10 Places Ruined by Man-Made Catastrophes

Abandoned city being reclaimed by nature
Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Man-made environmental catastrophes come in varying degrees of tragic, but none are as awful as when human action renders once-pristine land uninhabitable. Here's our list of 10 places that have been abandoned because of environmental neglect.

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Pripyat, Ukraine

Photo: thedakotakid/Flickr [CC by 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 on April 26, 1986. The city, which once bustled with nearly 50,000 residents, is now an Orwellian ghost town. Radiation levels remain too high for permanent human habitation, though it is considered safe for tourists to visit. The vanquished city's ghoulish ambiance includes an old amusement park, with a rickety, abandoned Ferris wheel and empty, lifeless bumper cars.

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Centralia, Pennsylvania

Photo: James St. John/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Centralia is an old coal mining town once populated by more than 1,000 residents. Today, it is a smoldering ghost town, perpetually burning like a hell pit, with deadly fumes of carbon monoxide rising from cracks in the ground. What happened?

Centralia had to be abandoned after a fire broke out in 1962 in the coal mines that run underneath the town — a fire that continues to burn today, and may continue to burn for the next 250 years. Residents have since been evicted and the town's ZIP code has been revoked.

The mine fire was dramatically described by David DeKok in 1986 in his book "Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government and the Centralia Mine Fire": "This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn's. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers."

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Carteret Islands

Photo: NASA

Residents of the Carteret Islands, low-lying atolls in the South Pacific, became the world's first climate change refugees as planned evacuations have saved them from rising sea levels, which threaten to submerge the islands by 2015. In 2005, at least 1,000 residents called the islands home, but as the ocean slowly lapped further and further ashore, their fate became clear. Nowhere on the islands is currently more than 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) above sea level.

As temperatures rise due to global warming, sea levels could engulf island nations and coastal communities around the world. The Carteret Islands could be a sign of things to come.

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Wittenoom, Australia

Photo: Five Years/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 3.0]

This town in Western Australia has the baleful reputation of being home to the greatest industrial disaster in Australian history. Wittenoom was the site of an asbestos mine, where 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. Though the town was shut down in 1966, today the air remains contaminated and toxic to breathe if stirred, and the state of Western Australia has the highest rate of malignant mesothelioma per capita of anywhere in the world.

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Picher, Oklahoma

Photo: peggydavis66/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

The modern-day ghost town of Picher, Oklahoma, is a woeful example of gross contamination from a local lead and zinc mine. Surrounded by giant piles of toxic metal-contaminated mine tailings, in 1983 Picher was declared to be the center of a 40-square-mile Superfund site. In the mid-1990s, studies found that about a third of the children living in Picher had elevated blood levels of lead. Over the years residents have been offered voluntary buyouts from the state and federal goverments, and in 2009 the city and school district dissolved.

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Aral Sea

Photo: Staecker/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 1.0]

The Aral Sea, one of the four largest lakes in the world just 40 years ago, has almost completely dried up after the rivers that fed it were diverted by poorly planned and mismanaged irrigation projects. The event has been called "one of the planet's worst environmental disasters." Fishing vessels that once sailed the vast inland sea now sit eerily out of place in the middle of a desolate, dusty desert, relics of a time when thriving villages flourished along the Aral Sea's banks. Although some of the cities, which were once grand ports, remain populated today, many have had to be abandoned. Where the sea's edge once lapped with waves, today remain only sullen towns consumed by windswept sand.

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Three Gorges, China

Photo: Dan Kamminga/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 2.0]

China's construction of the world's largest power station, the Three Gorges Dam, has been wrought with controversy. Though the dam provides clean, fossil-fuel-free energy to a nation with rapidly increasing energy needs, rising floodwaters have already transformed the once-pristine river valleys, engulfed whole villages and ancient townships, and displaced more than 1 million people, with millions more projected to be affected.

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Great Harbour Deep, Newfoundland

Photo: Joanna Poe/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Great Harbour Deep was once a remote but thriving fishing village along the coast of Canada's Newfoundland. Harking back to a time when the area was one of the world's top cod fisheries, the bounty seemed endless and impossible to deplete. After decades of overfishing, though, the fishery collapsed, residents departed and the township was disbanded. Today its decaying fishing boats tilt haggardly, and the raggedy old buildings recall a time when our oceans were healthy and the fish were plentiful.

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Gilman, Colorado

Photo: John Holm/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Once at the center of Colorado's zinc and lead mining operations, the now-deserted Gilman was designated a Superfund site in 1986 by the Environmental Protection Agency due to irrevocable contamination of the groundwater. Mining operations left such large amounts of arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and zinc in the soil that it caused large fish kills up and down the nearby Eagle River. Although cleanup efforts have reportedly been successful in reclaiming the river, human resettlement at Gilman has not yet been approved.

The town is one of only a few sites in the world, including Wittenoom, Australia, and Picher, Okla., to be declared uninhabitable due to environmental and health damage caused by mines.

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Fukushima evacuation zone

Photo: Abasaa/Wikimedia Commons [CC by 1.0]

The tragedy at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, caused by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami, has been called the world's worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. An evacuation zone up to 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) around the damaged plant has been declared unsafe to occupy, and former residents of the area have been told that they may never be able to return to their radiation-ravaged homes. Among the several towns expected to be on the blacklist are Futaba and Okuma, which are just two miles from the Fukushima plant.