp decline. By 2005, only 40% percent of cars sold in the US were made by US car manufacturers, compared to a whopping 80% only a few decades earlier. That’s what caused Detroit to fall apart so rapidly. Offices, movie theaters, and many other buildings were simply boarded up and abandoned. There has been some rebuilding effort as of late, but there’s still a long way to go.
6. Hashima Island – Japan’s Obsolete Coal City
Hashima Island, like Detroit, is another example of a city that relied too much on one industry and paid the price. This was the coal industry, and although the island was only 15 acres, it was of massive importance to Japan’s economy. This was because the entire island was basically one huge coal deposit, stretching deep into the earth beneath its rocky surface. The island was initially set up for coal workers, because it made no sense to ferry them back and forth from Nagasaki every day, which was 18 miles away. The Island city eventually became the most densely populated areas on earth, with 835 people crammed into every 2.5 acres.
But disaster struck when the world’s primary energy source became petroleum, making coal obsolete and inefficient to mine. All of a sudden, the government announced that the city would be permanently closed, and all of the residents were ferried back to the mainland, just like that. Nowadays, it’s a ghost island, with only the ruins of a once prosperous city and a few stray cats to populate it.
5. Centralia, Pennsylvania – The Danger Of Coal
Centralia, Pennsylvania is another city that learned the dangers of coal firsthand. But unlike Hashima Island, it had nothing to do with the economy. Instead, the danger was very physical and immediate, and had to do with the flammability of coal veins. The entire municipality was built on top of a coal deposit, so in 1962 when garbage workers accidentally lit a vein of coal on fire, the fire spread underneath the city. In a few weeks, there was a raging fire burning beneath the city.
All of the attempts to stop the flames from spreading failed, and it was allowed to burn for almost 20 years, from 1962 to 1981. By this time, it was clear that it was not feasible to live in this city anymore. Children were falling into sinkholes that had burning flames underneath them. It was like the town was being dragged down into the underworld. The houses still remain, but the inhabitants were all relocated to other areas. It is rumored that 20 people refused to leave, and still live there completely cut off from the world.
4. The London Fires
Few incidents of destruction are more infamous than the London fires. As one of the oldest cities in the world, it only makes sense that London has experienced a lot of destruction in the past, but the fires were on such a huge scale it’s almost hard to comprehend. The city has been completely destroyed by fires on more than one occasion, and many people have died in the flames. The first one was the Great Fire Of 1212, otherwise known as the “Great Fire Of Southwark.”
In this fire, many buildings were destroyed and an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives, which was a huge percentage of the population at that time. One account of people being trapped and killed by the flames on London Bridge is as follows: “An exceeding great multitude of people passing the Bridge, either to extinguish or quench it, or else to gaze at and behold it, suddenly the north part, by blowing of the south wind, was also set on fire, and the people which were even now passing the Bridge, perceiving the same, would have returned, but were stopped by the fire.”
The other more widely known fire is the “Great Fire Of London,” which happened in 1666. This fire started in a bakery and spread throughout London, destroying the houses of 70,000 out of the total 80,000 inhabitants of London. It also destroyed St. Paul’s Cathedral. Of course, the city was rebuilt, after the fire it had been utterly destroyed.
3. The Halifax Explosion
One city that was totally destroyed was Halifax, in Canada. This is one of the lowest points of Canada’s history, and it happened in 1917. Two ships collided in the strait outside of the Canadian city, and a fire was started on a French ship full of explosives. The fire ignited the explosives, causing a fire that proved to be incredibly destructive. It was so powerful that it still holds the record of being the largest man-made explosion prior to the invention of nuclear weaponry, at a whopping 2.9 kilotons. Just to put that in perspective, there are tactical nukes that have much smaller yields than that.
Everything in a 2,600 foot radius was obliterated instantly. The entire community of Richmond was gone instantly. Barely any windows in the entire city were not smashed by the explosion. The explosion also caused a tsunami that wiped out the entire community of a nearby first nations settlement. Almost 2,000 people died as a result of the explosion – 1,600 of those people died instantly. Fires were also caused by the explosion.
2. Kowloon Walled City – China’s Embarrassment
It was only a matter of time until the Kowloon Walled City was destroyed. It was a major event when it was finally torn down, as by that time it had become infamous all over the world as one of the strangest municipal zones on Earth. It started out as a Chinese military fort, and was taken over by people in Hong Kong who wanted a cheap place to live. It was famous for having no government, as Hong Kong authorities did not venture inside and it was ruled by triads who ran prostitution rings, gambling schemes, opium dens, and many other illicit activities. It wasn’t long until both Chinese and British governments agreed that they needed to do something about this so-called city. The crime rate and the quality of life was simply too appalling. In the end, they tore it down. Nowadays, it’s a park and it still features monuments left behind by this strange city.
1. Wellington, New Zealand – Soon
The last city on this list is more of a prediction rather than a story of past destruction and ruin. It’s a well-known fact that Wellington, New Zealand exists in one of the most dangerous places on Earth in the context of volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis. In the past, it has experienced a lot of destruction as a result of these factors. The first was the earthquake of 1848, which was a magnitude 7.4 quake that destroyed most of the brick and stone buildings in the city. Next was the 1855 earthquake, which was probably the most powerful earthquakes in New Zealand’s history at a magnitude of 8.2.
But that was before New Zealand was ever really systematically colonized. Nowadays, the same danger exists, but a potential for a much higher loss of life is also present, due to Wellington’s now massive population. If the same earthquake was to hit today, the results would be devastating. To top it all off, there is also the risk of tsunamis and eruptions from the many nearby volcanoes. It’s really only a matter of time…
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