Well kiddies, we had a completely different 13 Paranoid Facts lined up for you this issue, but after getting all of Menu 18's stories gathered, we realized that an unusually high percentage of those nasty nibs had something to do with the apocalypse. Think that means we're getting closer to December 21, 2012, anyone?
Whatever the end of this year brings--2013 is our paranoid prediction--humankind has suffered through an inestimable number of major catastrophes, many of which might well seem like Armageddon to those trapped in the maelstrom.
These are just a few of them:
The Toba Catastrophe of Prehistory
Let's start this out with a bang, kiddies! A really, really big bang that--fortunate for us in a couple of different ways, heh heh--happened at least 69,000 years ago. Word on the streets...er, or whatever passed for streets at the time...is that the "mega-colossal" supervolcanic eruption in modern-day Sumatra, Indonesia, could have wiped out all but a thousand mating pairs of humans (leaving an earthwide population as low as 3,000).
If you caught last Menu's 13 Paranoid Facts, you might recall the mighty Mount Tambora eruption of 1815 ejected so much tephra that it caused the disastrous "Year Without a Summer." When Mount Toba went up, however, it pushed about forty times that amount into the air, leaving some remaining ash deposits that measure 18 feet deep.
Toba's big bang was probably not directly responsible for much of the (theoretical) human extinction, but the subsequent thousand year ice age it ushered in almost certainly was. In northern China and Europe, summertime temperatures may have plummeted over 50 degrees, making human life impossible anywhere except tropical climes. (This is likely why humans' Mitochondrial Eve comes out of Africa some 50,000 - 70,000 years ago.)
The Armero Tragedy of 1985
Moving considerably closer to our time but still under the threat of volcanoes, the Armero Tragedy is the result of the fourth deadliest volcanic eruption since 1500. The real tragedy here is that many of the lives lost could have been prevented (and 1997's Dante's Peak would have had to look elsewhere for script inspiration).
Again, it wasn't the initial blast that brought and end to the lives of more than 23,000 victims, it was piss poor government management--there was plenty of time (up to a month) to evacuate many of those who lost their lives during multiple stages of the eruption, but local authorities refused. Some even downplayed the importance of the falling ash on the day of the actual catastrophe.
The volcano's pyroclastic flows melted glaciers and created landslides which in turn formed lahars (basically, a debris-filled mud river with the approximate consistency of concrete, which has the non-Newtonian properties of acting like a fluid when in motion and a solid when at rest). These lahars were up to 100 feet deep, 160 feet wide and traveling somewhere in the neighborhood of 39 feet per second. Though the town of Amero, Columbia, was some 30 miles distant from the rumbling Nevado del Ruiz, three lahars formed by the eruption buried 75% of the town, killing 20,000. A fourth lahar wiped out an entire village of 1,800 people.
The Lake Nyos Disaster of 1986
Sometimes, volcanoes don't even have to erupt to bring on an apocalyptic disaster. A crater lake, Nyos sits atop an inactive volcano, resting about 50 miles above a large pocket of magma. This geologic situation causes Nyos to be an "exploding lake," one of only three known in the world and all in Africa. (One of the others, Lake Monoun, lies only 62 miles away from Nyos and is connected to the same volcanic system.)
The magma below ground slowly releases carbon dioxide and other gasses, which are dissolved and trapped in the cold water at the bottom of the very deep Lake Nyos. On August 21st, 1986, a small earthquake or landslide must have occurred, which triggered a limnic eruption that released nearly 1.6 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide to the surface of the lake at 62 miles per hour. A 300-foot geyser resulted, sending an 80-foot wave crashing over one shore.
But that massive wave wasn't the local villagers' problem--the enormous cloud of CO2 gas was their real threat. Heavier than air and nearly 165 feet thick, the carbon dioxide proceeded to roll down two valleys at around 12 - 31 miles per hour, suffocating 1,700 people and more than twice the amount of livestock. Survivors suffered from paralysis, breathing problems and strange lesions over their bodies. (Two years earlier, a similar incident at Lake Monoun killed 37, and last Menu's 13 Paranoid Facts references a mysterious unsolved Australian crime that might be explained as a case of limnic eruption.)
The True Dark Age (536 - 545 AD)
Shortly before the period we think of as The Dark Ages, there was a true dark age. Similar to 1816's "Year Without a Summer" (which, again, was mentioned in the last 13 Paranoid Facts), this "dread portent" lasted for at least 18 months and had long lasting effects. Modern scientists surmise this phenomenon was due either to a massive volcanic eruption or possibly a comet or meteor impact; there is evidence that suggests both may have occurred.
The sun was described as "blue," "like the moon" and during this period, sunspot activity could be seen with the naked eye--in the four hours it was even visible. "The seasons have changed by failing to change," wrote the Roman statesman Cassiodorus. "So we have had a winter without storms, spring without mildness, summer without heat." This brought inevitable crop failures through 539 and led to widespread famine; the first reports of what came to be known as the Plague of Justinian surfaced in 541. (Interestingly, the term "pestilencia" was used by writers in antiquity to describe this time. The etymology of the word gives it a rough meaning of "the time of tempest caused by light from the stars.")
The ensuing Plague of Justinian is estimated to have killed up to 25 million people over two hundred years; the pestilence is said to have returned nearly every generation. At the height of the first pandemic, 5,000 to 10,000 people died per day in Constantinople, wiping out nearly 40% of the population.
While most of the plague seemed to be of the bubonic sort, St. Teilo wrote this strange account: "Yellow Pestilence...occasioned all persons who were seized by it to be yellow and without blood, and it appeared to men a column of a watery cloud, having one end trailing along the ground, and the other above, proceeding in the air, and passing through the whole country like a shower going through the bottom of valleys. Whatever living creatures it touched with its pestiferous blast, either immediately died, or sickened for death ... and so greatly did the aforesaid destruction rage throughout the nation, that it caused the country to be nearly deserted."
The Chinese Meteor Strikes of 1490
Records are scarce, but there are said to be over 10 contemporary sources referencing a "rain of stones" in Shanxi Province, China, in the late winter or early spring of 1490. While the official History of the Ming Dynasty only refers to the stonefall, other texts of the time reference 10,000 or even "several ten-thousands" of deaths caused by this event.
Though scientists are skeptical about the reported death toll, they postulate that an asteroid or comet most likely broke up in the atmosphere and fell on the poor residents of Ch'ing-yang. What is known is that most of the stones ranged from the size of small water chestnuts to large goose eggs, which probably did account for a number of casualties. One city was reported deserted after residents fled the "iron rain."
The Great Fires of 1871
While the catastrophic fires that happened around the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada in 1871 are not disputed, their source of ignition is still an, er... hot topic for debate among academics. Regardless of the cause, it truly became Hell on Earth as dozens of fires sprang up around the Great Lakes area on the 8th of October. The best known of these is the Great Chicago Fire, though the Great Michigan Fire (actually several fires statewide) and the Peshtigo Fire--responsible for the greatest loss of life by fire in United States history--all occurred on the same day.
The Chicago Fire had remarkably few casualties for a disaster of such extent, with high estimates around 300; however, more than 90,000 were left homeless. The Michigan fires burned more than 2.5 million acres and killed nearly 500, though the remoteness of some locations made an accurate body count impossible. The Peshtigo Fire was a full-on firestorm that covered 1,875 square miles, destroyed 12 communities, and claimed the lives of 1,200 - 2,500 people. This conflagration was so intense, it created tornadoes and managed to easily jump across the River and Green Bay. Worse yet, after the fires were out, there was no lumber to rebuild any of these decimated communities.
While Mrs. O'Leary's cow has been pretty universally found Not Guilty of actually starting the Chicago Fire, the accepted theory is that many small brushfires, burning after a hot, dry summer, had merged with heavy winds that swept into the region that day. The more interesting theory is that Biela's Comet, in the area at the time, may have fragmented and rained Sodom and Gomorrah-style death over the lakes. Though fire by meteorite is extremely rare and unlikely (thus "discrediting" the comet theory), multiple witnesses to an oceanic comet strike near New Zealand in 1430 reported a bright flash, a Chinese naval fleet set ablaze, and a massive tsunami tossing the flaming ships onto the coastlines of Western Australia and New Zealand (which also caught fire).
The Palace of the Grand Masters Explosion of 1856
Ever have one of those days when you go to clean out the basement and you stumble across your grampa's old baseball card collection, the one with original, mint condition cards from 1910 with obscure baseball names like Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young and Connie Mack? Yeah, the Ottoman Turks didn't either, but if they would've cleaned out their basement at some point, it might have saved their lives...
The Turks were occupying the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights on the island of Rhodes in 1856, just as they had been doing for more than three centuries. What they weren't doing anymore was depositing ammo and unused gunpowder into every nook and cranny in the basement (good choice). What they were doing, however, was not removing all the old explosive material their ancestors crammed into every corner of the basement in centuries past (bad choice). An even worse choice was using the site as a mosque and keeping it open to the public.
When a lightning bolt juiced a minaret on April 3, 1856, a spark wormed its way into the basement for a gunpowder party that killed 800 - 4,000, depending on reports. Already weakened by an earthquake in 1851, the Palace of the Grand Masters exploded like a zombie head in a George Romero flick, leaving little but the two entryway towers standing. It was largely rebuilt in the early decades of the 20th century by Italians (in part for Mussolini).
The Great Smog of '52
With all these fires and explosions around us, it's no wonder we'll get lost in the Great Smog of '52 for a while. The setting, since you can't see for yourself, is London. The smog began on December 5th, as an anticyclone settled high above London while the city itself was windless, bringing extreme cold to the region. In response, Londoners began heaping cheap, low-grade coal onto their fires to warm things up; unfortunately, the smoke mixed with the natural fog, which turned the air even colder and prompted the citizens to dump even more coal into the fire. Add these conditions to the pollution already gathered above the city from the industrial sector and the new diesel-powered public transportation, and you've got a recipe for disaster.
By Sunday the 7th, visibility had fallen to one foot, meaning far-sighted people couldn't read once they got their arm extended to full length. That might seem a bit cavalier in light of the 12,000 dead and the 100,000 sickened by the event, but it accurately reflects the situation, as Londoners had no idea that tragedy was unfolding around them (most of these bodies weren't just lying around in the streets). They were quite used to "pea-soupers" by then, and this one just seemed to be a little extra dirty.
It was only after the intense four-day smog had blown out that people started realizing there was a shortage of caskets and flowers. Once officials began looking seriously at the mortality rate, they discovered the death rate was three to four times the norm for December.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984
Another December, another respiratory disaster. This one took place on December 2-3, 1984 in Bhopal, India. Due to poor maintenance and storage practices, Union Carbide India Limited, a pesticide factory, developed a massive leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC) after an exothermic reaction caused a pipe to break. Thirty tonnes of MIC spewed into the atmosphere in less than an hour, creating the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world.
Many thousands died in the toxic fog, and more than half a million others succumbed to various health ailments in the weeks and years following the incident. Just to compound the horror of the tragedy, it took over 25 years to bring "justice" to the victims, when seven men were convicted of negligence in 2010. Their punishment? Two years in prison, and a $2,100 fine
And...abandoned chemicals at the factory continue to leak into the local groundwater.
The Iranian Blizzard of 1972
In 1972, the Iranians nearly made it through the winter before the deadliest blizzard in history blanketed the western region of Iran in up to 26 feet of snow. With temperatures pegged at -13 degrees, the storm lasted from February 3rd through the 8th--then resumed again on the 11th!
During the short break in the weather, rescuers were quickly dispatched to the affected region, which was nearly the size of Wisconsin. One group of rescue workers reported digging for 2 days just to reach the village below them, only to find that all 100 residents had perished. All in all, 200 villages were wiped out and 4,000 people lost their lives.
The Johnstown Flood of 1889
Given Johnstown's location, the residents were used to a little yearly flooding, especially after heavy rains, and when water started to gather in the streets on May 31, 1889, the townsfolk started putting their valuables and wares up as high as they could, same as always. SSDD. Fourteen miles away, at the South Fork dam, things were a little more hectic. Water was right up to the brink of dam, and officials feared the dam was failing. These men busily did anything they could to shore up the dam: digging spillways, removing debris from the existing spillways, and even trying to raise the height of the dam. Twice someone was dispatched to warn Johnstown of the impending failure, and twice that someone was ignored--it seems this little boy had cried wolf once too often.
Right around 4 o'clock, residents of Johnstown were already weathering a flood with 10-foot pools in the streets. Then, when the dam finally did burst 14 miles away, a mountain of debris half a mile wide and 60 feet high came rushing at them with the full force of Niagara Falls. The lake emptied of 20 million tons of water, gathering 14 miles of houses, railroad cars, barbed wire, timber and all manner of mammals from towns like South Fork and Mineral Point. When the debris crashed against the Conemaugh Viaduct (a nearly 80-foot railway bridge), it stopped the flow for about 7 minutes--but once that structure collapsed, the surge picked up even more force than it had before.
In Johnstown, the Stone Bridge made another dam, diverting much of the water up the Stoney Creek River for a short while--until gravity overcame momentum and sent another wall of water crashing back toward town, this time from a different direction. Meanwhile, the debris at the Stone Bridge managed to catch fire, killing more than 80 and burning for three days; it took over three months to finally clear the Stone Bridge rubble. More than 2,200 people were robbed of their lives that day.
The Four Pests Campaign of 1958 - 1961
When the Chinese Government forced it citizens to make the Great Leap Forward from 1958 - 1962, it turned into a horrendous leap into the grave for up to 45 million people and became known as the Great Chinese Famine (or Three Years of Difficult Period). While natural disasters such as drought, floods and other atypical weather during this time would have undoubtedly caused a certain percentage of these casualties, the Chinese government itself estimates that up to 70% of those fatalities were due to mismanagement.
One of the failed elements of the Great Leap was the Four Pests Campaign. Chairman Mao Zedong decided his people needed to get rid of four pests then plagued the Chinese population: flies, mosquitoes, rats and...sparrows? Yeah, sparrows. You know, 'cos those pesky little birds were robbing the people of so much grain as the Great Leap Forward was shifting China from an agricultural base to an industrial society. Sparrows were driven to the brink of extinction as nests and eggs were smashed, birds were slingshot and people banged pots and pans to keep the sparrows from landing; many finally fell from the sky, dying of exhaustion.
Of course, Chairman Mao forget that sparrows actually eat two of the other pests on the list--plus other major crop-killing insects such as locusts. By 1960, grain production had decreased to 70% of the 1958 levels. (This wasn't just the bugs' fault, however: only 40% of farmlands had any rain in 1960, and many agriculturalists were ripped away from their farms and forced into factory work--private gardens were, in fact, forbidden. Plus a number of catastrophic seeding and planting methods had also been implemented into the new farming communes.) In April of that year Mao decided sparrows should be spared, and instead declared the fourth pest to be bedbugs. Unfortunately, the damage was already done.
As with many of the above disasters, this man's poor decision resulted in massive fatalities. Unlike many of the above disasters, however, Tandy's Folly was made through an act of mercy--yet it led to a devastating percentage of the 60 - 78 million people that died planet-wide during World War II.
So, who was Henry Tandey? Only the most decorated veteran of World War I, awarded with honors such as the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal, to name just a few. The former English orphan enlisted prior to the Great War on August 12, 1910, becoming part of the Green Howards Regiment. Tandy fought in many battles, including those of Ypres, Sommes, Passchendaele and Marcoing.
So what was his folly? As the "War to End All Wars" was winding down, Private Tandy was out kicking ass and taking names as usual when a wounded German soldier wandered into Tandey's line of fire. The German soldier was hurt so badly, he didn't even raise his rifle toward Tandey. According to Tandey, "I took aim but couldn't shoot a wounded man, so I let him go." The wounded soldier, Lance Corporal Adolf Hitler, nodded his thanks to Tandey then stumbled away, retreating with the rest of the German army. Tandey was haunted by this "oversight" for the rest of his life.