This week’s question was asked by: a cousin

QUESTION: Which kind of natural disaster is the most dangerous?

ANSWER: The same nature which makes life possible on Earth also has sufficient power to wreak havoc. The unprecedented movement of Earth causes many of the deadliest natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and landslides. Weather accounts for another big slice of the natural disasters pie.

Our Earth is a changing and dynamic planet. The most dangerous calamities are those that provide little or no prediction or fore-warning. Earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes fit in that category, although there is often some lead-time warning for tsunamis and volcanoes. The most grievous natural disasters are those that take lives.

Earthquakes are one of the most treacherous disasters ever faced by humans. The Earth’s crust moves around on huge tectonic plates. The plates have rough edges and they always keep moving and sliding over each other. The tectonic plates get stuck while sliding while some parts keep moving. Whenever the force of these plates overcomes the friction, the energy gets released in the form of seismic waves and shakes the ground. Thousands of earthquakes happen across the world every day. Most of them are too small to be detected but others have the power to destroy everything.

The most earthquake-prone cities in the world are Kathmandu in Nepal and Istanbul in Turkey. Others would be Delhi, India and Quito, Ecuador. The greatest loss of life from earthquakes: Jan. 23, 1556, 830,000 killed in China, and July 27, 1976, 600,000 killed in China. In the United Stated it would be the April 18, 1906, San Francisco earthquake that killed 3,000.

Tsunamis are caused by earthquakes. Tsunami tides can be hundreds of feet high and travel thousands of miles to hit coastal areas. A 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra on December 6, 2004 created a tsunami that killed 230,000 people. An earthquake-caused tsunami on March 11, 2011, killed 18,000 people in Japan. Recall that the shaking from that same earthquake damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. Although no one was killed, the radiation leaks drew world-wide attention.

Oddly, tsunamis are often called tidal waves, but tsunamis have nothing to do with tides. Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and sun. Fortunately, today we have warning systems posted all around the Pacific Ocean designed to give advanced warnings of approaching tsunamis.

Volcanoes are openings from the inner part of Earth to the surface. Volcanic eruptions throw out ash, hot lava, and poisonous gases. Volcanoes are abundant in the Pacific, the so-called Ring of Fire. The most active volcanoes in the world are in Indonesia, Mexico and Antarctica.

The one getting the most attention lately is Kilauea, on the Big Island of Hawaii. Kilauea has been in near continuous eruption since 1980. Over 800 buildings have been destroyed and more will go. Kilauea really started acting up in mid-June of this year (2018). There have been super eruptions from Yellowstone in Wyoming, some 640,000 years ago. Mount Vesuvius near Naples, Italy, erupted in 79 AD killing thousands.

The eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815 was the largest volcanic eruption ever recorded. The death toll was 71,000. Over 34,000 perished in the Krakatoa, Indonesia volcano in 1883. We have our very own Mount St. Helens in southwestern Washington state that blew up on May 18, 1980. A total of 57 were killed or are missing. Esquire magazine named Mount St. Helens “ashhole of the year.”

Landslides happen when soil and rock go down a slope of land. Heavy rains, small earthquakes, volcano eruptions and gravity drive a landslide. Human activities such as mining, construction and quarrying also cause landslides. On Nov. 13, 1985, a minor volcano near Armero, Colombia melted its ice cap, the resultant water released mudflows that covered the town of Armero and 23,000 perished.

Hurricanes are formed where ocean water has a temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm water warms the air above it. Warm air rises and cools. Cool air can’t hold the moisture that warm air can. The water condenses out of the air, which gives off heat in the process. The heat energizes the circling winds to greater speed and height, picking up moist warm air and pushing the cycle to greater and greater strength. The evaporation from sea water also increases the force of the hurricane, which has enough power to generate heavy rain, high waves and strong winds.

The three most hurricane-prone cities in the world are in Florida: Tampa, Naples and Jacksonville. The September 18, 1900 hurricane over Galveston, Texas, cost about 6,000 lives. The more recent and memorable Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 28-29, 2005. The death toll was put at 1,460.

We in the Midwest are not much concerned about the violent winds of a hurricane but rather that of the tornado. Tornado alley (region that covers North Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska) is the most tornado-prone area in the world. The Tri-State tornado of March 18, 1925, tore a swath through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. Nearly 700 were killed, amid tremendous property damage.

What natural disaster is the most dangerous? It is a rather subjective judgement based on human suffering, property damage and the fear factor.

Send questions and comments to:

Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.


Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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