Mt Vesuvius Volcano, Campania, Italy
Mount Vesuvius is one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes. The volcano has an eruption cycle of about 20 years, but the last eruption was in 1944. The volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world with millions of people living close to the crater. In 79 AD an eruption of the volcano destroyed Pompeii and its remains are a popular tourist attraction south of Napoli. In recent years there has been an attempt to relocate some resident from the slopes of the volcano to reduce the risk from the next eruption.
The Cold Pole, Verkhoyansk, Russia
Verkhoyansk lays claim to the title of coldest city in the world, the so-called Cold Pole. It’s hard to dispute the designation, when you consider that from September to March the city averages fewer than 5 hours of sunlight each day. (In December and January, there is nearly no sunlight.) Winter temperatures there typically fall between minus 60 and minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The low, recorded in the late 19th century, was minus 90. Nowadays, the city is attempting to attract “extreme tourists,” who are drawn by the intense cold. For much of its history, however, Verkhoyansk was a preferred exile destination, used first by the czars, then later by the Soviets. In the 20th century, Verkoyansk’s population peaked at 2500 residents.
Mount Merapi, Indonesia
Even during its most tranquil periods, Mount Merapi, on the island of Java, smolders. Smoke ominously floats from its mouth, 10,000 feet in the sky. “Fire Mountain,” as its name translates to English, has erupted about 60 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 2006. Before that, a 1994 eruption sent forth a lethal cloud of scalding hot gas, which burned 60 people to death. In 1930, more than 1000 people died when Merapi spewed lava over 8 square miles around its base, the high death toll being the result of too many people living too close. In spite of this volatile history, approximately 200,000 villagers reside within 4 miles of the volcano. But Merapi is just one example of Javans tempting fate in the proximity of active volcanoes—it’s estimated that 120 million of the island’s residents live at the foot of 22 active volcanoes.
Haiti’s Storms, Gonaïves, Haiti
First came tropical storm Fay on August 16. A week later, Hurricane Gustav blew through. Following in quick succession were Hurricanes Hanna and Ike. In the span of just one month, the coastal city of Gonaïves, one of Haiti’s five largest cities, found itself on the receiving end of four devastating tropical cyclones. When the last storm passed, Gonaïves had practically been washed out to sea. Much of the city was buried under mud, or submerged in filthy water that stood 12 feet deep in some places. The death toll ran close to 500. But the storms of August to September 2008 weren’t the most deadly in Gonaïves’ recent history. In 2004, the city of 104,000 took a severe beating from Hurricane Jeanne. Three thousand Haitians died when the Category 3 storm hit and leveled large swaths of the city. What makes Gonaïves so susceptible to destruction by hurricane? Aside from its coastal location on the Gulf of Gonâve, smack-dab in the cyclone-inclined Caribbean, Gonaïves rests on a flood plain prone to washing out when inland rivers swell. Furthermore, Haitians rely on wood to make charcoal, their primary source of fuel, and this has led to massive deforestation of the hillsides surrounding the city. As a result, when the rains come, the hills around Gonaïves melt away and mudslides nearly bury the city.
Lake Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo/Rwanda
Lake Kivu, located along the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, is one of Africa’s Great Lakes. Deep below the surface of this lake’s 2700 square miles, there are 2.3 trillion cubic feet of methane gas, along with 60 cubic miles of carbon dioxide trapped beneath the lake under the pressure of the water and earth. If released from the depths, these gases could spread a cloud of death over the 2 million Africans who make their home in the Lake Kivu basin. The precedent for this concern stems from a pair of events that occurred in the 1980s at two other African lakes with similar chemical compositions. In 1984, 37 people died around Cameroon’s Lake Monoun in a limnic eruption. Three years later, at Lake Nyos, also in Cameroon, 80 cubic meters of CO2 were released from the water. Subsequently, 1700 people died from exposure to the toxic gas. These incidents were apparently caused by volcanic activity below the lakes, which triggered the release of the gas. Similar activity is believed to occur beneath Lake Kivu, causing many to worry that this area is next. A report from the United Nations’ Environmental Program went so far as to call the three bodies “Africa’s Killer Lakes,” and said Lake Kivu was cause for”serious concern.”
The Ephemeral Isles, the Maldives
The Maldives are such a dangerous place that Muhammed Nasheed, upon taking office in 2008, made it one his first items of business as the Maldives’ first democratically elected president to announce a plan to create a fund for financing the relocation of the entire population. The Maldives is a confederation of 1190 islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean. Its highest point of elevation is little more than 6 feet, and, sometime in the not-too-distant future, it is likely to be swallowed whole by rising sea levels. A 2005 assessment by the United States Geological Survey, conducted after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, called the Maldives one of the Earth’s youngest land masses, adding that they’re not long for life above water. According to the report, the islands “should be considered ephemeral features over geologic time.” By President Nasheed’s reckoning, the people of the Maldives would be well-served to find someplace else—India or Sri Lanka were floated as potential refuges—lest they too become ephemeral. Recent events support his decision to invest money earned through tourism in a relocation fund: The 2004 tsunami, which occurred at low tide, swept over the island, leaving 10 percent of the country uninhabitable. Of the Maldives’ 300,000 citizens, one-third were left homeless, and more than 80 people died. In 1987, during so-called “king tides,” the capital of Malé, an island city covering 1 square mile, was completely inundated. The effects of these disasters were compounded by the mining of the coral reefs that surround the islands, which has made them highly susceptible to sea erosion.
Hurricane Capital of the World, Grand Cayman
The Cayman Islands, a British territory situated 150 miles south of Cuba, are best known as a tropical playground for the champagne and caviar set, who come to the islands for pristine Caribbean beaches, world-class diving, and lax banking regulations. Less alluring is the islands’ other reputation as “hurricane capital of the world.” According to the tropical-storm-tracking website hurricanecity.com, Grand Cayman, the largest of the three Cayman isles, is hit or brushed by at least one hurricane every 2.16 years, more than any other locale in the Atlantic basin. Since 1871, 64 storms have battered the low-lying limestone formation, often with catastrophic results. In 2004, Hurricane Ivan, a Category 5 storm with wind speeds approaching 150 miles per hour, dumped a foot of rain on Grand Cayman. A 10-foot storm surge followed, submerging a quarter of the island. An estimated 70 percent of the island’s buildings were destroyed, and its 40,000 inhabitants were left without power or clean water for days.
The I-44 Tornado Corridor, Oklahoma City/Tulsa, Oklahoma
More than 1 million people reside along the Interstate 44 corridor that runs between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Sooner State’s two most populous metropolitan areas. Each spring, as the cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains glides across the lower plains, and the warm, wet air of the Gulf Coast comes north to meet it, the residents of this precarious stretch, locally called Tornado Alley, settle in for twister season. Since 1890, more than 120 tornados have struck Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, which currently has a population of approximately 700,000. On May 3, 1999, an outbreak of 70 tornados stretched across Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. Several of the most destructive storms swept through Oklahoma City, destroying 1700 homes and damaging another 6500. Even with modern prediction capabilities and early-warning systems, 40 people died when an F-5 twister tore through Oklahoma City. In addition to the loss of life, this display of natural devastation caused more than $1 billion in damage. Since 1950, the longest the area has gone without a tornado is five years—from 1992 to 1998. (As if making up for lost time, in the 11 months that followed that record lull, 11 tornados hit.) For only three other periods during the last half-century has Oklahoma City gone more than two years without a tornado. Northeast of Oklahoma City, along the same track that most tornado-producing storms travel, sits Tulsa, which has experienced its own share of devastation at the hands of Tornado Alley’s storms. Between 1950 and 2006, 69 tornados spun across Tulsa County—population 590,000—though none proved as deadly as the 1999 storm that hit Oklahoma City. But because of its geography—the city lies along the banks of the Arkansas River and is built atop an extensive series of creeks and their flood plains—Tulsa is particularly vulnerable to the rain that accompanies Oklahoma’s severe weather. Major floods in 1974, 1976 and 1984 caused hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage.
Trapped between two creeping deserts, the once fertile oasis of Minqin County, in northwest Gansu province, lives on borrowed time. The double whammy of a decade-long drought and the upriver diversion of water from its lifeline, the Shiyang River, have left Minqin to wither into the Tengger desert, which approaches from the southeast, and the Badain Jaran, closing in from the northwest. In total, since 1950, the deserts have swallowed up more than 100 square miles. During that same period, the population there has risen from 860,000 to more than 2 million. As of 2004, the deserts were approaching at a rate of 10 meters per year. With more than 130 days of wind and dust each year, that rate is unlikely to slow. Faced with rapid desertification, the Chinese government has begun relocating displaced farmers, as arable land has decreased from 360 square miles to fewer than 60.