The first mass extinction on earth occurred around 2.5 billion years ago, when a photosynthesizing bacterium appeared and released so much oxygen into the atmosphere that anaerobic life was largely wiped out. This is often called the Great Oxygenation Event, the Oxygen Catastrophe, or the Oxygen Holocaust.
When Albert Einstein visited Beno Gutenberg, a seismologist at Caltech, in 1933, the two strolled around the Pasadena campus while Gutenberg explained earthquake science. Suddenly their wives arrived to inform them there had been a massive earthquake. “We had become so involved in seismology,” recalled Gutenberg later, “that we hadn’t noticed.”
Hatches of Rocky Mountain locusts (Melanoplus spretus) in 1874 and 1875 brought swarms up to 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide across the Great Plains. Numbers were estimated in the trillions. Farmers risked starvation. The swarm is believed to have been the largest mass of living insects ever witnessed by modern man—but within thirty years the species disappeared. “I can’t believe M. spretus is extinct,” said ecologist Dan Otte in 2014. “But where to look for it?”
In 1919 a steel storage tank burst in Boston and spilled 2.3 million gallons of molasses, creating a twenty-five-foot-high wave that killed twenty-one people and tore buildings from foundations. The tank had leaked since its installation, but the company had, in response to complaints, merely painted it a concealing brown.
The opening of a particle accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2000 inspired fears that high-speed collisions might launch a chain reaction that could turn the earth into a hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across. A risk calculation determined this to be unlikely; if the collider were to run for ten years, the chance was no greater than 1 in 50 million. “The word unlikely, however many times it is repeated,” wrote concerned scientists, “just isn’t enough to assuage our fears of this total disaster.”
“Thank the good God we have all got through and the only family that did not eat human flesh,” wrote fourteen-year-old Virginia Reed, a surviving Donner Party member, in an 1847 letter. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody and never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” Reed reported being “pleased with California, particularly with the climate.”
Plutarch related that news of the Athenians’ brutal defeat at Syracuse during the Peloponnesian Wars first came from a stranger who told the story at a barbershop “as if the Athenians already knew all about it.” When the barber spread the news, city leaders branded him a liar and an agitator. He was “fastened to the wheel and racked a long time.” Official messengers later came with the “actual facts of the whole disaster,” and the barber was released.
Astrologers of the Ayyubid Empire predicted in 1186 that the world would end September 16 of that year; a dust storm, stirred up by planetary alignment, would scour the earth of life. Sultan Saladin criticized the “feeble minds” of believers and planned an open-air, candlelit party for that evening. “We never saw a night as calm as that,” an attendee later remarked.
Sixteenth-century “father of mineralogy” Georgius Agricola critiqued “these attacks, which are so annoying,” made by those protesting how mining exterminated animals and poisoned brooks and streams. “With the metals that are melted from the ore,” he explained, “birds without number, edible beasts, and fish can be purchased elsewhere and brought to these mountainous regions.”
Accounts varied of the Great Famine of 1315–22, during which more than 10 percent of Europe’s population died. In Flanders: “Parents killed their children and children killed parents, and the bodies of executed criminals were eagerly snatched from the gallows.” In France: “There was no wine in the whole kingdom.”
The first known legal use of the phrase act of God was in a 1581 English case concerning property inheritance. It referred, in that instance, to death, declared by the judge to be among “those things which are inevitable by the act of God, which no industry can avoid, nor policy prevent.”