Now and again, the tectonically-active regions of the world experience a release of energy, resulting in devastating earthquakes. While earthquakes are a common phenomenon, not all have devastating effects on human life. The factors that determine how devastating an earthquake is include the magnitude of the earthquake, the depth at which it occurs, and the location. Thus, a high-magnitude earthquake in a remote location will not be as devastating as a low-magnitude earthquake that occurs at a low depth in a densely populated area. In some cases, the destructive effect of the earthquake may be due to other natural hazards such as tsunamis, landslides, and fires triggered by the quake. This article is a list of some of the most devastating earthquakes of all time with details of the damage they caused.
San Francisco (1906)
The Great San Francisco Earthquake occurred on April 18, 1906. It was a 7.8 magnitude tremor that destroyed several structures in San Francisco’s bay area. The shaking was felt as far away as Western Nevada and Southern Oregon. While the one-minute-long earthquake destroyed buildings and twisted streetcar tracks, the biggest damage came from the massive fires that spread across the city as part of the aftermath of the tremor. Even worse, damage to the water mains made it difficult to quell the flames. The earthquake caused up to $524 million worth of property damage and 3000 deaths.
Kanto, Japan (1923)
The Great Kantō earthquake occurred on September 1, 1923. The 7.9-magnitude earthquake itself did not cause major damage. However, the fact that it struck when most people were cooking their meals resulted in the Great Tokyo fire, an extensive firestorm that spread over several cities. Official estimates put the number of deaths at 143,000 people. More than 570,000 homes were lost to the fire, and the property damage is estimated at about $16 billion in today’s currency.
Southern USSR (1948)
The earthquake that occurred in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (a region of the old USSR) on October 5, 1948, led to the death of more than 110,000 people and destroyed up to two-thirds of the city at the time. Even though it had a magnitude of 7.3, the earthquake was one of the most devastating in Central Asia. The earthquake occurred during the night, which contributed to the high death toll since most people were indoors when it hit. The earthquake practically leveled the entire city.
Southern Chile (1960)
The Valdivia Earthquake, or Great Chile Earthquake, which occurred on May 22, 1960, is undoubtedly one of the most remarkable earthquake events on record, both in terms of its magnitude and the damage it caused. The 9.5 magnitude earthquake was a succession of tremors that occurred over a few hours. The earthquake’s epicenter was approximately 100 miles off the coast of Chile. Most of the damage came from the massive tsunami, which had waves of up to 25 meters. Landslides, flooding, and a volcanic eruption that occurred a few days later also caused significant damage. The property damage in Chile, Hawaii, the Philippines, Alaska, and Japan was estimated to be as much as $675 million. The earthquake and all the hazards that followed also caused more than 5,700 deaths.
The Great Alaska or Good Friday Earthquake occurred on March 28, 1964. The 9.2-magnitude earthquake was the most powerful in the history of the United States. The earthquake struck the Prince William Sound region of Alaska. It lasted a little less than 5 minutes and killed about 23 people out of the 65 living in the village of Chenega. The major damage came from the tsunami that followed the earthquake. The 200-foot-high water resulted in $311 million worth of property damage and killed more than 110 people. The city of Anchorage was the worst hit by the tsunami.
On May 31, 1970, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit the western coast of South America. The great Peruvian Earthquake resulted in over $500 million in property damage and killed 66,000 people. Building collapses were the cause of most of the deaths. After the main quake hit, it produced massive landslides that hit the nearby towns. Since the buildings were not constructed to withstand the damage, most of them were destroyed by the landslide. Cascading snow and mud from Mount Huascaran (the highest mountain in the area) buried the entire town of Ranrahirca and other settlements.
The Great Tangshan Earthquake that occurred on July 27, 1976, had a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale. The tremor is one of the most devastating earthquakes involving the Pacific Ring of Fire (a region characterized by active seismic activity around the Pacific Ocean). The earthquake almost destroyed the coal-mining town city of Tangshan, which was an industrial city of more than a million inhabitants at the time. Damage was recorded in other surrounding cities as well, going all the way to Beijing. Official figures placed the death toll at about 250,000. However, some estimates say it was as high as 655,000. Fires and building collapse was the major cause of casualties. The majority of people were sleeping in their homes when the earthquake hit.
Southern California (1994)
The 6.7-magnitude Northridge tremor left 60 people dead and caused an estimated $44 billion damage. The rumbling damaged more than 40,000 buildings in four of California’s most populated and expensive counties: Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, and San Bernardino. The earthquake, which was felt as far away as Utah and northern Mexico, luckily struck at 4:30 a.m., when most people were not yet populating the region’s crowded freeways, office buildings, and parking structures, many of which collapsed.
The Great Hanshin Earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan, on January 17, 1995, caused property damage of up to $100 billion. This makes it the most costly earthquake in recorded history. The 6.9 magnitude earthquake affected a high-rise area of Japan, destroying at least 200,000 buildings. The tremors also led to the death of more than 5,000 people.
On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake occurred off the coast of the Island of Sumatra in Indonesia. The 9.1-magnitude quake triggered a massive tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which devastated coastal areas all the way to East Africa. The impact of the tsunami was felt in 14 countries with more than 12 countries experiencing human casualties. About 230,000 people died in total, with 168,000 from Indonesia alone. Some of the countries most impacted by the quake include Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, and Thailand, suffering both human loss and massive structural damage.
The 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hit Pakistan on October 8, 2005, was felt across Pakistan and Northern India. In addition to the destruction of buildings, the earthquake triggered massive landslides and rockfalls, rendering millions of people homeless. Some regions were completely inaccessible for several days after the incident. The death toll stood at more than 80,000, and more than 70,000 people were injured.
On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck about 15 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. The quake devastated most of the country and affected the nearby Dominican Republic. More than 222,570+ people died as a result of the earthquake, and an estimated 1.5 million were rendered homeless. In addition to the main tremor, two high magnitude aftershocks (5.5-5.9 magnitude) hit in succession a few days after the main incident, causing even more damage.
It is important to note that these are not the most powerful earthquakes on record. But they are among the most destructive ones based on the damage caused to human life and properties.
- Discover the Largest Tsunami Known – Are Tsunami is a massive natural disaster typically triggered by an underwater earthquake. Read all about the largest ones in history here.
- The 8 Most Destructive Mudslides in the United States – a mudslide or mudflow is a destructive geologic occurrence. Read about 8 of the most massive ones to have ever occurred in the United States.
- How a Massive Earthquake Split Tennessee’s Largest Lake from the Mississippi River – Imagine an earthquake so powerful it makes the Mississippi flow backward. Read all about the largest lake in Tennesse that was formed by this event.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com
Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.
- Time, Available here: http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,1953425,00.html
- How Stuff Works, Available here: https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/12-of-the-most-destructive-earthquakes.htm
- Snow Brains, Available here: https://snowbrains.com/deadliest-earthquakes-ever-recorded/
- Britannica, Available here: https://www.britannica.com/list/6-deadliest-earthquakes
- Geology Science, Available here: https://geologyscience.com/geology-branches/natural-hazards/10-most-powerful-earthquakes-in-earth-history/