Image: Map of natural disasters, 2010 research
updated 12/28/2010 4:11:00 PM ET 2010-12-28T21:11:00

The natural forces of the planet were in full swing this year, with some spectacular and devastating consequences. From the massive Haiti earthquake to a bevy of explosive volcano eruptions, 2010 saw its share of natural disasters across the planet. Here are some of the headline-grabbing natural disasters that OurAmazingPlanet and its sister sites covered in 2010.

Just 12 days into the new year, a massive earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The quake was responsible for the deaths of more than 200,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless. Months after the devastating quake, scientists discovered that a previously unmapped fault was responsible for the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, not the fault originally blamed for the temblor. The earthquake increased stresses on nearby faults, potentially increasing the likelihood of another major temblor in the islands, scientists also found.

Just weeks after Haiti was struck, a magnitude-8.8 earthquake hit south-central Chile on Feb. 27. The massive temblor changed the country’s landscape by raising the ground by more than 8 feet (2.4 meters) near the coast and sinking land farther inward, scientists found. [ See images of Chile's raised coast.]

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In early September, a magnitude-7.1 earthquake ruptured in Christchurch, New Zealand, a city with a population of about 400,000. The quake caused millions of dollars of damage, and recovery efforts in the downtown business district were set back by a magnitude-4.9 earthquake, an aftershock that struck on Dec. 28.

In quake-prone Indonesia, a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck on Oct. 25. The quake triggered a 10-foot tsunami, killing at least 113 people. The earthquake ruptured during a process called thrust faulting, when one of the Earth’s rocky plates subducted or took a dive below the other.

While not devastating (and not even felt by many), New York City experienced its largest earthquake in 18 years when a magnitude-3.9 earthquake rattled the region on Nov. 30.

Two major volcanic eruptions captivated audiences around the world this year.

The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in April created a giant ash cloud, which at one point covered most of Europe. The spread of the ash in the atmosphere created fiery red sunsets and brought international aviation to a temporary standstill, resulting in travel chaos for tens of thousands. The plume was so electrically charged that it made its own lightning. That lightning could help scientists accurately measure the height of future volcanic ash plumes. [Related: Gallery: Iceland Volcano's Fiery Sunsets.]

Over in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia’s Mount Merapi began erupting on Oct. 26, killing more than 350 people and leaving nearly 400,000 refugees that fled the area. [Related: Mount Merapi's Destruction Seen From Space.]

Most Americans may not have realized it, but the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, which ran from June 1 to Nov. 30, was among the busiest on record. The season saw a near-record number of storms but few had an impact on the United States.

The Atlantic basin, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, had 19 named storms ( tropical storms and hurricanes ) in all, which placed the season in a tie with 1887 and 1995 as the third busiest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The busiest hurricane season on record is still 2005, a year that saw 28 named storms, including Hurricane Katrina.

Unlike the busy Atlantic hurricane season, the 2010 Pacific hurricane season was the least active on record in terms of named storms and hurricanes, with 13 total storms. Hurricane Celia, a category 5 storm that hit near Acapulco, Mexico, was the strongest in the Pacific.

The Pacific typhoon season is ongoing, but its strongest storm yet, Typhoon Megi — a category 5 storm — struck the Philippines in mid-October. The storm was one of the most intense tropical cyclones on record (tropical cyclone is the generic name for tropical storms, typhoons and hurricanes).

Elsewhere, Tropical Storm Jal swirled over the northern Indian Ocean on Nov. 4. Jal was one of five cyclones in the region — the strongest of which was Cyclone Giri, a category 4 storm that hit Myanmar in late October.

Rare tornadoes
Tornadoes touched down in parts of the Untied States that haven’t seen twisters in a while. In New York City, the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens saw a tornado rip through on Sept. 17, knocking out power and uprooting trees across the city. [ See images of damage in Queens.]

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After a long tornado lull during the so-called second tornado season in November a twister hit Caledonia, Ill., on Nov. 22 — the first November tornado to hit Illinois in more than five years. The tornado flipped a school bus and injured the driver and several children. Since 1990, there have been just six other November tornado events in the state of Illinois, according to The Weather Channel's website.

In Wisconsin, the first November tornado in more than 39 years — which boasted an EF1 strength rating — struck Walworth County. Another was reported in Union Grove, Wis., but has not been confirmed. Only three November tornadoes have hit Wisconsin since 1950, two on Nov. 15, 1960, and one on Nov. 1, 1971. [Related: What Day Had The Most Tornado Strikes? ]

The heaviest rains to hit parts of Colombia in four decades caused widespread flooding and triggered deadly landslides in early December. The landslide hit near the suburbs of Medellin and crushed around 50 houses and possibly killed hundreds of people. While the cause of the landslide and the exact number of fatalities is unclear, the La Niña weather phenomenon — a cooling in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean that is the opposite phase of El Niño — has been blamed for the torrential rains.

Rain and snowstorms
The eventful year even went out with a bang, including massive rainstorms in Southern California and a blizzard in the Northeast.

A so-called “river in the sky” triggered severe storms across Southern California beginning on Dec. 16. The bearer of bad weather is what's called a "Pineapple Express" weather system. The system brought storms that were among the worst in a decade for the region. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in half a dozen Southern California counties as the torrential rainfall prompted evacuations and caused mudslides.

On the East Coast, just as Christmas was wrapping up, a howling two-day blizzard dumped knee-high snow across parts of the region, wrecking holiday travel. The long slog of digging out from under the snow is likely to last into the New Year.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Explainer: A dozen killer earthquakes

  • USGS

    Thousands of earthquakes happen every day around the world. Most are hardly felt, if at all. But sometimes pieces of Earth's crust suddenly slip past each other in a massive release of pent-up stress. The jolted Earth rumbles, buildings collapse, streets buckle, and thousands of people die. These movements are nature's most violent act and take a grim toll on human life and infrastructure.

    The deadliest earthquake in recorded history rattled the Shensi province of China on Jan. 23, 1556, and killed an estimated 830,000 people. The death toll was particularly high among peasants who lived in artificial caves that were dug into soft rock and collapsed during the quake. This picture shows a pagoda whose peaked top was lost in the shaking. Earthquake damage is also visible on the corners. Click on the "Next" label to learn about 11 more deadly quakes.

    — John Roach, contributor

  • 1906: The Great Quake


    The California earthquake of April 18, 1906, ranks as the most deadly in U.S. history: About 3,000 people perished. The Great Quake, as the event is known, was estimated at magnitude 7.9 and ruptured along 296 miles of the northernmost section of the San Andreas fault. Broken gas lines, fractured chimneys and toppled chemical trucks sparked a series of fires that torched large sections of San Francisco, as seen in this image taken from Golden Gate Park.

  • 1964: Good Friday?


    The most powerful earthquake in North American history shook the state of Alaska on March 27, 1964, the Friday before Easter. The magnitude-9.2 temblor triggered a tsunami that was responsible for 113 of the 128 deaths associated with the earthquake, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The giant waves struck along the West Coast down to California, and rolled across the Pacific to Hawaii. This image shows the coastal town of Seward, Alaska, in the wake of the tsunami.

  • 1970: Mountains moved


    The magnitude-7.9 earthquake that struck just off the west coast of Peru on May 31, 1970, reduced the coastal towns of Casma and Chimbote to rubble and killed at least 3,000 people. Even greater disaster struck the towns of Yungay and Ranranhirca. The shaking sent an avalanche of mud, rock and ice down the slopes of the Cordillera Blanca and buried the cities under tens of feet of debris. An estimated 70,000 lives were lost. Here, a statue of Christ is all that remains in Yungay.

  • 1976: Chinese region flattened


    The deadliest earthquake in modern times flattened the industrial city of Tangshan, China, in the early morning of July 28, 1976. The Chinese government put the death toll at 255,000, though many geologists believe it was much higher — up to 655,000. Nearly 800,000 more were injured. Tremors and damage from the magnitude-7.5 quake extended as far as Beijing, about 90 miles from the epicenter. Here, a few tents and temporary shelters are visible amid the debris.

  • 1985: Mexico shaken


    On Sept. 19, 1985, a magnitude-8.2 earthquake off Mexico's Pacific coast wreaked the greatest havoc in Mexico City, about 220 miles from the epicenter. There, hundreds of buildings were toppled, and thousands of people died. Government officials put the death toll at about 9,000, though other sources say it may have been as high as 35,000. A triggered tsunami sent waves rising almost 10 feet crashing into the coastal towns of Lazaro Cardenas, Zihuatanejo and Manzanillo. Here, a 21-story steel-constructed building in Mexico City lies in ruins.

  • 1995: Tremors hit Japan

    Roger Hutchison via NGDC/NOAA

    More than 6,400 people died in the aftermath of a magnitude-6.8 earthquake that hit Japan on Jan. 17, 1995. Most of those deaths occurred in Kobe, the city closest to the epicenter. Many buildings suffered partial collapse, such as the one shown in this picture. Total damage was estimated at more than $100 billion.

  • 2003: Iranian city crumbles

    Majid  /  Getty Images

    On Dec. 26, 2003, a magnitude-6.6 earthquake crumpled the adobe city of Bam, Iran, killing an estimated 30,000 people. About 60 percent of the city's buildings were destroyed and nearly all the rest were damaged. The event ranks as the deadliest in Iran's history. Here, one of the victims is carried to the grave.

  • 2004: The Asian tsunami

    Dita Alangkara  /  AP file

    On Dec. 26, 2004, a magnitude-9.1 earthquake ruptured the ocean floor off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and triggered a series of destructive tsunamis that killed at least 225,000 people in 11 countries. Millions more were stripped of their homes. Scientists estimate the energy released in the event was more than 1,500 times the power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Here, villagers walk through a devastated area of Pangdandaran on the Indonesian island of Java.

  • 2005: Landslides in Kashmir

    David Guttenfelder  /  AP file

    At least 86,000 people were killed when a magnitude-7.6 earthquake hit the Kashmir region of northern Pakistan on Oct. 8, 2005. Millions more were left homeless at the outset of the harsh Himalayan winter. Landslides swept away villages and blocked roads for relief and rescue workers, worsening the human toll. At least 1,350 people were killed in neighboring India, and the shaking was also felt in Afghanistan. Here, rescue workers dig through the rubble looking for survivors at a school in Balakot, Pakistan.

  • 2008: Catastrophe in China

    Image: Searching rubble
    Xinhua via AFP - Getty Images

    An estimated 70,000 people died and millions were left homeless when a magnitude-7.9 earthquake hit a region north of Sichuan's provincial capital, Chengdu, on May 12, 2008. Tremors were felt as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. One of the most tragic episodes was the collapse of a high school in Juyuan. This picture shows searchers digging through the school's rubble.

  • 2010: Huge setback for Haiti

    Image: Rescue in Haiti
    Radio Tele Ginen via AP

    Extreme poverty and extremely poor construction standards contributed to the devastation and death in Haiti when a magnitude-7.0 quake hit Port-au-Prince and its surroundings on Jan. 12, 2010. The death toll amounted to more than 230,000, and aid officials say it will take years for Haiti to recover fully ... if it ever can. This picture shows rescuers carrying one of the injured away from the rubble.


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