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11 Wars That Led to Natural Disasters

We've discussed 11 Natural Disasters That Led to Wars. Let's switch that around.

1. Flooding of Babylon, 689 BCE

The Assyrians still rank as one of history’s meanest groups of people: skinning captives alive, throwing babies on spears -- all in a day’s work for these brutal empire-builders in the ancient Near East. So when the great city of Babylon rebelled against their rule in the 7th century BCE, there was only one way for it to end: with the total destruction of the city.

The Assyrian King Sennacherib, who stands out even among his peers for cruelty, first burned the city and then had his soldiers level anything that was left standing, including the city’s ancient temples. Finally, to finish the job the Assyrians dammed the Euphrates River and then diverted the water to cover the ruins, flooding the area and turning it into a marshland. Although Babylon was subsequently rebuilt, the flooding trick proved to be popular: in 612 BCE an alliance of Persian, Egyptian, and Babylonian forces destroyed the great city of Nineveh by diverting the Khosr River to flow over it.

2. Mongols vs. Irrigation, 13th century CE

While Genghis Khan may have instituted some enlightened ecological policies back home in Mongolia, the Mongol armies devastated the environment in conquered areas extending from China to Eastern Europe. In Persia, the Mongols destroyed the ancient qanat irrigation systems -- intricate, multi-shaft wells that stretched over many miles to reach hidden groundwater, and which had taken centuries, sometimes millennia, to create and perfect. This senseless destruction turned large area of Persia from green farmland into arid, uninhabitable desert. Combined with the wholesale slaughter of millions of city-dwellers, this permanently changed the pattern of habitation in some parts of the country, as continuous habitation gave way to populations concentrated around isolated oases.

3. Collapse of Khmer Empire, 15th century CE

The splendid ruins of Angkor Wat hint at the power of the Khmer Empire, which dominated Southeast Asia from the 9th century to the 15th century CE. But the real secret of the Khmer’s success lay hidden by the jungle until the last decade, when archaeologists discovered the remains of an elaborate water management system spanning thousands of square miles. In addition to providing fresh water for drinking, this network of canals and artificial ponds and lakes sustained an irrigation system for vast rice paddies surrounding the Khmer capital of Ankgor. But this fragile infrastructure was also vulnerable to attack by hostile forces, including armies from the neighboring Thai and Cham peoples.

After a long series of wars between the Khmer, the Thai, and the Cham, an allied Thai-Cham army finally sacked the Khmer capital in 1430 -- then returned in 1444 to destroy the irrigation systems, putting an end to Khmer power once and for all. Once-fertile rice paddies reverted to jungle, and the sophisticated stonework of the water management was slowly covered up and forgotten.

4. Dutch vs. Louis XIV, 1672

Natural disasters in warfare don’t always result from enemy action: in fact, sometimes they’re self-inflicted. This was the case in the 17th century, when the Dutch resorted to extreme measures to save the Netherlands from the invading forces of the French King Louis XIV.

The Netherlands (meaning “Low Country”) has always had an uncomfortably intimate relationship with the North Sea, as much of the country is in fact “reclaimed” land lying beneath sea level, protected only by dikes. In June and July 1672, Dutch leaders decided to make the final sacrifice to hold back vastly superior French forces, which outnumbered theirs six-to-one: they opened the dikes and flooded approximately 400 square miles of farmland and villages, often over the (entirely understandable) objections of Dutch farmers. According to a contemporary British observer, “The whole country was one great lake, from which the cities, with their ramparts and steeples, rose like islands.”

But the Dutch succeeded in forcing the French to retreat, saving Amsterdam from French occupation. And while this was undeniably a huge environmental disaster, engineers tried to limit the long-term damage to reclaimed land by flooding it with freshwater from rivers wherever possible.

5. Sherman’s March, 1864-1865

The infamous march of Union forces through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, led by General William Tecumseh Sherman from 1864-1865, brought wholesale environmental destruction to huge swathes of the United States. Under Sherman, 65,000 Union troops burned Atlanta in November 1864 and then spread out along a 60-mile-wide front that rolled over Georgia in apocalyptic fashion all the way to the sea. After pausing to enjoy the sights in Savannah (which he spared, presenting the city to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present), Sherman took the band north through the Carolinas, which received the same treatment.

Altogether Sherman’s army laid waste to a mind-boggling 15,000 square miles of territory, capturing 25,000 animals and inflicting (by Sherman’s estimate) about $100 million of damage in the state of Georgia alone -- equal to around $1.4 billion today.

6. Yellow River floods, 1938

Another example of a self-inflicted natural disaster during warfare, the Yellow River floods are also one of the deadliest events of the 20th century. During the 1930s, hyper-nationalist military officers in Japan stepped up their aggression against Japan’s neighbors -- principally China, where they occupied Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing in 1937. To stop the Japanese advance, in June 1938 the Nationalist government of China resorted to extreme -- and extremely brutal -- measures, dynamiting the levees that held the turbulent, unpredictable Yellow River in check near the city of Zhengzhou.

The resulting flood inundated thousands of square miles in the provinces of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu and (because there was almost no warning) resulted in a horrific number of deaths, with some 800,000 Chinese civilians drowning by the Nationalist government’s own estimation—the actual death toll may have been much higher. After the Second World War the levees were repaired and the Yellow River was returned to its old course.

7. Dam-buster raids, 1943

Before the Allied invasion of France in Operation Overlord in June 1944, the British and French focused most of their efforts on an intensive “strategic” bombing campaign, aiming to weaken Germany’s war-making potential with massive raids on German cities and industrial complexes. Although all the targets supposedly had military value, the Allies were more than happy to accept “collateral damage,” including civilian deaths and the destruction of housing, which they argued helped undermine enemy morale. In this context, environmental destruction was just a bonus.

In one of the most spectacular raids, on May 16-17, 1943, the Royal Air Force employed special “bouncing” bombs, which skipped over protective barriers to destroy two major dams that produced hydroelectric power for German industry and also formed integral parts of the country’s canal system. Of course destroying the dams also had some side-benefits, namely the flooding of the Ruhr and Eder River valleys. In addition to killing about 1,700 people (many of whom were foreign prisoners working in forced labor), the dam-busting raids destroyed dozens of factories and washed away hundreds of square miles of farmland; in fact the area couldn’t be returned to agricultural production until a decade after the war.

8. Flooding of the Pontine Marshes, 1944

Not to be outdone in the massive flooding competition, the Germans resorted to similar tactics in Italy in 1944 -- but with even worse long-term effects. As the Americans and British battled their way north up the Italian peninsula, the Germans realized they had a chance to slow or even stop the Allied advance south of Rome, where a low-lying area, known as the Pontine Marshes, had been drained before the war. By re-flooding the marshes, the Germans would render an important stretch of the coast south of Rome unusable for amphibious landings.

In 1944 the Germans destroyed the pumping equipment that drained the marshes, resulting in the inundation of 40 square miles of land. This stratagem managed to delay the Allied occupation of Rome -- but also brought a biological curse down on the area, as a surge in mosquito populations led to increased rates of malaria among Italian civilians after the war was over.

9. Chemical weapons dumping, 1945-1947

The environmental effects of warfare don’t necessarily always occur during actual fighting: some of the worst impacts can come in the chaotic post-war period. That’s what happened following the Second World War, when the victorious Allies discovered they had a little problem to deal with, in the form of some 250,000 tons of chemical weapons and chemical weapon ingredients stockpiled (but never used) by Nazi Germany. The German high command had sensibly decided not to employ chemical weapons for fear of tit-for-tat retaliation, but this left the American, British, and Soviet occupiers with a veritable mountain of poisons to dispose of, including yperite, lewisite, adamsite, phosgene, diphosgene and chloracetophenol.

With large parts of post-war Europe bombed-out ruins, the overwhelmed Allies lacked the resources to properly dispose of Hitler’s toxic parting gift, so they settled on a strategy akin to hiding the dirty clothes under the bed: they loaded the chemical weapons on mothballed ships and then scuttled them, sending the whole lot to the bottom of the sea. From May-December 1947, the Soviets scuttled ships holding 35,000 tons of chemical weapons in the eastern Baltic Sea, while the British and Americans disposed of 215,000 tons of chemical weapons in the same fashion in the seas around Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

10. Agent Orange, 1961-1971

American use of toxic defoliants in Southeast Asia may be the most destructive act of ecological warfare in history. From 1961-1971, Operation Ranch Hand saw U.S. forces dump an amazing 20 million gallons of color-coded herbicides, the most popular of which was Agent Orange, on the jungles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in an attempt to strip Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong guerrilla forces of their protective cover; herbicides were also used against food crops to force peasants to leave the countryside for U.S.-controlled cities, depriving enemy guerrillas of their support base. Overall during this 10-year period U.S. forces carried out 6,542 herbicidal missions blanketing 12% of South Vietnam, which destroyed five million acres of forests and 10 million hectares of agricultural land.

Unsurprisingly, the widespread use of toxic chemicals also resulted in numerous cases of birth defects and cancer in Vietnamese civilians and U.S. personnel. By one estimate about 500,000 birth defects in Vietnam can be attributed to the use of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants and herbicides.

11. Kuwait oil well fires

After invading Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam Hussein paid the price for his miscalculation when an international coalition led by the U.S. obliterated the Iraqi occupation force and sent the remnants reeling back into Iraq. But Hussein would have his revenge, in the form of a breathtaking act of environmental terrorism: before they withdrew, Iraqi forces opened the Kuwaiti oil wells and lit the high-pressure hydrocarbon geysers on fire. Some 700 Kuwaiti oil wells were set alight, with cordons of land mines arranged around them to prevent fire-fighting crews from responding. The fires burned for ten months from February-November 1991, consuming an incredible six million barrels of oil per day at peak volume; for comparison, world consumption at the time was about 67.3 million barrels per day, with U.S. consumption accounting for 16.8 million barrels. In addition to sending billions of dollars’ worth of oil up in smoke, the international effort to extinguish the oil fires cost the Kuwaiti government $1.5 billion.

See Also: 11 Natural Disasters That Led to Wars

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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Animals
Watch the First-Ever Footage of a Baby Dumbo Octopus
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dumbo octopuses are named for the elephant-ear-like fins they use to navigate the deep sea, but until recently, when and how they developed those floppy appendages were a mystery. Now, for the first time, researchers have caught a newborn Dumbo octopus on tape. As reported in the journal Current Biology, they discovered that the creatures are equipped with the fins from the moment they hatch.

Study co-author Tim Shank, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, spotted the octopus in 2005. During a research expedition in the North Atlantic, one of the remotely operated vehicles he was working with collected several coral branches with something strange attached to them. It looked like a bunch of sandy-colored golf balls at first, but then he realized it was an egg sac.

He and his fellow researchers eventually classified the hatchling that emerged as a member of the genus Grimpoteuthis. In other words, it was a Dumbo octopus, though they couldn't determine the exact species. But you wouldn't need a biology degree to spot its resemblance to Disney's famous elephant, as you can see in the video below.

The octopus hatched with a set of functional fins that allowed it to swim around and hunt right away, and an MRI scan revealed fully-developed internal organs and a complex nervous system. As the researchers wrote in their study, Dumbo octopuses enter the world as "competent juveniles" ready to jump straight into adult life.

Grimpoteuthis spends its life in the deep ocean, which makes it difficult to study. Scientists hope the newly-reported findings will make it easier to identify Grimpoteuthis eggs and hatchlings for future research.

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