#1. Global Warming
Nobody doubts anymore that climate change is at least in part man-made. And even if the effects of global warming remain at the most benign end of the predicted range, it will be a disaster of unprecedented proportions. For years, that disaster has been unfolding so slowly that it's been invisible. But now you can see it: Mountain glaciers around the world are melting, along with North polar sea ice and the ice cap atop Greenland; droughts are baking the U.S. southwest, Australia and sub-Saharan Africa; floods are devastating Bangladesh; and Central America is reeling from powerful hurricanes. Not all of these events can be tied absolutely to global warming, but all of them will surely become more frequent and intense as the world warms — ultimately threatening the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.
#2. Brazil Plane Crash
Aviators call São Paolo's Congonhas Airport "the aircraft carrier," because landing on its notoriously short runway, surrounded by densely populated residential areas, is as touchy as trying to put down on the deck of a ship at sea. Though a Brazilian court had banned large jets from the airport in February, citing safety concerns, the ban was later overturned. On July 17, the pilot of TAM Airlines Flight JJ3054, tried to land at Congonhas, but realizing he wouldn't be able to stop in time on the rain-slicked tarmac, tried to take off again. He failed. The Airbus A320 skidded across a road, smashed into a gas station and then into a building owned by the airline. The ensuing fireball killed all 186 people on the plane and 13 more on the ground, making this the worst air disaster in Brazilian history.
#3. Southern California Forest Fires
California has been ravaged by wildfires for thousands of years; they're an essential part of the natural ecosystem. But the fires that burned hundreds of square miles between Oct. 20 and Nov. 6 — at the disaster's peak, 18 separate fires were burning, the worst of them in San Diego County — killing 10 people and forcing at least half a million more from their homes, weren't entirely natural. At least one, the Santiago Canyon blaze, was deliberately set, while two others — the Witch and Rice Canyon fires — were caused by downed power lines that ignited surrounding brush. Whether that brush should have been more thoroughly cleared, and whether people should be permitted to build homes in remote, fire-prone areas, are now matters of active debate, to say nothing of lawsuits.
#4. Yangtze River Dolphin Extinction
The Chinese called it baiji and "goddess of the Yangtze," and it was the only surviving member of a family of species that split off from saltwater whales and dolphins between 20 million and 40 million years ago. But now, according to a survey released in August, this rare freshwater mammal is almost certainly extinct — the first aquatic vertebrate species to disappear from the Earth in 50 years, and the first large mammal to fall victim to human impact. The multiple pressures: noisy boat collisions and dam construction that may have imperiled the sonar-driven animals, and overfishing — not for the dolphins themselves, but for river fish — with such indiscriminate techniques as netting, dynamite and powerful electric shocks. The disappearance of a top-level predator like the baiji — an indicator species that signals the health of its ecosystem — portends trouble for the Yangtze River and for the 400 hundred million people who depend on it.
#5. Minneapolis Bridge Collapse
Bridges failed this year in China and in Guinea, killing 64 and 70 people, respectively. But the disaster that really grabbed U.S. headlines was the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1, where the death toll reached only 9. The attention wasn't due only to Americans' interest in news that's closest to home. Rather, it was that the occurrence seemed so impossible: We think of our highways and other infrastructure as being so well built and so rigorously inspected and maintained as to be immune from such dramatic and sudden disintegration. But this tragedy probably resulted from a design imperfection when the bridge was built, followed by four decades of harsh weather and road salt, proving that nothing is failsafe.
#6. Utah Mine Collapse
For days afterward, mine owner Robert Murray insisted that it had been an earthquake — and indeed, seismologists confirmed that the earth had moved near Huntington, Utah, on Aug. 6. But the quake didn't cause the Crandall Canyon coal mine to collapse, trapping six miners inside. The quake was the collapse, as the mine, its walls weakened by decades of coal removal, gave way. Ten days later, three rescuers were killed by a second collapse, and shortly after that, attempts to reach the trapped men by drilling down from above were called off. The mine was sealed in October.
#7. North Korea Oil Pipe Explosion
The fanatically secretive North Korean government rarely reports internal problems, so it fell to aid organizations to get the news out: On June 9, an aging oil pipeline sprung a leak in North Pyongyang province. Local residents in the fuel-starved country rushed in to scavenge what they could — and then the oil caught on fire and exploded. At a minimum, 110 people died, but it's unlikely that the government will ever acknowledge the incident at all.
#8. Siberia Mine Explosion
Many of Russia's coal mines are aging, dilapidated and dangerous. The Ulyanovskaya mine, by contrast, located in the Kemerovo region of Siberia, about 2,000 miles east of Moscow, was less than five years old, and had modern safety features. None of that, however, was enough to prevent a massive methane explosion from ripping through the mine on Mar. 19, collapsing tunnels as the blast wave radiated from an epicenter nearly 900 ft. down. Working their way through smoke and flooded shafts, rescuers got more than 90 miners safely out — making the death toll of 107 a lot lower than it could easily have been.
#9. Mozambique Munitions Explosion
A stockpile of old ammunition, stored at a Mozambican army facility in the outskirts of the city of Maputo, blew up on Mar. 22, triggering fires and killing 117 people. According to the Mozambique Red Cross, heavy traffic in the area hampered the organizations attempts to rush volunteers to the site.
#10. Congo Train Derailment
Eight cars fell off the tracks and seven of them rolled over when the brakes failed on a passenger train traveling between the cities of Ilebo and Kananga on Aug. 1. Train crews had to unhitch the locomotive and go in search of help, and the injured were carried to a hospital six miles away on bicycles and on people's backs. By the time recovery crews pulled the last bodies from the wreckage, the death toll stood at about 100.