10 Manmade Events that Changed the World

There can be no doubt: mankind has left its physical mark on the planet. Sometimes we do it by accident, but mostly it's on purpose, however destructive that purpose might be.

Whether it’s building a 5500 mile wall in to see if it can keep some pesky neighbours out of our vegetable patch (it can’t) or blowing up an island to see if our bomb is big enough to level a city (it can) we are really good at leaving our mark.

1. Louisiana Sinkhole: Lake Peigneur, Louisiana

Source: Shutinc / Wikimedia

Once upon a time, back before 1980, there was a lovely freshwater lake near the Gulf of Mexico by New Iberia, Louisiana. Lake Peigneur was only 11 feet deep, but it boasted a gorgeous botanical park filled with native species on its little island. It also had bragging rights to a salt mine deep beneath the clear fresh water.

In 1980, suspecting there was more than salt down there, workers set up an oil rig and began looking for black gold under Lake Peigneur. After drilling down about 1200 feet, the drill seized up, there some loud pops, and the rig began to tilt in a way that suggested it was time to take a break.

The men fled to shore, then watched as the 11 foot deep lake swallowed their rig. Then water began to swirl. Slowly at first, but building pace quickly. In no time, the peaceful lake became a churning whirlpool a quarter of a mile in diameter.

Meanwhile, men working in the salt mine below the lake — remember the mine? — heard some weird clanging. They discovered it came from some fuel drums banging together as the knee-deep stream of muddy water carried them along the mineshaft. They decided it might be break time, too.

There were 50 miners down there that day, some as deep as 1500 feet underground. They all scrambled to the 8-man elevator at 1300 feet down that could take them to the surface. Miraculously, all 50 miners escaped.

The drilling had penetrated the salt dome and allowed the lake into the mine. The water dissolved the salt, and the precarious support under the lake simple washed away. On the surface, the growing whirlpool sucked in another oil rig, barges, trucks, trees, buildings, and a parking lot. Its suck was so strong that it actually reversed the flow of water in a 12-mile canal leading to the Gulf of Mexico, and dragged 11 barges and a tugboat back from the canal into the swirling vortex of doom.

After just three hours, only a sinkhole remained. It had drained 3 and a half billion gallons of water and created a 150 foot waterfall from the canal into where the lake had been. Over the next two days, salt water from the Gulf filled the crater, and most of the barges popped back up to the surface.

Somehow, nobody was killed.

2. Blood Red Soil: Betsiboka Estuary, Madagascar

Source: Axelspace Corporation / Wikimedia

Once upon a time, ships used to be able to sail from the ocean up the Betsiboka River in Madagascar, but these days they must dock at the coast: the mouth of the river is too clogged with sediment. And it’s our fault.

Over a century of heavy logging of the rainforests and coastal mangroves has left the landscape bereft of life, with nothing to stop heavy rains — which happen a lot in Madagascar — from washing away the land. All of the land. Like, 112 tons of soil per acre every year.

The soil is bright red in colour, and washes down the mountains into the streams and rivers and out to into the ocean. From space, it looks like the land is bleeding.

3. Dam Big: Three Gorges Dam, China

Source: Sino-German Urbanisation Partnership Follow / Flickr

A lot of people said that building a massive hydropower dam in an area that is heavily populated, home to threatened animal and plant species, and crossed by geologic fault lines is a recipe for disaster. Turns out they were right. Who knew?

The Three Gorges Dam in China is the biggest in the world. The massive $28-billion hydroelectric dam on the Yangtze River generates 18,000 megawatts of power—eight times more than Hoover Dam — but at a huge cost.

Since it was built, there’s been less rain, more drought, and more disease. Experts say that “When it comes to environmental change, the implementation of the Three Gorges dam and reservoir is the great granddaddy of all changes.”

To build the dam, 1.3 million people in two cities and 116 towns were forcibly relocated. But beyond the landslides, destruction of entire ecosystems, and serious environmental problems that endanger more people millions and countless plant and animal species found nowhere else on the planet, it seems inevitable that the dam will trigger severe earthquakes.

The reservoir sits on two major faults. Putting a huge load of water on those lines causes fault activity to intensify and induce earthquakes. Those villages of people who were relocated to make room for the dam will have to move a second time because of the landslides and tremors.
Did we mention that building the dam flooded a number of priceless archaeological and cultural sites?

And if all that wasn’t enough, filling of the reservoir behind dam changed the rotation of the Earth. Raising 39 trillion kilograms of water 175 meters above sea level actually increased the Earth’s moment of inertia, which slowed its rotation. Granted, the shift of such as mass only increased the length of day by 0.06 microseconds, but still. We did that. It also made the Earth very slightly more round in the middle and flat on the top, and shifted the pole position by a little under an inch.

4. Roman Influence: Scottish Highlands, Scotland

Once upon a time, Scotland was covered in trees. Starting with the decline of the last ice age about 11,000 years ago, the ancient Caledonian Forest once covered the Highlands with Scots pine, oak, alder, birch, hazel, holly, and mountain ash. Home to bears, beavers, and wolves, its destruction began before the Bronze Age when people moved in and started farming.

Year after year, the swish of the scythe called for more trees to fall, and by the time the Romans moved in over half of it was gone. Then it got worse, as agricultural needs clearcut more. Then the Vikings came and started burning it down, with farmers and fuel gatherers clearing away most of what remained.

And that’s how we invented golf.

5. If a Tree Falls: Amazon Deforestation Project, Brazil

Source: NASA / Wikimedia

Once upon a time, the Amazon basin in Brazil was all rainforest. In the last 40 years, we’ve managed to destroy 20% of the overall forest cover through development, mining, and logging.
This is a big deal. The rainforest soaks up 600 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, and the water released into the atmosphere as well into the rivers and oceans is crucial to regulating weather and the climate. Not just locally, but worldwide.

And we are killing it. Quickly.

To understand the effects of deforestation, a study cut down a big chunk of it on purpose. You know, controlled conditions and all that. They learned that deforestation is bad, m’kay?
The Amazon is the largest biodiversity repository on the planet. It is home to 2/3 of all the plants and animals in the world, including 80% of all insects. The trees in the Amazon produce 20% of the world’s oxygen, and every minute, 2000 trees are cut down in the rainforests. It is estimated that every day 137 species of plant and animals are wiped out through deforestation.

That’s wiped out. Rendered extinct. Never to be seen again.

We do that.

6. Draining the Swamp: Aral Sea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Source: UNESCO / Wikimedia

Once upon a time, the Aral Sea was the world’s fourth-largest lake, covering 26,000 square miles on the border of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Now, the Aral Sea is a sea in name only.
In the 1960s, the Soviets redirected rivers to bring water for agricultural projects, and that water had to come from somewhere. The Aral Sea started shrinking, and by 1990 it was two much smaller lakes. By 2003 the water level was 72 feet lower.

The Aral Sea was gone. Its fish were gone, and the fishing industry was gone with them. All that was left were rust fishing boats littering the Martian landscape, and surrounding villages were routinely pelted with salt kicked up from the silt of what was once the sea floor.

Almost a decade later, the Aral is returning to life.

The water is coming back. So are the fish. So is life.

The death of the Aral Sea was unquestionable one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters, but its rebirth is now one the greatest stories of hope.

7. Copper Whopper: Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah

Source: Vlastní dílo / Wikimedia

You could fit a 200 storey skyscaper into it and the top still wouldn’t stick up out of it.
And we made it.

It is the Bingham Canyon Mine, the biggest copper mine ever. Since 1906, it has produced more than 19 million tonnes of copper, and at peak production represents 25% of total US copper production.

There are more than 500 miles of roadway in it.

On April 10, 2013 it was also the site of the largest “man-made” landslide ever recorded. The avalanche occurred along a geotechnical fault-line along one of its walls, sliding 160 million tonnes of rock at estimated speeds of 70 – 100 miles per hour.

Even with a huge chunk of the mine and a lot of its equipment buried under 200 feet of debris, the mine produced 213,000 tonnes of copper, 192,300 ounces of gold, 2.2 million ounces of silver and 6,300 tonnes of molybdenum that year.

8. Ocean Explosion: Bravo Crater, Bikini Atoll

Source: U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps / Wikimedia

Once upon a time, the Bikini Atoll was blessed with being a remote island chain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. With nothing and nobody around them for 1800 miles, it wasn’t bother by anything.
But then the US Army thought that the very qualities that made the place so nice for so long would also make it the perfect place to test some new weapons.

And so in 1946 the local islanders were moved out a series of nuclear weapons were detonated on the Bikini Atoll. One of the detonations resulted in a 94-foot tsunami that coated everything in its path with radioactive water and sent the entire test fleet, which consisted of old American ships and captured Axis vessels from the war, lagoon.

A few years later, they tested largest nuclear device detonated to date: a hydrogen bomb 1000 times more powerful than one used on Hiroshima, and that was still small enough to be delivered by plane but large enough to take out an entire city. And that’s when things went really wrong.

To start, the bomb was twice as powerful than they’d expected, and sudden wind changes blew the radioactive fallout over populated areas. People within range were literally covered with it. Children thought it was snow and began to eat it. Traces of radioactivity from the blast were later found as far away as Europe.

Thirty years later, people began moving back, but quickly discovered that the place was still too radioactive.

Today, you can safely walk around the Bikini Atoll, which is nice if you want to see the enormous crater that’s still there from the bomb tests. Just don’t drink the water or eat any food you find there.

9. Man-Made Canyon: The Hull-Rust-Mahoning Mine, Minnesota

Source: McGhiever / Wikimedia

Once upon a time in Minnesota there was a lot of iron very close to the surface of the ground. Like, a crapload of iron. People being people, we started to dig it out. Dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig the whole day through. Dig dig dig dig dig dig dig it’s what we like to do.

We started in 1893, and we’re still digging now. At its peak between the world wars, it supplied a quarter of all the iron ore dug up in the United States. It has yielded more than 690 million tons of iron ore.

It is the world’s largest open pit mine, and an entire town was moved when it became an inconvenient obstacle to the mining process.

After well over a hundred years of strip mining, the canyon left behind is 3.5 miles wide. We made that.

10. World’s Longest Fence: The Great Wall of China

Source: Severin.stalder / Wikimedia

The idea of building a honking big wall to keep out people you don’t want to have streaming into your country is not a new one.

Back in the day, a Chinese Emperor thought it would be a spiffy way to keep the Mongols and barbarians out. The problem was, the border between the Chinese and these barbarians to the north was really really really long. It was going to take a while to build this wall.

But the Chinese are a patient people. So in the 3rd Century they started construction on what was meant to be a 3000 mile fortification. They used mostly soldiers and convicts to do the work, piling up earth and stone. The base was between 15 and 50 feet, depending where you were, and on top that the wall rose another 15-30 feet high, with guard towers are strategic intervals. In some areas, it overlapped. Of course, all this took some time. A lot of time.

As you would expect, over time bits fell down or were destroyed, and had to be rebuilt. Over and over and over.

The wall that exists today was built mostly in the 15th through the 17th Centuries, during the famous Ming dynasty. That’s over a thousand years since it was started. The Ming wall stretched for about 5500 miles.

It is estimated that over 400,000 people died building the wall, many of whom are buried inside it.

It was never effective at keeping the northern neighbours out, but it does beg the question: why didn’t the Chinese think of making the Mongols pay for it?