10 of History’s Most Devastating Earthquakes


Earthquakes are by no means a rare phenomenon. It’s estimated that the Earth is rocked by around half-a-million quakes each year. Most are clustered around the fault lines that divide the Earth’s tectonic plates, but others form deeper in the mantle and can strike anywhere in the world.

Most of these earthquakes cause no damage and can’t even be detected without specialist equipment. Large earthquakes are considerably rarer, which is fortunate as they can cause immense destruction over vast distances, create killer tsunamis, and even trigger volcanic eruptions.

In this list we look at 10 of the most devastating earthquakes ever recorded.

10. 1960 Valdivia Earthquake

In 1935 an American seismologist by the name of Charles Richter devised the famous Richter magnitude scale. By measuring seismographic readings, and then cross referencing them with the distance from the seismographic disturbance, it became possible to measure the magnitude of an earthquake.

The Richter scale increases exponentially, so a magnitude 7.0 isn’t just slightly bigger than a 6.0 magnitude earthquake, it’s ten times bigger. And a magnitude 8.0 is again ten times more powerful than a 7.0.

By far the biggest earthquake ever measured, and by quite some distance, was the 1960 Valdivia earthquake off the coast of Chile.

This megaquake was measured at an enormous 9.5 on the magnitude scale, releasing roughly the same energy as 100 million tons of TNT. It literally shook the entire world, with the shock waves traveling down as far as the Earth’s molten core.   

It triggered tsunamis that traveled more than 10,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean, killing hundreds of people as far away as Japan, Hawaii, and Australia.

Chile was closest to the epicenter and suffered the worst of the devastation. Fortunately, however, the areas worst afflicted were sparsely populated. More than 5,000 people lost their lives, and two million more were made homeless, but given the ferocity of the earthquake this could easily have been a great deal worse.  

9. 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

The infamous San Andreas fault runs for almost 800 miles straight through the American state of California. It forms the barrier between two of the largest tectonic plates that divide the surface of the Earth. California is effectively sitting on a ticking time bomb.

None of this was widely understood by the residents of San Francisco when they were violently awakened just after 5 a.m. on April 18, 1906. The earth shook for almost a minute in an earthquake estimated to have been as high as around 8 on the Richter scale.

As devastating as the earthquake was, the fires that burned across San Francisco for three days caused the greatest loss of life. With water pipes across the city ruptured firefighters struggled to bring the blazes under control, and huge swathes of the city were destroyed.

More than 3,000 people were killed, and an astonishing 400,000 were left homeless. Rebuilding the ruined city cost an estimated $400 million, which equates to around $10 billion in today’s money.

8. 2008 Sichuan Earthquake

Until quite recently Beichuan was a thriving town in central China. Now it’s a ghost town, its buildings in ruins and its inhabitants either dead or relocated. Around 80% of Beichuan’s buildings were destroyed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The damage was so extensive that the government decided not to rebuild the town. It’s now preserved almost exactly as it was in the immediate aftermath of the disaster and serves as a macabre tourist attraction.

While Beichuan was the worst hit, the destruction ranged over a much wider area. Around 87,000 people are believed to have lost their lives, and almost half a million more were made homeless Numerous public buildings including several schools collapsed with substantial loss of life, exposing substandard construction standards.

China boasts the second richest economy in the world, but the 7.9 magnitude earthquake caused enough destruction to compel the Chinese government to take the slightly embarrassing step of requesting foreign aid to assist in the repair and relief effort.

7. The Great Kanto Earthquake

Struck by as many as 1,500 earthquakes every year, Japan is one of the planets hot spots for seismic activity. It is for this reason that Japan has become the most prepared nation on the planet. Emergency drills are regularly practiced, new buildings are required by law to be earthquake resistant, and there is even an early warning app bundled with every smartphone.

When a huge earthquake struck Tokyo and its surrounding areas on September 1, 1923, things were very different. Most Japanese buildings at the time were made of paper and wood. They stood no chance against an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter Scale.

To make matters worse the quake struck at Midday, just as many Japanese were lighting fires to cook their meals. The resulting conflagration was so intense that it melted metal and claimed thousands of lives. The flames sucked in oxygen from the surrounding area, creating firestorms much like those created by the hug bombing raids of World War Two. Some 44,000 people sought shelter by the banks of the River Sumida. Only around 300 of them survived after a wall of flame swept over them.

The final death toll is unknown, but it’s believed that more than 140,000 people lost their lives in the disaster. Half-a-million more were left homeless. It has even been suggested that the disaster sapped Japan of her optimism and helped set her on the path to aggressively nationalistic authoritarian rule.

6. Great Tohoku Earthquake

On the March 11, 2011 seismometers registered one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. Eighty miles east of Japan the fault between two tectonic plates slipped by a record fifty meters. It released forces so great that it shifted the planet’s tilt on its axis and shortened its days by a fraction of a second.

Recorded as an 8.9 on the magnitude scale, the Tohoku earthquake was vastly more powerful than the Great Kanto Earthquake that had unleashed such devastation to Japan in 1923. Japan’s population then had been about 58 million; in 2011 it was closer to 130 million.

Japan’s defenses proved themselves equal to the quake itself. In Tokyo and elsewhere skyscrapers swayed alarmingly as they were violently shaken for six long minutes. It is a testimony to exacting Japanese construction standards that none collapsed, but many inhabitants nonetheless quickly reassessed the wisdom of living so far above the ground.

However, much worse was to come. The earthquake had created a huge tsunami, and it was rushing towards the coast at more than 500 miles per hour, which is roughly the cruising speed of a Boeing 737 jet airliner.  

The Japanese government had invested in substantial sea defenses to guard against just such an eventuality. Unfortunately, the wave was far bigger than anticipated, and it simply crashed over the defenses.

Despite the considerable preparations Japan had put in place, 22,000 people were killed and the damages ran to something in the region of $360 billion.

5. The Great Lisbon Earthquake

For the first half of the 18th Century Portugal counted herself amongst the world’s great powers. The Portuguese Empire was one of the oldest in the world, made rich from the boatloads of gold and diamonds imported from her colonies in South America.

This prosperity was shaken on November 1, 1755 when the Kingdom of Portugal suffered one of history’s deadliest earthquakes.  

The quake itself lasted for between three-and-six minutes. It was felt as far afield as Finland, but the worst of the destruction centered on the Portuguese city of Lisbon. Around forty minutes after the ground had stopped shaking, survivors witnessed the remarkable sight of the sea retreating from the city’s harbor. They were then faced with the even more startling sight of it rushing back in the form of a nine-yard-high tsunami.

After the earthquake and the tsunami came the fires, and as with so many similar disasters it was these that caused the greatest loss of life. The extent of the devastation can only be guessed at. 100,000 people may have lost their lives in Lisbon alone, with tens of thousands more casualties in Spain, and Morocco.

The earthquake cost Portugal almost half of its entire yearly GDP, and the king was so traumatized he became terrified of spending any time in walled buildings, instead moving his royal court to a complex of tents. The trauma and devastation hastened Portugal’s demise as a great power.

4. 2010 Haiti Earthquake

Countries such as the United States of America and Japan have the economic power and technological knowhow to mitigate against the impact of all but the most catastrophic natural disasters. Most nations aren’t so fortunate, and Haiti is particularly vulnerable.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the entire Western Hemisphere and one of the most impoverished in the world. It’s regularly battered by hurricanes, cyclones and tropical storms, and it has the misfortune of sitting in dangerously close proximity to no less than two major fault lines.

For the entirety of the 20th Century Haiti was lucky. It suffered only two earthquakes of any note and between them they claimed fewer than 10 lives. That changed in catastrophic fashion on January 12, 2010.

The earthquake that struck Haiti in the early evening measured 7.0 on the magnitude scale, which was large but nowhere near the largest ever recorded. However, the fact that the quake occurred only a few miles beneath the surface, combined with Haiti’s poor infrastructure and total lack of building regulations, contributed to the appalling damage and loss of life.

3. 1138 Aleppo Earthquake

The Dead Sea Rift is the name given to the fault line separating the Arabian and African tectonic plates. It cuts through Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordon, and as one of the few major fault lines not inconveniently located at the bottom of an ocean, it’s one of the most studied in the world.

For the last several hundred years notable earthquakes have been a rarity in the Middle East, but in the 12th and early 13th century a cluster of them struck over a relatively short period of time. The 1138 Aleppo earthquake was the most destructive of them all, and one of the most devastating in history.

1138 was already a lively time in the Middle East’s eventful history. The Crusades were in full swing, with invading Christian armies from Europe attempting to drive the Muslims from the Holy Lands.

The earthquake of 1138 made no distinction between Muslim and Christian. The town of Aleppo, a Muslim stronghold, was almost totally destroyed. Meanwhile numerous forts and citadels manned by the Crusaders tumbled to the ground. Something in the region of 250,000 people are believed to have been killed.

2. 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake

Over the last two decades there has been an increase in the number of major earthquakes around the globe. Scientists still aren’t entirely sure why this would be, but the most catastrophic of them was the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.

The quake struck beneath the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004, and at 9.1 magnitude it was one of the most powerful ever recorded. Despite the immense energy released, the Indonesian city of Banda Aceh was the only city to report damage.

Scientists had been monitoring the earthquake, but they didn’t yet know whether it had generated a tsunami. While the Pacific Ocean had early warning sensors capable of detecting tsunamis, in 2004 nothing of the sort existed in the Indian Ocean.

Thirty-two minutes after the quake the question was answered when the first of a series of tsunamis slammed into Indonesia. Over the course of six hours another 13 countries were hit in what quickly became one of the worst natural disasters ever seen. More than 220,000 people were killed, half-a-million more had their homes destroyed, and the material cost has been estimated at around $15 billion.

1. 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake

China holds the unwanted distinction of having suffered all three of the worst natural disasters on record. The first two of these were floods of 1887 and 1931, while the third was the 1556 earthquake centered on the Shaanxi province in northwest China.

Scientists who have studied the quake believe it would have struck at the force of around 8.0 on the magnitude scale, and it caused immense devastation over a huge area.

Whilst accurate figures are impossible to come by, it’s believed that more than 800,000 people lost their lives. This included more than 60% of the densely populated Shaanxi province.

The pressure created was so great that in places soil liquefaction occurred. This is a process whereby previously solid ground takes on the properties of liquid, with disastrous consequences for anything on the surface. Even the most sturdily constructed buildings would be at serious risk of collapse with their foundations so fatally compromised, and very few buildings in 16th Century China were well-constructed to begin with.

China is crisscrossed by fault lines and has been struck by dozens of major earthquakes, some of which have even exceeded the 1556 quake in magnitude, but the Shaanxi earthquake remains the most devastating ever known in terms of sheer loss of life.

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