Mother Nature's Fury: The Disasters of 2010

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No year passes without these sorts of stories: earthquakes and tornadoes, floods and blizzards, the trauma Mother Nature unleashes, often without warning, in virtually every corner of the planet. Few of us will get through a career in journalism without covering one of these calamities up close.

It's also true that no year passes without the obligatory retrospectives, the looks back at the calendar to catalogue the most compelling stories of the year.

Well, looking back over 2010, at the news that was, those calamities keep piling up.

Call 2010 the year Mother Nature had her way with us. The seminal event, of course, was that awful late-afternoon temblor in Haiti, on January 12. We can remember where we were when the bulletins crossed, and the awful, sinking feelings that came with it: 7.0 earthquake strikes near Port-au-Prince. You knew, instinctively, that this was not a country prepared in any way for this. Haiti's quake alone took some 220,000 lives, and its effects are still felt, as we near the anniversary.

It turned out 2010 was just getting started. February brought us a much stronger quake off the coast of Chile – far and away the year's most powerful, though the human toll was significantly lower. If it seemed the earth was shaking more dramatically than usual, it was: 20 quakes this year have been measured at a magnitude of 7.0 or higher. That's the highest figure in four decades.

Not Just Earthquakes

But while the earth rumbled, it did other things, too. Record heat and drought not only brought misery to the Russian summer; the combination literally burned parts of the Moscow countryside, and killed scores of people. Russia was one of 18 countries that broke records for extreme heat this year.

Here in North America, we had "Snowmageddon" in the eastern United States, but not nearly enough snow in British Columbia, for the Winter Olympics.

The Philippines and South China had a Typhoon named Megi (200 mile-per-hour winds), Central Java a volcano named Merapi (which coated entire towns in ash), and Iceland the volcano with the decidedly not-broadcast-friendly name Eyjafjallajokul. Remember Eyjafjallajokul? That was the mountain that sent giant plumes of ash eastward, snarling travel for a spell in late spring. When Eyjafjallajokul's eruptions were done, someone figured that seven million travelers had been affected.

Summer brought monsoon rains that swelled the Indus River in Pakistan. With stunning speed the river basin was overwhelmed, 17,000 people were dead, and fully one-fifth of Pakistan was underwater.

Then – as if the planet had not suffered enough -- Indonesia in October suffered what The Associated Press called a "trifecta of terra terror": a magnitude 7.7 earthquake, a tsunami that killed more than 500 people, and the aforementioned Merapi, the volcano which caused more than 390,000 people to flee their homes.

The U.S. has been spared the worst, as is usually the case. But even here 2010 brought extremes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has declared 79 major disasters this year; the annual average is 34.

"It just seemed like it was back-to-back and it came in waves," FEMA chief Craig Fugate told the AP. "The term '100-year event' really lost its meaning this year."

Is There Any Human Blame For A Natural Disaster?

Today, ten days before the year is up, we can count the grim toll and find that more than 260,000 people have died in these disasters of 2010. By that measure, it's the worst year in a generation, since the early-1980s famine in Ethiopia.

What, if anything, is to blame?

For the human toll, many experts blame the poverty and poor building practices that – in Haiti especially – allowed an earthquake to take so many lives. For the sheer volume of extremes, climatologists say we are suffering because of man-made global warming. Many scientists believe that climate change is not only warming the planet; it has also made it more likely that a mellow climactic event will become a ferocious one.

In any event, we cannot blame Mother Nature for everything. 2010 has been a pretty rough year in the man-made-disaster category, too. Any retrospective will highlight the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, and mining collapses the world over -- though the best-known of those brought us an unabashed good-news story: the successful rescue of those 29 hardy men of the mine near Copiapo, Chile.

So, farewell, 2010. And if we are to suffer such calamity in 2011 (and sadly, it is all but certain we will) let us raise a toast to these propositions: That the new year brings us fewer of them, first; and second, that when they come, they are the Copiapo brand of disasters. As in, the ones that end in joy.