12 Of The Most Destructive Earthquakes In History

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, one of the deadliest in recent years. People around the world watched reports in shock at the vast destruction that was caused.

Earthquakes have been a recurring feature of life throughout human history, with the earliest recorded quake taking place almost 2,000 BCE. But it’s only over the last two centuries that our technological abilities have reached a point where we can fully measure the impact of these disasters. Our ability to measure earthquakes as they take place, means that we are able to issue warnings in the aftermath, in case of tsunamis, giving people time to evacuate endangered areas. But unfortunately, this still doesn’t always work. There are several examples of quakes where the greatest proportion of the damage has actually been caused by the tsunami, rather than the earthquake.

While we’ve also developed ways to counter the threat of quakes, like through better building standards, sometimes there’s nothing we can do to prevent damage from occurring when the earth shakes. On other occasions, the social conditions in the country where an earthquake hits can severely exacerbate the crisis, such as in particularly poor states.

There are many different ways to judge how bad an earthquake is. Some people go by its magnitude, others by the casualty list, or even the monetary value of property damaged. The following list of 12 of the worst earthquakes combines all of these in one.

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12 Lisbon


The earthquake that struck Portugal’s capital on November 1st, 1755, became known as the Great Lisbon earthquake due to the vast destruction it produced. The quake’s impact was made worse because it was All Saints Day, meaning that many thousands were attending mass at church. The churches, like many other buildings, could not withstand the power of the tremor and collapsed, killing thousands. Afterwards, a tsunami estimated at 6 metres high struck. Roughly 80,000 perished due to fires caused by collapsing structures. Many famous literary figures and philosophers dealt with the quake in their work, such as Emmanuel Kant, who sought to provide a scientific explanation for what happened.

11 California

The major tremor that struck California in April 1906, has gone down in history as the San Francisco earthquake, but it caused damage across a much wider area. The focus has been on the city because of the huge fire that was produced in its aftermath. Initial estimates were that between 700 and 800 had died, although researchers now estimate that the true death toll amounted to more like 3,000. More than half of San Francisco’s population were made homeless, and approximately 28,000 buildings were destroyed by the quake and fire.

10 Messina

One of Europe’s biggest quakes rocked Sicily and southern Italy, in the early hours of December 28th, 1908, killing an estimated 120,000 people. The main centre of damage was Messina, which was virtually destroyed by the catastrophe. The 7.5 magnitude earthquake was followed by a tsunami, sending huge waves against the coast. Recent research has suggested that an underwater landslide could have increased the size of the waves. Remarkably, rescuers pulled two children out of the rubble, alive 18 days after the disaster. However, the damage was extensive, caused above all by the poor quality of the buildings in Messina and other parts of Sicily.

9 Haiyuan


One of the deadliest quakes on record, its epicentre was in Haiyuan China, when it occurred in December 1920. At least 230,000 people were killed. Measuring 7.8 in magnitude on the Richter Scale, it brought down almost every house in some cities in the nearby region, and extensive damage was caused in major cities like Lanzhou, Taiyuan and Xi’an. Incredibly, small waves produced by the earth’s movement were visible as far away as Norway. According to recent research, Haiyuan was the strongest earthquake measured in China during the 20th century. Researchers have also called into question the number of people killed, suggesting that it could have been even more at over 270,000. This includes 59 percent of the population in Haiyuan district.

8 Chile


A total of 1655 were killed and 3,000 injured by a magnitude 9.5 earthquake in Chile, in 1960. Described by seismologists as the largest ever, it also left 2 million people homeless and cost over $500 million in damages. The vast strength of the quake caused tsunamis that claimed victims as far away as Japan, Hawaii and the Philippines. In some parts of Chile, the waves were so powerful that remains of houses were carried 3 kilometres inland. As well as being the strongest, the 1960 quake was also one of the largest, with the rupture estimated to have stretched for 1,000 kilometres.

7 Alaska

On March 27th, 1964, a massive tremor measured at 9.2 struck the Prince William Sound region in Alaska. Although it was the second strongest quake ever recorded, a comparatively low number of fatalities occurred, with 129 deaths. Nonetheless, substantial property damage took place in Anchorage, and tremors were felt across 47 states in the United States. Due to significant improvements in technology, the Alaska quake provided scientists with valuable data on earthquakes that produced major advances by geologists in our now better understanding of this phenomenon.

6 Kobe


In 1995, Japan was hit by one of its worst earthquakes when a 7.2 magnitude quake was measured in the Kobe region of south central Japan. Although by no means among the strongest ever observed, the devastating impact of the quake was compounded by the large population of around 10 million people living in the near vicinity. A total of 5,000 were killed and 26,000 were injured. The US Geological Survey estimated that $200 billion in damage was caused, including the disruption of all utilities, collapse of the Hanshin Express, and destruction of buildings.

5 Sumatra and Andaman Earthquake


The tsunami that struck all of the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean on December 26th, 2004, causing the death of at least 230,000 people, was triggered by a massive undersea earthquake off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. It was measured at 9.1 on the Richter Scale. A previous earthquake in Sumatra in 2002, is believed to have been a foreshock and there were several aftershocks during 2005. One reason for the vast amount of casualties was the lack of an early warning system in the Indian Ocean to alert communities of approaching Tsunamis.

4 Kashmir

Jointly administered by Pakistan and India, Kashmir was affected by a 7.6 earthquake in October 2005, that caused at least 80,000 deaths and made 4 million people homeless. Rescue efforts were hampered by the conflicts between the two countries, which have fought a series of wars over the territory. Things were made worse by the rapid onset of winter, and the destruction of many roads in the region. Reports spoke of whole parts of towns sliding off cliffs due to the quake’s force, and in Pakistan, the town of Balakot was utterly destroyed.

3 Haiti

When Port au Prince was rocked by an earthquake on January 12, 2010, it left over half of the capital’s population homeless. Disputes continue as to the number killed, with estimates ranging from 160,000 to 230,000. A recent report noted that on the fifth anniversary of the disaster, 80,000 people continue to live in makeshift camps set up in the months that followed. The impact of the quake was intensified by the bitter poverty in Haiti, which is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Many of the buildings in the capital were not built to withstand earthquakes and people had virtually no means of survival, other than the help provided by aid agencies.

2 Tōhoku


The biggest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl was triggered by the 9.0 quake off the eastern coast of Japan, on March 11, 2011. Scientists estimate that 108 kilometers of seabed rose between 6 and 8 meters during the quake, which lasted 6 minutes. This produced a large tsunami that wreaked havoc on the coast of Japan’s northern islands. The nuclear facility at Fukushima was badly damaged, and attempts to rectify the plant still continue. Confirmed casualties numbered 15,889 dead, although over 2,500 people are still missing. Many areas became uninhabitable due to nuclear radiation.

1 Christchurch

New Zealand’s worst natural disaster claimed 185 lives on February 22nd, 2011, when Christchurch was struck by a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. More than half of the deaths were caused by the collapse of the CTV building, which was later declared to have been poorly designed and constructed. Thousands of other buildings were brought down, among them the city’s cathedral. In the immediate aftermath of the event, the government called a national emergency, while rescue work went ahead. Over 2,000 people were injured. Reconstruction costs have been projected to top $40 billion. But in December 2013, the Canterbury Chamber of Commerce claimed that only 10 percent of rebuilding had commenced, nearly three years after the tragedy.

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