Is Gulf spill the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history?

June 22, 2010

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is unquestionably the biggest spill in U.S. history, far surpassing the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska in 1989.

 But is it the worst environmental disaster inflicted on America? 


(PHOTO: An oil-coated Brown Pelican stands on Queen Bess in Bay Barataria near Grand Isle, Louisiana June 14, 2010. . REUTERS/Sean Gardner)

That is a question that some have been weighing in on. The New York Times last week posed the question to a number of environmental historians. It said several of them pointed to the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s as the mother of all U.S. environmental catastrophes.

Poor farming techniques leading to soil erosion on a vast scale and drought combined with other factors to produce the 1930s Dust Bowl that scorched tens of millions of acres of farmland in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma as well as Kansas and other states. Dust storms were whipped up that fouled the air as far away as New York.

 Over 45 million acres of crops failed on the Great Plains in 1935 and the unfolding disaster dispossessed hundreds of thousands. It led to the creation of federal agencies such as the Soil Conservation Service which is now the Natural Resources Conservation Service. 

For some historical context, here are a few of America’s biggest ecological calamities. 


Bison once thundered across America in the tens of millions with a range that extended from Alaska to Mexico. 

But commercial hunting and habitat loss virtually wiped them off the face of the plains. The bison extermination was also part of a deliberate government policy of genocide against native Americans, some historians say. 

USA/ (PHOTO: Wild bison eye a visitor at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge outside Denver August 6, 2009. REUTERS/U.S. Forest Service)

 By 1889, according to the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, there were fewer than 1,100 of the animals left. Today there are about 400,000 bison in the United States but the vast majority are effectively livestock on private ranches. Only around 20,000 are considered wild. 

 In many places the bison and their grassland habitat have been replaced by cattle or cultivated crops such as corn, leaving the American landscape and previously wild ecosystems altered in profound and lasting ways.  The loss of native grasses among other things contributed to the Dust Bowl.

The passenger pigeon was believed to have once been the most abundant bird species in North America but it has been extinct for over a century.

 Flocks were said to extend for hundreds of miles (kms) and darken the sky. But their forest food supply was removed as trees were cleared for farmland and they were hunted en masse in what has been described as an “avicide.” 


America’s west is facing increasing droughts which will be exacerbated by climate change as fast-growing cities compete with agriculture for scarce water supplies in arid regions.


Western pine and spruce forests are under siege from twin beetle infestations that have been linked to climate change. 

 In Colorado, aerial surveys show that from 1996 to 2008 Colorado lost almost 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of pine forest to the pine beetle outbreak, Wyoming 677,000 acres and South Dakota 354,000 acres. 


(PHOTO: Beetle-killed pine trees stand with some still living trees near the Continental Divide in central Colorado April 8, 2010.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

 Over the same period of time, the spruce beetle, which has also ravaged forests as far north as Alaska, took out 374,000 acres of spruce trees in Colorado and 340,000 in Wyoming. 

 The cumulative total is over 6 million acres (2.5 million hectares), an area larger than Israel or South Africa’s famed Kruger National Park. 

Farther north in Canada, the pine beetle has attacked trees over an area of about 39 million acres (14.5 million hectares) in British Columbia since the 1990s. 

 The loss to the forestry industry and property values is in the billions of dollars and the tree die-off has implications for climate change as forest growth in the United States currently sucks up about 12 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

These are just a few that come to mind. What do you think is the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history and where would you rank the Gulf spill? Or is to too soon to assign it a ranking, since its ultimate consequences are clearly unknown at this point? And what would you add to the list?

(Sources: Reuters, The New York Times, Wildlife Conservation Society, National Audubon Society, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, USDA, Economic History Services)

One comment

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CO2 is now at 393 ppb. This is the worse environmental disaster. It’s invisible gas is not as dramatic as visible oil washing up on beaches. The second environmental disaster is carbon black. The third disaster is methane escaping into the atmosphere. The gulf oil disaster is contributing to all three of these.
The permafrost thawing with the potential release of over one trillion, five hundred billion tons of methane may be the largest immediate environmental disaster in progress. The oil spill will hopefully come to an end. The escape of methane will not and may never be stopped. The consequences of CO2, black carbon and methane release are far beyond what most people can imagine and therefore majority political support to cope with it may not develop until it is too late. The planet will survive. Most people, animals, plants and sea life probably won’t.

Posted by mhhensel | Report as abusive