As one year draws to an end and a new year dawns, we naturally tend to look back on the events of the last twelve months – and, well, 2021 was certainly quite a year.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has, obviously, dominated conversation throughout the year, with more deaths caused by the virus in the first six months of 2021 than in the whole of 2020. Worldwide, cases had risen to 2.76 million by the 23rd of December, with 5.37 million deaths reported to the World Health Organisation. A total of 8.64 million vaccine doses had been delivered by the same date, raising hope that the impact of the pandemic will start to lessen.
However, the rise of new variants could slow the impact of vaccines. The Delta variant, which was first found in India in late 2020, began to be detected in other countries from February 2021, and the WHO identified it as being more easily transmissible than the original variant, even in people who had already been vaccinated, with an increased risk of hospitalisation to the unvaccinated. Later, in November 2021, the Omicron variant was detected in South Africa, and confirmed in more than 80 different countries within a month. Although this variant appears to cause less serious illness, it is also significantly more contagious than previous variants, leading to serious concerns about the ability of healthcare systems to cope with the resulting influx of patients.
The main problem in tackling the pandemic lies in getting vaccines delivered to the global population; in countries where fewer people are vaccinated, new variants are more likely to arise, as the virus is able to spread more quickly. Unfortunately, alongside the difficulties of delivering vaccines to poorer countries, there has also been widespread misinformation about the vaccines, and “anti-vax” sentiments in many developed countries, which has reduced uptake. Even before the pandemic, the WHO recognised “vaccine hesitancy” as a major threat to global health; sadly this is now becoming real, and resulting in unnecessary fatalities.
Just to be clear: in order to tackle the COVID pandemic, and ensure that I’m not still talking about it this time next year, everyone who is able to have the vaccine should have the vaccine. Serious side effects are extremely rare, and the brief period of feeling a bit rotten after vaccination is nothing compared to being intubated in hospital and dying with only exhausted doctors and nurses at your bedside.
2021 also gave us a number of extreme environmental disasters and weather events which make the dangers of climate change quite clear. A report by charity Christian Aid highlighted ten of these events, noting that, “Unless the world acts rapidly to cut emissions these kinds of disasters are likely to worsen.”
There were extremes of both heat and cold this year; in February, a winter storm in Texas caused over 200 deaths and left some five million people without electricity, whilst a heat wave in June saw temperatures soar to a record 49.6 °C (121 °F) in British Columbia, Canada, causing hundreds of excess deaths across Western North America.
One man in Seattle, Washington, was reported to have suffered third degree burns from walking on asphalt; melting power cables shut down the Portland Streetcar service, and Amazon opened parts of its Seattle HQ to the public so that they could cool down.
Alysa Pederson, a meteorologist from Environment Canada said, “This is historic and widespread – it’s shattering records everywhere…heat of this magnitude is more scary than it is something to look forward to.”
Record-breaking warm periods also led to increased risk of drought and wildfires. In May, 75% of the western United States was experiencing drought conditions, 21% of which were considered the most severe level of drought.
Although wildfires in America burned less acreage in 2021 – 7.7 million acres, compared to over 10 million acres in 2020 – the way they burned was changing. Jon Heggie, battalion chief for CalFire, told the Guardian that “There’s no denying that fires are burning hotter and faster.”
The Dixie wildfire, which began on July 13th and was not completely extinguished until October 25th, was the largest event of the California wildfire season, the largest single wildfire in the state’s history, and the first fire known to have burned over the crest of the Sierra Nevada. It burned over 960 thousand acres, destroyed several small towns, and caused the air quality to drop as far away as Utah and Colorado.
At the very end of the year, Colorado itself suffered devastating wildfires which destroyed many homes and required some 30,000 residents to evacuate. Although it was initially announced that there had been no deaths, with Governor Jared Polis calling it “a New Year’s miracle”, at the time of writing three people remained missing, presumed dead.
And America was not alone; wildfires also ravaged the Mediterranean from Tunisia and Algeria in the south to Spain, Italy and Greece in the north, causing at least 86 deaths. Fire risk management specialist Jesús San-Miguel-Ayanz called the fires “unprecedented”, and said that the number of critical years, where there are multiple intense, uncontrollable fires, had increased since the turn of the century.
Turkey alone experienced more than two hundred wildfires in July and August, making it the country’s worst ever wildfire season. Then, fire turned to floods, caused by severe thunderstorms hitting the Black Sea region between the 7th and 14th of August. At least 81 people were killed, and with waters rising to 4 metres (13ft) in some locations, many people had to be rescued from their rooftops.
Many parts of Europe experienced similar deluges throughout the summer. In mid-July, a slow-moving storm system dumped record amounts of rainfall across Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, causing several rivers to burst their banks. In Belgium, at least 11 were killed and the entire city of Liège – some 200,000 people – was urged to evacuate. Germany was even harder hit, with at least 184 deaths reported, massive damage to infrastructures in the area, and houses literally washed away. Annemarie Mueller, a 65-year-old resident of Mayen, told BBC News, “It made such a loud noise and given how fast it came down we thought it would break the door down.”
Shortly after this, further catastrophic flooding occurred in the Henan region of China. Shocking videos from Zhengzhou showed people trapped in underground train carriages with the water rising as high as their necks, while 200 cars were stuck inside the Jingguang North Road tunnel. It was later confirmed that 14 were killed in the metro, and six bodies were retrieved from the road tunnel – with a total of 302 dead in the floods and 50 missing.
Still in July, even more floods hit the Maharashtra region of India, where it was reported that they saw the highest rainfall for the month of July in 40 years. The floods, and associated landslides, killed at least 200 people, with many villages cut off by damage to bridges.
But July was not the only deadly month for floods and landslides. A landslide on the island of Java in January killed at least a dozen; in February, a huge chunk of rock and ice was dislodged from a Himalayan glacier, causing an avalanche and flooding which hit the valley floor with the force of 15 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. More than 200 people were killed, many of them working on construction of a hydroelectric plant in the area.
A late monsoon was responsible for the death of around two hundred people in Nepal and India in October, as well as damaging infrastructure and devastating crops.
Heavy rain, as well as an earthquake, also contributed to a landslide near Mexico City in September. The earthquake registered a moment magnitude of around 7 or 7.1 and hit near Acapulco on the 7th; on the 10th, large boulders were dislodged from the Cerro del Chiquihuite, which buried at least ten houses and killed four.
Another strong earthquake hit the Indonesian province of West Sulawesi on the 15th of January, causing extensive damage and setting off a number of deadly landslides. With a moment magnitude of 6.2, this event killed 84 people, injured over 900, and displaced thousands.
However, this paled in comparison to the earthquake which struck Haiti on the 14th of August. At a moment magnitude of 7.2, it was similar in strength to the devastating 2010 earthquake, however this time the hypocenter was located somewhat further away from the capital, on the Tiburon peninsula. Even so, it caused the death of more than 2,240 people, making it the deadliest earthquake – indeed, the deadliest natural disaster – of the year.
Volcanic activity also affected many people this year. In Iceland, the eruption of Mount Fagradalsfjall, outside Reykjavik, drew thousands of visitors to see its spectacular lava flows. Beginning in March, it was not declared over until December, making it the country’s longest eruption in fifty years.
However, most volcanoes are not quite so beneficial to their neighbours.
In April, the eruption of La Soufriere on the Caribbean island of St Vincent caused the evacuation of about 20,000 people and left the entire island without clean water. Fortunately, thanks to evacuation efforts, none were killed.
The same could not be said for the eruption of Mt Nyiragongu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the following month. Although the lava flowed slowly enough for the city of Goma, just 20km or about 12 miles away, to be effectively evacuated, it was reported that two people had burned to death, nine had been killed in a traffic accident whilst fleeing, and more had been asphyxiated by toxic gases. The death toll eventually rose to 32. Many more were displaced, with thousands fleeing towards the border with Rwanda, and many returning to find their homes gone.
In Indonesia once again, on East Java, Mount Semeru began an eruptive phase on the 4th of December 2021, causing pyroclastic flows and lahars which destroyed thousands of buildings and killed at least 57 people.
Meanwhile, between September and December, the eruption of Cumbre Vieja on the island of La Palma garnered a lot of attention. This was, in part, due to the fact that Cumbre Vieja is at the centre of a theoretical – and incredibly unlikely – megatsunami scenario. The fact that it wasn’t about to destroy the Eastern Seaboard of the US was little comfort to the thousands on La Palma who faced evacuation and the eventual destruction of many of their homes. By the time it was declared over in December, the lava flows had covered some 1,219 hectares of land and destroyed 1,576 properties. Many residents now fear that, with the media spectacle of the eruption over, their plight will be forgotten as they struggle to rebuild.
Severe weather events happen around the globe every year, and 2021 was no exception.
Cyclone Seroja began near eastern Indonesia on the 3rd of April, and moved down to strike the West Australian Coast before dissipating on the 12th. With extensive damage across all the affected regions, the cyclone caused an estimated 272 deaths – over 180 in Indonesia, 42 in East Timor and one in Australia.
In May, Cyclone Tauktae became the strongest tropical cyclone to hit the Indian state of Gujarat since 1998. At the time, India’s Covid-19 situation was at a peak, and the storm disrupted care for the sick as well as vaccination rollout. In total, more than 200,000 people had to be evacuated from low-lying areas, and thousands of properties were destroyed. The death toll rose over a hundred, not just on land but also on several commercial barges which were stranded at sea by the cyclone.
Making landfall in the United States on the 29th of August, near Port Fourchon in Louisiana, Hurricane Ida quickly became the second-most damaging storm to hit the state – surpassed only by the infamous Katrina. With sustained wind speeds recorded at 150mph, it was at the top end of Category 4, and the winds, heavy rainfall, and storm surge combined to kill 95 people in the US, as well as 20 in Venezuela, and knocked out power to over a million customers, including all of New Orleans, in the height of summer.
In December, Super Typhoon Rai battered the south eastern islands of the Philippines with wind speeds as high as 195km/h (120mph). Despite warnings and evacuations, around 400 people were killed by the storm, with scenes described as “complete carnage”.
A rare tornado hit the Czech Republic state of South Moravia in June; rated F4 on the Fujita scale, it was the deadliest European tornado since 2001, killing six and injuring more than 200 with strong winds and hailstones the size of tennis balls. The regional governor called it “living hell”.
While the USA is more accustomed to tornadoes than the Czech Republic, a late-season outbreak proved deadly over the evening of the 10th of December to the morning of the 11th. Affecting five states – Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, and Kentucky – there were 70 confirmed tornadoes with a maximum rating of EF4, wind speeds as high as 190 mph (310 km/h), and a tragic 90 confirmed direct fatalities.
And, while Mother Nature wreaked havoc, the year also brought its fair share of more man made disasters.
On the 10th of January, an underground explosion in the Yantai Qixia gold mine in the Shandong province of China trapped twenty two workers and damaged cages, ladders and communications systems. It took two weeks to rescue eleven survivors; ten bodies were also recovered. What happened to the last man remains unknown.
A second gold mine accident happened in November, when a mine in Niger collapsed, killing at least 18 people, and a third in December, when a private gold mine in western Sudan collapsed, killing 31.
A coal mine in Kemerovo Oblast in Russia was the scene of tragedy in November, when coal dust caught fire. There were 285 miners inside the Listvyazhnaya mine at the time, and although many were able to escape, some were trapped inside. A failed rescue attempt led to the death of five would-be rescuers, with more than fifty more injured, after a subsequent explosion. In the end, 51 were confirmed dead, the majority suffocated by the smoke.
Hospitals around the world were, of course, under undue pressure from the pandemic this year; however in Iraq this situation led to further disaster. The Ibn al-Khatib hospital in Baghdad, one of three in the city designated to treat Covid patients, caught fire on the night of the 24th – 25th of April after oxygen tanks used for patient treatment exploded. At least 82 people were killed; some were suffocated by the smoke, but others died when the oxygen machines they were reliant on were shut off to prevent the fire spreading further.
This tragedy was repeated on the 12th of July when a second fire occurred at the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in Nasiriyah; again, a coronavirus ward was at the centre of the disaster, which killed at least 92. Amidst protests from angry family members, it was reported that the ward, built only three months prior, lacked even basic fire prevention systems.
A 13-story building in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, caught fire on the 14th of October, killing at least 46 and injuring another 41. The mixed-use building, which was reportedly partly abandoned and known as a “ghost building”, was in poor condition and had few fire prevention systems, and firefighters were reportedly hampered by large amounts of clutter. A couple living in the building were charged with starting the fire, after leaving an incense burner unattended. This was the deadliest fire in the city’s history.
Niger suffered two particularly tragic fires this year; the first in the capital, Niamey, in April, and the second in the town of Maradi, in November. Both involved schools with straw-hut classrooms. The Niamey incident saw 28 such classrooms completely destroyed, killing at least twenty children – most from the pre-school classes. The Maradi incident similarly killed pre-schoolers; 26 children aged between 5 and 6 were killed when three classrooms caught fire during lessons.
A dramatic incident was caught on camera on the 9th of June in Gwangju, South Korea. A five-storey building was being demolished when it fell onto an active road; by chance, it fell on top of a passing bus, killing nine and injuring eight.
On the 24th of June, a 12-story beachfront condominium building in the Miami suburb of Surfside collapsed suddenly, killing 98 people. The building was reportedly long overdue for repairs, necessitated by a “major error” in the construction of the pool deck which led to water damage to the concrete.
And, in November, a high-rise under construction in Lagos, Nigeria, collapsed killing at least 42 people; the victims were mostly labourers and construction workers, but the owner of the development company was also among the dead. It was reported that the building had been planned for only 15 stories, but at the time of the collapse had reached 21.
A series of explosions devastated a district of Bata, the largest city in Equatorial Guinea, on the 7th of March. Centered around a military barracks, the incident killed at least 107, injured more than 600, and raised questions as to why live munitions were being stored in an area where so many lived.
The transportation of fuel was involved in three of the year’s worst vehicular accidents.
First, on the 27th of January, in Cameroon, when a horrific crash between a bus and a truck laden with fuel killed 53 and left 29 people with severe burns. Then, on the 5th of November, a fuel tanker in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, was involved in a collision with a lorry. It was not initially a serious incident, but as the fuel leaked, many locals from the impoverished area rushed to try to collect the fuel. Many more were stuck in the traffic jam created by the incident when the fuel tanker exploded. The fire spread to nearby shops and markets, and the final death toll rose to 151.
Similarly, in Cap Haitien on the 14th of December, a fuel tanker overturned whilst attempting to avoid a motorbike. With fuel in exceptionally high demand following the earthquake in August, people again attempted to collect the fuel as it leaked. The eventual explosion killed around 90 people, injured many more, and overwhelmed local hospitals.
One of the more unusual transport accidents this year occurred in Italy in May. A cable car operating between the town of Stresa and the summit of Mottarone – a mountain with an elevation of 1,492m or 4,895 ft – failed in spectacular and tragic fashion. 15 people were inside as the car approached the landing station at the top of the mountain. Abruptly, the cable snapped; the car was hurled backwards, reversing until it hit a pylon and fell about 54m or 180 ft to the ground. It then tumbled down the slope of the mountain until its momentum was stopped by trees. Two children survived the initial crash, and were airlifted to hospital; one later died. The sole survivor was a five year old boy, who lost his two year old brother, both parents, and great-grandparents in the accident.
It was later found that the cable car had been operating with the emergency brakes deliberately deactivated, due to an error that made them activate erroneously. Three men were arrested.
On the 26th of March, two trains collided near the city of Sohag in Egypt, killing eighteen and injuring some 200 others. This was just one of three significant accidents on Egyptian railroads within a month, with a derailment in Minya al-Qamh injuring fifteen, on the 15th of April, and another in Toukh on the 18th of April killing 23 and injuring over a hundred.
Another derailment occurred in Taiwan on the 2nd of April, after a construction truck fell onto tracks at the entrance of the Qingshui Tunnel in Hualien County. The Taroko Express train was carrying nearly five hundred people when it struck the truck and came to rest inside the tunnel. It was a particularly busy day as it coincided with the beginning of a four-day festival. With 49 dead and at least two hundred injured, this was the deadliest train crash in Taiwan.
It was also a derailment which caused the death of at least 65 people in Pakistan on the 7th of June. In the early hours before dawn, an express train derailed and landed on a second track, where it was hit about a minute later by a second express train. It’s thought that the initial derailment was caused by the failure of a welding joint on the tracks; Pakistan’s railways are in a poor state and accidents are not uncommon there.
On the 3rd of May, Mexico City was horrified when a metro overpass collapsed as a train travelled over it. The incident killed 26, including one man who was driving past on the road below, and injured 79. In the aftermath, investigations revealed serious deficiencies in the construction of the overpass.
The grounding of the Ever Given in the Suez Canal was one of the most publicised maritime incidents of the year. The 400m (1,300 ft) long ship became stuck across the waterway on the 23rd of March, after it was buffeted by strong winds. It took six days to free the ship, by which time at least 369 other ships were queuing up to get through the canal. This disruption had a serious impact on global trade, including an odd shortage of garden gnomes.
In May, 2021, an environmental disaster was triggered when the container ship X-Press Pearl caught fire whilst sailing off the coast of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The vessel burned for 12 days before sinking as it was being towed into deeper waters. Alongside the fuel on the vessel, its cargo contained various hazardous substances – including nitric acid, other chemicals and millions of tiny plastic pellets. These plastic pellets washed up on shores in such numbers that bulldozers were employed to collect them, while fish, sea turtles, and dolphins have been washed up dead. Fishing was banned along 50 miles (80 km) of the coast, leaving local fishermen fearing for their livelihoods.
On the 21st of April, the KRI Nanggala, a diesel-electric submarine belonging to the Indonesian Navy, was lost during a torpedo drill in the Bali sea. Four days later, the wreckage of the sub was found in three parts on the sea floor; all 53 on board were killed. The military released a video of the crew, taken a few weeks prior, singing an Indonesian song called Sampai Jumpa, or “see you later”.
Bangladesh was hit by two ferry disasters this year; the first was the sinking of the ML Rabit Al Hasan in April. After a collision with a cargo vessel on the Sitalakkhya River near Dhaka, the double-decker ferry sank – and the cargo vessel fled. The incident killed 35; the cargo vessel responsible was later seized by the Bangladesh coast guard, and 14 of her crew were detained.
The second incident was on the 24th of December, when a three-decked vessel sailing between Dhaka and the town of Barguna caught fire during the night. It’s thought that the ship was severely overcrowded, with around 700 passengers on a vessel designed for 420, and many of them were sleeping at the time. The fire is thought to have begun in the engine room, and spread quickly, forcing many to jump into the Sugandha river in an attempt to escape. At least 39 were killed, either by the fire or by drowning in the river. The owner of the ferry was later arrested.
Another overloaded ferry resulted in tragedy in Nigeria, when a boat designed for 12 but instead loaded with more than 50, capsized in the Bagwai River. 29 were confirmed dead; most were children aged between 8 and 15. Sadly, this was just one of several incidents in the region.
The ongoing refugee crisis in Europe caused significant tragedies at sea; on the 25th of November, thirty refugees were attempting to cross the English Channel on an inflatable dinghy to reach the UK. They were still in French waters, near Calais and Dunkirk, when the dinghy capsized. 27 were found dead; two were rescued alive, and one remained missing. This was the largest single loss of life in the Channel since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Meanwhile, in the Aegean Sea, migrants trying to reach Europe from Africa were involved in a number of shipwrecks over the Christmas weekend. On Christmas Eve, the Greek coast guard recovered 27 bodies from two shipwrecks, while a further 28 washed up on the Libyan coast on the 26th of December. These are just a few of the estimated 1,600 people who died trying to cross the Mediterranean this year.
In Madagascar, one disaster led, indirectly, to another; a wooden cargo vessel illegally carrying 130 passengers sank off the north-east coast of the island, after its engine room became flooded. The wreck killed at least 85 people.
In the aftermath, the Police Minister, Serge Gelle, was being flown to the site of the accident when his helicopter crashed. He and a security official travelling with him swam for 12 hours to reach safety. The helicopter’s pilot and a second security officer remained missing at sea.
Another helicopter crash claimed 14 lives in November. A military helicopter belonging to the Azerbaijani State Border Service was taking part in drills when it crashed with only two survivors. With an experienced pilot at the controls, and an aircraft that was almost new and recently repaired, the cause of the crash is currently unknown.
A domestic passenger flight from Jakarta to Pontianak in Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea just five minutes after take-off on the 9th of January, killing all 62 people on board. The crash was attributed to a malfunction in the autothrottle, which caused the left engine thrust to decrease while the right engine maintained power, resulting in an uncontrolled bank. The pilots were unable to recover, and the plane dived into the sea.
In July, a military aircraft carrying 104 people crashed in the Philippines after an attempted landing at Jolo Airport. The Lockheed C-130 transport plane overshot the runway and crashed in flames, killing 50 on board the plane and three people on the ground. The troops were being brought in to combat Islamic militant groups, but there was no evidence that an attack caused the crash, which the military announced had no single attributable cause.
Despite being a year in which large gatherings were much rare than usual, there was a significant human crush in March 2021. As Tanzanian mourners attempted to pay their respects to late president John Magufuli in a stadium in Dar es Salaam, 45 were killed and a further 37 injured. Magufuli, a prominent Covid denier, was rumoured to have contracted the virus, although his death was attributed to heart failure.
So – that was 2021, and as we look forward to 2022, I’d like to thank you all for listening to Great Disasters, and wish you a happy – and safe – New Year.
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Sources, References and Further Reading
Climate Change, Temperature extremes
Earthquakes and volcanoes
Hurricanes, typhoons etc.