History's 10 Most Devastating Earthquakes

by Aric Mitchell

While there have been deadlier events throughout history than earthquakes, few can cause such massive and widespread destruction in so short a time. As Japan continues to pick up the pieces from the recent devastation of an 8.9 earthquake, the world is too easily reminded of the chaos and calamity that can occur when plate tectonics has its way with civilization. What makes an earthquake devastating, however, is not entirely contingent on its Richter scale measurement, but on the body count, the number injured, and the amount of damages incurred to standing structures.

Some of thee events have even grown deadlier over time due to aftershocks and other potentially deadly chain reactions, such as the threat of nuclear meltdown that currently exists in Japan or the countless fires, tsunamis, and landslides and avalanches brought on by the event. As the world focuses on the Land of the Rising Sun, there is no better time than the present to remember history’s 10 most devastating earthquakes and the impact they have had on civilization throughout time:

 10. 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake

Date: September 1, 1923
Location: Japan
Death Toll: 142,000

The Event: At 11:58 a.m. the earth below Izu Oshima Island began to rumble. Survivors of the ensuing disaster gave reports that it lasted between 4 and 10 minutes. Regardless of which number is correct by the time all was complete, nearly 150,000 people had died. Tokyo was decimated as was the port city of Yokohama. Registering an 8.2 magnitude on the Richter scale, most of the destruction was caused because of the time of day in which the event occurred. Most Kanto families were gathering for lunch and in the process of using their cooking stoves to prepare meals. The quake knocked over many of these stoves and high winds spread them across the region, charring many buildings and people beyond recognition. Since Sept. 1, 1961, the nation of Japan has recognized the anniversary of the event as “Disaster Prevention Day.” After approximately 57 aftershocks, the nation faced damages in excess of $1 billion by today’s standards.


 9. 893 Ardabil Earthquake

Date: March 23, 893
Location: Ardabil (site of present day Iran)
Death Toll: 150,000

The Event: The people of Iran have long been subject to both natural and manmade disasters. None were quite so deadly as the event that occurred on March 23, 893. It is impossible to know the magnitude of the earthquake that struck Ardabil, but according to the Catalog of Damaging Earthquakes in the World (2008), history indicates a casualty count in excess of 150,000 people. The area has been subject to countless earthquakes throughout time with the most recent claiming an additional 1,100 casualties and leaving 36,000 homeless. Still, nothing in the region has been able to mirror the destruction caused by the 9th Century event.

Source: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eqarchives/significant/sig_1997.php

 8. 856 Damghan Earthquake

Date: December 22, 856

Location: Damghan (site of present day Iran)
Death Toll: 200,000

The Event: You’ve got to hand it to science. To be able to look back in time and determine the magnitude of one of Mother Nature’s deadliest quakes is remarkable, much like the destruction caused by this 7.9 tremor in the city of Damghan, which, like No. 9 on this list, is located in the region that is today known as Iran. At that time, Damghan was the capital city and contained a higher concentration of structures and people, resulting in the significant death toll that until two recent events made it the sixth deadliest of all time. It was caused by the Alpide earthquake belt, which has also been credited with the formation of the Alpide mountain range, known as one of the most seismically volatile in the world.  

Source: http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/nndc/struts/results?eq_0=232&t=101650&s=13&d=22,26,13,12&nd=display

 7. 1138 Aleppo Earthquake

Date: October 11, 1138
Location: Aleppo (in northern Syria)
Death Toll: 230,000

The Event: Collision of the Arabian and African plates caused the disaster that occurred in the town of Aleppo close to the Dead Sea. Taking place during the Crusades, some started to feel as if God was showing his anger toward both Christians and Muslims as they warred over the Holy Lands with a large Christian citadel being destroyed as well as a Muslim fort known as Atharib. Aftershocks reached Damascus, approximately 220 miles away, while Jerusalem remained untouched despite its close proximity. Michael the Syrian’s writings from the late 12th Century described the event as the earth opening holes in the ground and swallowing men whole, though some are uncertain of its authenticity. Amazingly enough, though it was the town of Aleppo that received the brunt of the seismic event, foreshocks in the days leading up to the disaster warned many of its residents to escape from their homes to neighboring villages and townships.

Source: http://www.earth-prints.org/bitstream/2122/793/1/31Ambraseys.pdf

 6. 2004 Indonesian Earthquake

Date: December 26, 2004
Location: Sumatra, Indonesia
Death Toll: 203,210

The Event: As the world wonders what will become of Japan’s nuclear reactor and the further carnage that might ensue, it is reminded of the chain reaction that occurred when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck the Indian Ocean causing a tsunami that would kill more than 230,000 people. While No. 7 on this list was estimated at the same death toll, scholars are not in total agreement whether the number can be attributed to one specific event. However, with news reports and modern technology, the number killed by the ensuing chaos is easier to figure. In fact, most think the final tally of 203,210 is a modest number considering how many remained missing after the event. The outpouring of public support that followed brought together many countries that didn’t see eye to eye in an effort to help the affected deal with their casualties and the approximate $14 billion in damages. Until 2010, the tragedy would remain the worst of the 21st Century.

Source: http://walrus.wr.usgs.gov/tsunami/sumatraEQ/

 5. 1920 Haiyuan Earthquake

Date: December 16, 1920
Location: Haiyuan County, Ningxia Province, Republic of China
Death Toll: 235,502

The Event: China has long been a location for seismic activity, logging three of history’s 10 most devastating earthquakes and close to 2 million casualties throughout recorded history. More than 235,000 of those casualties came on the evening of Dec. 16, 1920, according to the Catalog of Damaging Earthquakes in the World (2008), due to an event that has been estimated at 7.8 on the Richter scale, though some in Chinese media claim it reached a magnitude as high as 8.5. Regardless of which figure you believe, the destruction was undeniable. Haiyuan County’s casualties climbed to more than 70,000, while Guyuan County attributed an additional 30,000 to the growing death toll. In the cities of Longde and Huining, there were very few homes left standing. Overall reach of the damage spread to cities like Lanzhou, Xi’an, Xining, Yinchuan, and Taiyuan. The Mercalli scale for measuring earthquake magnitude assigned this event a XII, representing total destruction and its highest intensity level.

Source: http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/world/most_destructive.php

 4. 526 Antioch Earthquake

Date: May 526
Location: Antioch (Syria, Turkey regions)
Death Toll: 250,000

The Event: Not much is known about the Antioch earthquake beyond its staggering death toll of a quarter-million people. Historians estimate that the event occurred between May 20 and May 29 of 526. It remains one of the most brutal earthquakes in recorded history, despite coming in at VIII on the Mercalli scale, four notches below No. 5 on this list. The tremor reportedly set off a fire that caused widespread property damage to structures within the hold of the Byzantine Empire, a portion of the Roman Empire that at the time boasted a population in excess of 34 million. In just a few minutes nearly 1 percent of them were gone. By comparison, that would be like losing the entire city of Chicago, Illinois, in one fell swoop.

Source: http://www.earth-prints.org/bitstream/2122/908/1/01Sbeinati.pdf

3. 2010 Haiti Earthquake

Date: January 12, 2010
Location: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Death Toll: 316,000

The Event: Proof positive that the deadliest earthquakes do not have to be the highest ranked on the Richter magnitude scale, Haiti’s quake of 2010 was deadly enough to secure it a place at No. 3 on this list and making it the deadliest of the 21st Century (to date). Ranking at just a 7.0 magnitude, the death toll was compounded by the fact that Haiti, at the time, had very lax construction and no building codes to speak of. Most of the casualties centered on Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital city. The event occurred in the afternoon of Jan. 12, 2010, and led to a series of 52 aftershocks that each registered better than 4.5 on the Richter scale. In addition to the 316,000 people that were killed, another 300,000 were injured, and a total of more than 1 million lost their homes. As a result many took to the streets for shelter, fearing that aftershocks would topple any of the weakened structures that remained standing. To date, the country remains affected by the fallout from the earthquake, despite pledged international aid of more than $5.3 billion and a number of private initiatives to help clean up the rubble. The medical group Doctors without Borders operates the only freestanding hospital, and according to recent reports from ABC News, cholera cases in newborns have reached overwhelming heights. More than 90% of children, who are born with the disease will not survive.  

Source: http://abcnews.go.com/International/haiti-year-quake-cholera-babies-school-walls/story?id=12592198&page=2

 2. 1976 Tangshan Earthquake

Date: July 28, 1976
Location: Tangshan, Hebei, Republic of China
Death Toll: 242,419-779,000

The Event: By far the most bizarre of the devastating earthquakes on this list, the Tangshan event took place during the extremely volatile Cultural Revolution, a political environment, where the government encouraged harmony above all else, and thus has been accused of softening the details for the international community. In fact, the 7.5-7.8 magnitude earthquake leveled the city of Tangshan that had a population of more than 1.6 million at the time, and the government refused any kind of aid, deciding instead to fend for itself. As a result an actual death toll is hard to come by. The Chinese authorities released the low number you see above, while groups such as the Hebei Revolutionary Committee made initial claims of 650,000 dead and 779,000 injured. If the latter numbers are to be believed, that means less than 200,000 people in the entire city were unaffected physically by the catastrophe. If this is true, it’s unlikely the remaining number escaped some form of connection to the event. Today, the city has become known as the “Brave City of China.” Just 25 years after the disaster, it has nearly doubled its population from the reported size at the time of the quake. For many, the city exemplifies the spirit and resiliency of the Chinese people.  

Source: http://history1900s.about.com/od/horribledisasters/a/tangshan.htm

 1. 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake

Date: January 23, 1556
Location: Shaanxi during the Ming Dynasty (China)
Death Toll: 830,000

The Event: It’s been nearly 500 years since the morning of Jan. 23, 1556 left nearly one million people dead in a matter of minutes, but history still remembers it as the deadliest earthquake of modern civilization. Ninety seven counties within the Ming Dynasty felt the effects of this 8.0 magnitude event that wiped out about 60% of the overall population. Losing the same percentage of the U.S. population would result in more than 180 million casualties. Chinese historians had the following to say regarding the event: “Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden” (Cultural China).

Source: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/34History6357.html

 Which of these earthquakes do you feel was the most significant in our world’s history? Where do you think the Japan catastrophe will rank when history looks back at the events 10 years from now? Share your thoughts with us below!

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