10 Places Ruined by Human-Caused Catastrophes

Three people walk down a road covered in graffiti
After an underground coal mine fire turned Centralia, Pennsylvania into a ghost town, its roads have been plastered with graffiti.

Thom Lang / Getty Images

Human-created environmental catastrophes vary in size and scope, but the worst disasters can leave entire landscapes uninhabitable. The landscapes that remain after these events serve as a stark reminder of humankind's ability to reshape the world, in ways both positive and negative. 

In some cases, disasters like nuclear accidents or mining operations have prompted permanent evacuations, leaving behind ghost towns. In others, rising sea levels due to climate change are slowly inundating island communities. Dams, irrigation canals, or other public works projects can also lead to disaster when poor planning results in flooded valleys or shrinking lakes.

From Fukushima to the Aral Sea, here are 10 places that have been ruined by human-caused disasters.

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Trees and vegetation grow in an abandoned, rusting bumper car rink

thedakotakid / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Located within the Chernobyl disaster zone, Pripyat, Ukraine, was ground zero for the worst nuclear disaster in history when an accident destroyed a plant reactor in 1986. The city, which once bustled with nearly 50,000 residents, was evacuated after the disaster and is now a ghost town. Radiation levels in the 1,000-square-mile disaster zone still remain too high for permanent human habitation, though it is considered safe for short-term travel. Nature has reclaimed much of the city, with trees and grasses obscuring sidewalks and buildings. Wildlife numbers around the city have also rebounded, and researchers say that the area now functions as a successful, albeit unplanned, wildlife reserve.

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Steam from an underground coal fire rises through cracks in a paved road

James St. John / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

A coal mine that extends under Centralia, Pennsylvania has been burning since 1962 and has left the town, which once had a population of 1,000, virtually uninhabited. The fire, which was started to burn a garbage pile but then escaped into the tunnels of the nearby mine, has been burning underground ever since. Though the fire is not expanding as quickly as it once was, researchers believe it may continue to burn for another 100 years. The town is not off-limits to visitors and even serves as an off-beat tourist attraction. However, officials strongly discourage visitation, citing dangerous gases, collapsing roads, and hidden heat vents.

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Carteret Islands

An aerial photo of an circular atoll in the Pacific Ocean

NASA / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Residents of the Carteret Islands, a low-lying island chain in the Pacific Ocean near Papua New Guinea, have been forced to evacuate their homeland over the past several decades due to rising sea levels. The local sea-level changes, which researchers believe are tied to broader changes due to climate change, have flooded several of the islands. Seawater has also destroyed crops and flooded freshwater wells, reducing the islanders' access to food and water. Though many residents have left, the islands are still habited.

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An abandoned gas station and cafe in a desert landscape

Five Years / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Wittenoom, a town in Western Australia, is the site of a former asbestos mine that caused the worst industrial disaster in Australian history. Before the entire town was shuttered in 1966, thousands of workers and their families were exposed to lethal levels of blue asbestos—1,000 times higher than was legally regulated at the time. Today, the air remains contaminated, especially when the soil is disturbed. The state of Western Australia has the highest rate of malignant mesothelioma per capita of anywhere in the world.

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A street with abandoned storefronts, with a mound of earth resulting from mining activity seen in the background

Johanna Jacky-Brinkman / Getty Images

The ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma, is an example of cross-contamination from a local lead and zinc mine. The landscape around the town was used for surface-level mining, which destabilized the ground underneath buildings in town and exposed residents to toxic levels of lead.

Surrounded by piles of toxic mine tailings, Picher was declared to be the center of a 40-square-mile Superfund site in 1983. In 1996, studies found that about one-third of the children living in Picher had elevated blood levels of lead. In 2009, the city government and school district dissolved, and all residents who remained in Picher were offered funds from the federal government to relocate.

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Aral Sea

Abandoned, rusted ships lying in a desert

Kelly Cheng Travel Photography / Getty Images

The Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest lake in the world, has shrunk by nearly 90% due to water diversion for irrigation projects during the Soviet Era. Due to the devastation to the fishing industry, many of the lakeside towns were abandoned, and rusted fishing boats can still be seen in what is now a dry desert landscape.

The rivers flowing into the Aral Sea were diverted for cotton fields, but much of the water seeped into the ground, never reaching the fields. Increased pesticide use and rising water salinity levels led to a public health crisis. Today, various projects exist to save the smaller, disconnected lakes that still exist in the Aral Sea basin.

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Three Gorges Dam

A dam and hydroelectric power plant that extends across a wide reservoir

Kim Steele / Getty Images

The construction of the world's largest power station, the Three Gorges Dam in China, has been wrought with controversy. Straddling the Yangtze River, the dam provides clean, fossil-fuel-free energy to a nation with rapidly increasing energy needs, but its construction caused massive changes in the landscape. The 400-mile-long reservoir above the dam flooded numerous valleys, including entire towns and cities. The project displaced 1.3 million people and disrupted the river ecosystem. Critics are concerned that the amount of silt in the Yangtze River could overwhelm the dam and cause further flooding.

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Great Harbour Deep

A white fishing boat lies abandoned on the ground with buildings in the background

Joanna Poe / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Great Harbour Deep was once a thriving fishing village on the island province of Newfoundland, Canada. After decades of overfishing, though, the fishery collapsed in the early 1990s, leaving town residents with little reason to stay in the remote town. The town's residents voted to resettle in 2002, a unique process in which the Newfoundland government pays citizens to move away from remote towns, as long as 90% of local residents vote for the move.

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A small settlement of houses and buildings on a steep hillside

Jeffrey Beall / WIkimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Once at the center of Colorado's zinc and lead mining operations, Gilman is now a ghost town and designated Superfund site. Mining operations left large amounts of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and zinc in the soil and groundwater. This contamination led to toxic exposure levels among town residents and decimated the ecosystem of the nearby Eagle River.

Similar to Wittenoom and Picher, Gilman has been declared uninhabitable due to mining activity. Although cleanup efforts have helped to restore the river, the town, which is now privately owned, has not been repopulated.

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A metal gate and sign closes off a path in a suburban area due to nuclear radiation

Abasaa / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The disaster at the nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan was the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Of all nuclear plant accidents, only Chernobyl and Fukushima were deemed Level 7 events according to the International Nuclear Event Scale. The 2011 accident was preceded by a magnitude 9.1 earthquake and tsunami. During the accident, the plant's cooling system failed, causing a meltdown in several reactors that unleashed radioactive contamination. An evacuation zone 18.6 miles around the damaged plant is still in place, and the Japanese government has informed former residents that they may never be able to reoccupy the area.

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