History's 10 Worst Earthquakes
The Daily Beast’s rundown of the most powerful, deadliest earthquakes ever.
The death toll continues to climb as Japan recovers from the most powerful quake in its recorded history and the towering tsunami that followed. Japan’s Kyodo News agency said between 200 and 300 bodies have been found on a beach in Sendai, the population center nearest the quake’s epicenter, and another 110 people have been confirmed dead elsewhere. But the agency said the death toll will likely surpass 1,000. Read more and view photos of the devastation plus view shocking video from Japan's disaster zone.
Here The Daily Beast’s rundown of the most powerful, deadliest earthquakes ever.
The Shaanxi earthquake—also known as the Hua County earthquake—is the deadliest quake to date, resulting in approximately 830,000 deaths. On the morning of Jan. 23, 1556, it destroyed a 520-mile-wide area in China, killing 60 percent of the population in some of the 97 affected counties. One witness writes, “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.” Because a majority of civilians were living in yaodongs, or artificial caves in loess cliffs, fatalities reached an all-time high as the caves collapsed, killing those inside. Modern estimates predict the magnitude was around 8.0, not a record high, but the earthquake still ranks third on the list of deadliest natural disasters in history.
Although some say there were early warnings of the Tangshan earthquake, it hit Chinese civilians unexpectedly at 3:42 a.m. on July 28, 1976, shaking people from their beds and leveling the entire city in a matter of seconds. The 7.8-magnitude quake killed more than 240,000 people, leaving survivors without access to water, food, or electricity. Relief workers also caused an accidental traffic jam on the only drivable road, and although 80 percent of those stuck under the rubble were saved, a 7.1-magnitude aftershock struck the afternoon of the 28th, killing many more and cutting off access to those trying to provide aid, making it one of the deadliest quakes of the 20th century.
The Haiyuan earthquake hit Dec. 16, 1920, killing more than 73,000 in China’s Haiyuan County and approximately 127,000 in surrounding areas. The 7.8-magnitude quake—reported as 8.5 magnitude by Chinese news sources—caused nearly all of the houses to collapse in Longde and Huining, with damages in seven provinces and regions, including dammed rivers, landslides, and severe cracks in the ground. Seiches were even observed in various lakes and fjords in Norway. Aftershocks from the earthquake occurred as long as three years later, but the effects did not come close to the severity of the first.
Set in a nest of fault lines in northern Syria, Aleppo—now known as Halab—was hit with an 8.5-magnitude earthquake in 1138, jolting areas as far as 200 miles away from the city. The most damage was seen in Harem, where crusaders had built a large citadel that was crumbled below the castle, killing 600 castle guards at the time. Although residents of Aleppo were warned by foreshocks and some fled to the countryside, the quake was much larger than anticipated, and the city and all homes surrounding it were brought to the ground.
Indian Ocean Earthquake
Underwater earthquakes are believed to be the most dangerous because they can create tsunamis and tidal waves, which is exactly what happened on Dec. 26, 2004, when the Indian Ocean earthquake wreaked havoc on India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand—and beyond. With a magnitude of between 9.1 and 9.3, this earthquake is the second largest ever recorded, and it also had the longest duration, lasting between eight and 10 minutes. Devastating tsunamis hit land masses bordering the ocean, prompting a widespread humanitarian response. Initially, reports said the quake killed approximately 100,000, but later calculations showed it resulted in more than 230,000 deaths.
In 856, in the area we now know as Iran, an earthquake of 8.0 magnitude hit the capital city of Damghan, destroying the city, countryside, and nearly every village within 200 miles of the epicenter. Situated between two major tectonic plates, Iran is an area of frequent earthquake activity, but residents of Damghan were unprepared for a temblor of this magnitude. The quake resulted in approximately 200,000 deaths.
Another Iranian earthquake hit Feb. 28, 1997, when the 15-second quake rippled through northern Iran, with deaths tallying up to 150,000. There was severe damage to roads and electrical power lines, and all communications and water distribution became near impossible, leaving the city of Ardabil in a state of desperation. Hospitals overflowed with patients, and even as it tried to recover, the area was hit with nearly 350 aftershocks, the highest recorded at 5.2 on the Richter scale.
In 1730, an 8.3-magnitude earthquake hit Japan’s second largest island, Hokkaido, causing landslides, power outages, road damage, and a tsunami causing 137,000 fatalities. The island was struck by a similar, though not as intense, earthquake in 2003.
The 7.3-magnitude earthquake that hit Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat, in 1948 tore much of the city down, collapsing almost all of its brick buildings, heavily damaging concrete structures, and derailing freight trains with effects felt across the border in the Darreh Gaz region of Iran. The Turkmen government has upwardly revised the official death toll from 110,000 to 176,000; the quake also killed the mother of future dictator Saparmurat Niyazov and resulted in his placement in a Soviet orphanage, an important component of the former leader’s self-mythology.
Great Kanto Earthquake
The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 devastated Tokyo and Yokohama, causing huge fires and resulting in as many as 142,000 deaths, but it may be best remembered for its horrific aftermath, when rumors that Koreans were looting businesses and poisoning wells led to the deaths of an estimated 2,500 non-Japanese immigrants. The Japanese government has heavily funded disaster preparation ever since, holding “Disaster Prevention Day” on Sept. 1, the Kanto quake’s anniversary.