The Deadliest Natural Disasters of All Time

Written by Emmanuel Kingsley
Updated: May 27, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/david eric
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Natural disasters have ravaged the world at different historical points, and they still do so today. Every year, people wake up to face natural disasters or watch others face them on the news. There are varying scales of natural disasters, with some disasters wiping out millions of people and properties at once. 

This article examines some of the deadliest natural disasters of all time. It also discusses what constitutes a natural disaster and the different types of natural disasters

What are Natural Disasters? 

Twister In Storm - Gray landscape
Catastrophic events caused by environmental and natural factors that lead to the loss of lives and properties are natural disasters.

iStock.com/RomoloTavani

Natural disasters refer to catastrophic and extreme events caused by environmental and natural factors that lead to the loss of lives and property.

Types of Natural Disasters 

Some of the most common types of natural disasters are:

Earthquakes 

Earthquakes refer to a sudden shaking of the earth’s surface. Earthquakes vary in size, and the biggest ones are usually extremely violent and can cause the shifting of mountains and buildings. 

Tornadoes 

Tornadoes are outgrowths of thunderstorms. They are usually funnel-shaped rotating clouds that extend from a thunderstorm to the ground and are accompanied by violent winds that can move as fast as 70 miles per hour. 

Hurricanes

Hurricanes are powerful storm systems that rotate around an area and produce heavy rain and strong winds. A storm system can be termed a hurricane if its wind speed exceeds 74 mph. 

Floods

Floods occur when an area that is usually dry experiences a sudden overflow of water. This is the most common type of natural disaster in the United States. Floods are caused by several things, including hurricanes, failed dams, and storms. 

Drought 

A drought is a slow-moving hazardous event that may be difficult to identify initially, like those mentioned above. It occurs when an area experiences low precipitation for an extended period, affecting the water in the soil and rivers. It also causes crop loss. 

Other natural disasters include avalanches, blizzards, cold waves, flash floods, hail storms, heatwaves, ice storms, landslides, sinkholes, typhoons, and thunderstorms. 

The Deadliest Natural Disasters of All Time

Central China Flooding of 1931 

Central China Flooding of 1931 
The Central China Flooding of 1931 is known by some as the deadliest natural disaster of all time.

新浪博客「武汉一中老校友」(轉載讀者稿件)/ public domain

Some will refer to this as the deadliest natural disaster of all time, with the death toll reported to be somewhere around 3.7 million people. The flooding occurred due to excessive rainfall over central China that caused the Yangtze, Yellow, Peal, and Huai rivers to overflow their banks. The rains were only one factor that led to this disaster, with other factors such as melting ice and snow from the mountains also contributing to a flood that would cover about 180,000 square kilometers (70,000 square miles). In addition to the death toll, there was a severe loss of property and means of livelihood. There was also a severe outbreak of diseases caused by displacement, overcrowding, and poor sanitation. In total, it is estimated that about 53 million people were affected by the flood. 

Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556 

Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556 
The Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556 took the lives of 830,000 people.

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This earthquake claimed an estimated 830,000 lives, and it is safe to say that China has experienced an enormous loss of lives and properties from natural disasters in her history. The earthquake is the most powerful in the history of the world, and the fact that it occurred among a population that largely lived in artificial caves built into cliffs made it incredibly deadly. Imperial records from that period stated that the horrifying earthquake killed 60% of that region’s population. 

Yellow River Flood of 1887

In September of 1887, a flood killed about 900,000 people in China. The flood was caused by torrential rains that caused the Yellow River to overflow its bank and spread inward in a short time, allowing people no preparation before homes were swallowed and lives taken. 

Scholars and historians have mentioned that the farmers in that region (and their ancestors) must take some blame for this unfortunate disaster since their choices contributed to the excessive flooding. According to experts, farmers in the area constructed elaborate dikes (over several centuries) to prevent the Yellow River from flooding yearly. 

After centuries of silt deposition along the river’s bottom (due to its inability to flood outward), the river naturally swelled to unprecedented levels. Therefore, when the torrential rains began in 1887, the dikes failed, and the region was engulfed in water. It is important to note that terrible government response and lack of preparation also contributed to the high casualties. 

Antioch Earthquake of 526

Antioch Earthquake of 526

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In 526 AD, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 caused about 250,000 deaths in Syria. Historians cannot ascertain the exact number of lost lives due to documentation from that time, but the consensus is somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 people. Some consider it the second deadliest earthquake to have ever hit the world. 

The earthquake also led to massive damage to infrastructure in the city of Antioch – the exact location where it occurred. Apart from shaking, the earthquake further led to an enormous fire that burned for about a week and led to even more destruction of properties in the ancient city. 

According to historians, it should be noted that the reason for so many deaths was that many people were in the city to celebrate Ascension Day. 

Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 

Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 
The Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 killed at least 255,000 people.

iStock.com/david eric

The city of Tangshan in China was forced awake by a violent earthquake at 3:42 am in 1976. This earthquake killed at least 255,000 people and injured another 700,000. Scientists measure the quake at a magnitude of 7.6. The earthquake led to the destruction of about 85% of the city’s buildings and a near-total paralysis of the city’s services. The city experienced 12 other aftershocks after the first wave of earthquakes that had effects all over China.  

Considering that the quake was utterly unpredicted, the government responded pretty well to the crisis. If not for the swift deployment of relief and emergency services hours after the earthquake, there would have been more deaths. Notwithstanding, the loss of life was still drastic, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes to hit the world. 

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