Earthquake Information: Worst Earthquakes in History

The Deadliest Earthquakes in History: The Worst and Most Destructive Natural Disasters

What is an Earthquake?

An earthquake is a phenomenon that occurs when the Earth’s crust and uppermost mantle experience sudden movements, resulting in intense shaking and the release of seismic energy. Such movements can be caused by a variety of factors, from volcanic or magmatic activity to sudden changes in stress levels in the Earth. Earthquakes can range from being completely imperceptible to violent and catastrophic events, lasting several minutes and causing millions of casualties. The five deadliest earthquakes in Earth’s history have caused nearly two million deaths and occurred in different regions of the world.

Worst Earthquakes in History Chart

Below is a chart of some of the worst earthquakes in history based on the Richter scale, casualties, and economic impacts.

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What Factors Determine the Magnitude of an Earthquake?

1. The Size and Location of the Fault

The size and location of a fault for an earthquake is determined by a number of factors, such as the amount of strain built up in the fault, the rate at which the fault is slipping, and the type of rocks or sediments near the fault. Geological and geophysical data, such as from seismological studies (Kanamori, 1971; Kanamori & Anderson, 1975; López & Okal, 2006; Okal, 1992; Okal & Reymond, 2003) as well as seismic-wave travel-time analysis (Duputel et al., 2012; Johnson et al., 1994) can help to provide spatial information about the location of the fault and magnitude of the earthquake.

2. The Type of Rock Beneath the Surface

The type of rock beneath the surface is an important factor in determining the magnitude of an earthquake. The harder and more rigid the rock is, the more seismic energy is released. This is because harder rocks are less likely to deform and absorb the shock waves from the quake. This energy is then released in the form of ground shaking, which can cause destruction to buildings and other structures. Rocks that are softer and more pliable can deform, reducing the amount of energy released and resulting in a lower magnitude earthquake. Research by John P. Rafferty has shown that shallow earthquakes tend to cause more destruction due to their proximity to the surface. Understanding the type of rock beneath an area can help predict the potential magnitude of an earthquake.

3. The Amount of Pressure Between the Rocks

Pressure is one of the major factors that affect the magnitude of an earthquake. As pressure increases, the magnitude of an earthquake increases as well. This is because when the rocks that make up Earth’s surface are under immense pressure, they are more likely to break and release seismic energy, causing a larger earthquake. For example, the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile was one of the largest known earthquakes, with an estimated magnitude of 9.4-9.6. This was due to the immense pressure that was built up in the Pacific Ocean’s Aleutian Islands, which was released when the rocks fractured. In contrast, the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake in Japan was slightly smaller, with a magnitude of 9.1, due to the lower levels of pressure that were built up in the region.

4. The History of Earthquakes in the Region

The history of earthquakes in the region is one of unmitigated devastation, with events like the 8.9 magnitude quake that struck northeastern Japan in 2010 causing hundreds of thousands of casualties and massive destruction. It was the strongest quake in the region for over 200 years. Similarly, the 2011 Japan earthquake was estimated to be of magnitude 7.0 on the Richter Scale and caused massive destruction and loss of life as well.

Factors that affect the magnitude of earthquakes include the tectonic activity of the region, the type of faulting that is occurring, and the type of seismic waves that are generated. The amount of energy released by the earthquake also plays a role in its magnitude, with large earthquakes generally releasing more energy than small ones. Additionally, the depth of the quake and the size of the affected area can also influence the magnitude. Finally, the type of soils and rocks in the affected area can affect the way the earthquake waves travel and the resulting magnitude of the quake.

5. The Tectonic Plates

Tectonic plates are large pieces of the Earth’s outer layer that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. When these plates move or slip past each other, they can cause an earthquake. Earthquakes occur due to the sudden release of energy stored in the Earth’s lithosphere, which is the outermost layer of the planet. The magnitude of the earthquake is determined by a combination of how much energy is released and how far the plates slip. The larger the slip, the greater the magnitude of the earthquake. Additionally, the closer the earthquake is to the Earth’s surface, the more intense it will be.

6. The Effects of Geological Factors

The effects of a geological earthquake are determined by several factors, including the depth of the earthquake, the population density of the affected area, and the structural integrity of the buildings and other structures in the area. When an earthquake occurs at a shallow depth, the amount of damage and casualties increases due to the close proximity of the fault line to the surface.

Additionally, higher population density increases the likelihood of casualties, as more people are exposed to the earthquake’s destructive power. Finally, the strength of the buildings and other structures in the area play a critical role in determining the effects of an earthquake. Buildings and structures that are able to withstand the shaking and movement of an earthquake are more likely to survive unscathed, while those with weaker structural integrity may suffer more damage.

7. The Seismic Velocity

The magnitude of an earthquake is determined by the seismic energy released, or seismic velocity, and is typically represented by the Richter scale. A higher seismic velocity, or energy release, will result in a higher magnitude earthquake. This energy is released in direct proportion to the magnitude of the earthquake, with a greater magnitude resulting in higher amounts of energy being released. A magnitude 8 earthquake will release approximately 32 times more energy than a magnitude 6 and 1000 times more energy than a magnitude 4. Therefore, the seismic velocity has a direct impact on the magnitude of an earthquake, with higher velocities producing higher magnitude earthquakes.

8. The Intensity and Duration of Shaking

The intensity and duration of an earthquake are determined by various factors and processes, including the magnitude of the earthquake, the type of fault responsible for the quake, the depth of the earthquake below the surface, the length of the fault rupture, the type of seismic waves produced, and the amount of energy released. Magnitude, or the amount of energy released, is usually the most influential factor, and is measured in terms of the Richter Scale. Greater magnitude earthquakes produce more intense shaking and, consequently, more damage. Furthermore, type of fault, depth of the earthquake, length of the fault rupture, and the type of seismic waves produced also play a role in the intensity and duration of an earthquake.

9. The Population Density of the Area

Population density can have a significant impact on the magnitude of an earthquake. Higher population density areas are more susceptible to greater destruction due to the effects of an earthquake. Areas with a higher number of people living in close proximity can suffer from increased destruction due to greater concentration of people, buildings, or roads that can collapse or be destroyed by the vibrations of the earthquake. In addition, infrastructure such as power lines, water lines, gas lines, and other utilities can be more easily damaged in densely populated areas, leading to farther-reaching effects.

The 9.1 magnitude earthquake in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India caused massive destruction due to the large population density in the affected areas, resulting in over 227,000 deaths. The 7.6 magnitude earthquake in Pakistan and India also had devastating consequences due to the high population density, killing over 73,000 people. On the other hand, the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Japan killed 143,000 people due to a variety of factors, however, the low population density in the affected areas likely helped minimize the amount of destruction caused.

10. The Quality of the Structures

The quality of structures can greatly affect the magnitude of an earthquake. Poorly built structures can be more easily destroyed and cause a much higher death toll than structures that are built to withstand seismic activity. This was demonstrated in Haiti in 2010 when the magnitude 7.0 earthquake decimated the infrastructure and caused the death of an estimated 316,000 people. In contrast, the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in 2020 had a much lower death toll of only 20,000, despite having a much higher magnitude. This is likely due to the fact that the affected buildings in Turkey and Syria were stronger and better designed to withstand seismic activity.

Similarly, in Nepal in 2015, the magnitude 7.8 earthquake killed 8,800 people. This is much lower than the death tolls in Haiti and Iran in 2003, where over 50,000 people died due to the magnitude 6.6 and 8.6 earthquakes, respectively. The difference in death tolls is most likely due to the fact that the buildings in Nepal were much better constructed and designed to handle seismic activity. Thus, it is clear that the quality of structures plays a crucial role in determining the magnitude of an earthquake, as well as the death toll.

What are the Deadliest Earthquakes in History?

1. Tangshan, China – 1976

The 1976 Tangshan earthquake was a devastating disaster that caused immense destruction and loss of life. Its deadly effects were largely due to a combination of factors, such as its huge magnitude of 7.5, the high population density of the city of Tangshan at the time, and its lack of an earthquake preparedness plan. The epicenter of the earthquake was located 20 kilometers southwest of Tangshan, but the tremors were felt 140 kilometers away in Beijing. This suggests the vast spatial impact of the earthquake.

The magnitude of the earthquake combined with the dense population of Tangshan meant that over five million homes were destroyed, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless. The majority of the buildings in the city were also made of unreinforced masonry, which collapsed easily in the quake, resulting in many preventable deaths. Additionally, the city of Tangshan was not prepared for an earthquake of such a magnitude; there was no emergency plan or earthquake-resistant buildings in place, making the death toll much higher than it could have been.

Overall, the 1976 Tangshan earthquake proves to be one of the most devastating disasters in recorded history due to its combination of high magnitude and lack of preparation by the city. It caused immense destruction and loss of life, with an estimated death toll of over 650,000 people.


2. Port-au-Prince, Haiti – 2010

What makes the 2010 earthquake in Haiti a deadly event? The magnitude of the earthquake was 7.0, a powerful force that had not been felt in the area since the 18th century. Furthermore, the earthquake struck shallowly below the earth’s surface, causing more intense damage.

Haiti’s population was already severely affected by poverty and the buildings in the capital city of Port-au-Prince were not built with any safety protocols or codes. This combined with the intensity of the earthquake led to the deaths of an estimated 316,000 people, with over 300,000 others suffering from injuries and over 5 million Haitian’s becoming displaced. The stark reality of this disaster highlights the need to treat natural disasters as social disasters, and the need for better infrastructure in order to prevent similar disasters in the future.

3. Antakya, Turkey – 115 A.D.

Antakya, Turkey was one of the deadliest earthquakes in history due to its size, location and how it was felt. The magnitude 7 earthquake on May 25, 525 A.D. shook the city and its surrounding towns, destroying buildings and infrastructure and causing fires that killed many of the 260,000 casualties. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that further damaged the infrastructure in Lebanon, demonstrating the far-reaching effects of the quake. The Antakya Fault Line has since been further studied, illustrating the power of the earthquake and the need for further seismic research. This earthquake is an example of the destructive force of nature and a reminder of the importance of earthquake preparedness and safety measures.

4. Antakya, Turkey – 526 A.D.

The Antakya earthquake in Turkey in 526 A.D. is one of the deadliest earthquakes in history due to its immense magnitude, devastating effects, and its wide area of destruction. At a magnitude of 7, the earthquake was capable of destroying Antioch and many other surrounding towns, with structures such as The Great Church destroyed. Additionally, the earthquake triggered a tsunami which caused even more destruction in Lebanon. The aftermath of this tragedy was devastating, with over 250,000 people dead and shockwaves lasting up to 18 months. The earthquake was so powerful that it spread far and wide, affecting almost everyone in the region. Even today, the Antakya Fault Line is further studied and reported on due to the catastrophic earthquake that occurred centuries ago.

5. Manjil, India – 1990

The Manjil, India earthquake, which occurred on June 20, 1990, was one of the deadliest earthquakes in history with a magnitude of 7.3. This earthquake impacted the Rudbar region of northern Iran, damaging three cities and leaving around 5 lakhs people homeless. The earthquake’s focal depth of 19 km made it more destructive, as the shallow depth meant a larger portion of the surface was affected by the seismic waves. This, combined with the fact that it occurred in a densely populated region, meant that it had a devastating impact on the local population. The destruction caused by the earthquake was further compounded by the fact that it occurred during summer, leaving many of the survivors exposed to the harsh elements. In total, this earthquake was one of the deadliest in history, claiming over 50,000 casualties and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless.

6. Tohoku, Japan – 2011

The 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake was a magnitude 9.1 earthquake that struck the Japanese capital of Tokyo and its surrounding region and killed over 143,000 people. The cause of the earthquake was the subduction of the Pacific Plate beneath the North American Plate. This resulted in an intense shaking of the Earth’s surface, causing severe destruction to the affected areas. The effects of the earthquake were devastating, with severe destruction of infrastructure and loss of life. The tsunami triggered by the earthquake caused even further destruction, with over 15,894 people killed as a result. The earthquake and tsunami affected an area of about 500 kilometers along the northeastern coast of Japan and caused massive destruction of buildings, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure in the affected areas.

7. Luzon, Philippines – 2004

The 2004 earthquake in the Luzon, Philippines had a magnitude of 7.8 and caused immense destruction. It resulted in the death of over 2,412 people and produced a 125 km-long ground rupture stretching from Dingalan, Aurora to Kayapa, Nueva Vizcaya. Moreover, it caused severe property damage and caused tremendous economic losses. The quake was felt as far away as Manila and was the strongest earthquake to hit the northern Philippines in recorded history.

8. Kanto, Japan – 1923

The Kanto earthquake of 1923, also known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake, was a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 8.2 on the Richter scale that struck the Japanese capital of Tokyo and the surrounding region on September 1, 1923. The earthquake had a destructive force that caused significant damage to Yokohama, resulting in approximately 143,000 deaths. The earthquake was caused by the rupture of a major fault in the Earth’s crust, and its epicenter was located in the Sagami Bay, south of Tokyo.

9. Manjil, India – 1990

On June 20, 1990, the Rudbar-Manjil region of India was hit by an earthquake of 7.3 magnitude with a focal depth of 19 km. This quake caused immense destruction, leaving 5 lakhs people homeless and destroying three cities. The devastation was so severe that the entire region was changed forever. Many people were left with no choice but to flee the area and seek refuge in nearby cities. The aftermath included displacement of people and economic losses for the affected regions.

In the years that followed, many other earthquakes occurred in the Indian subcontinent, including the 2001 Gujarat quake, the 2005 Kashmir quake, and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Despite the magnitude of these disasters, the Manjil earthquake left a lasting impression on the nation and serves as a reminder of the power of nature and the fragility of human life.

How Can we Prepare for Earthquakes?

1. Familiarize yourself with earthquake risk in your area

If you are interested in familiarizing yourself with the potential risk of earthquakes in your area, there are several steps you can take.

First, you should contact your local emergency management office or other local organizations to find out about their earthquake preparedness plans. They may be able to provide you with information about the most likely places for earthquakes to occur in your area, as well as how to prepare for them.

Second, you should check out the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) website for maps showing the probability of earthquakes in your area. The USGS has an interactive map that you can use to see which areas of the country are most prone to earthquakes.

Third, you should consider subscribing to emergency alert services in your area. Most local governments offer a variety of services that can give you updates on emergency alerts, such as earthquakes, so that you can stay informed and be prepared.

Finally, you should keep an eye out for any earthquake-related news stories in your area. By staying informed, you can be better prepared to respond if an earthquake occurs in your area.

By following these steps, you can familiarize yourself with the risk of earthquakes in your area.

2. Consider earthquake-proofing your home

It is of paramount importance to earthquake-proof one’s home, as earthquakes are highly destructive natural disasters that can have devastating effects on communities and individuals. From the Haiti earthquake in 2010, which killed 316,000 people and displaced 5 million, to the 9.5 magnitude earthquake in Chile in 1960, which injured 3,000 and killed 1,655, earthquakes can cause immense destruction and loss of life.

To mitigate the effects of an earthquake, it is essential to build earthquake-resistant homes, to properly maintain them, and to ensure that they are properly anchored to their foundations. Additionally, one should ensure that all building materials used are up to code and meet the latest standards for earthquake building. By earthquake-proofing their home, individuals can protect their property and lives from potential seismic events.

3. Make a disaster kit and kit

A disaster kit should include essential items such as food, water, medicine, first aid supplies, a flashlight, a battery-operated radio, extra batteries, blankets, warm clothing, and rain gear. It should also include a whistle, which can be used to signal for help, a phone charger, a manual can opener, cash, copies of important documents, and pet supplies if applicable. Additionally, it should have any necessary items to meet medical, dietary, and religious needs. It is important to also include things to keep yourself and family members entertained such as board games, books, and magazines. Lastly, a disaster kit should include items for shelter and hygiene, such as sleeping bags, tents, hygiene items, and garbage bags.

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4. Practice earthquake drills

Earthquakes can be devastating natural disasters, and in the past 25 years, several have caused significant destruction and loss of life. To be better prepared for future earthquakes, it’s important to practice and be familiar with earthquake drills. Here are the steps to do so:

  1. Identify a safe spot in each room in your home, workplace, or school. Ideally, this should be an area away from windows, heavy furniture, and other objects that could fall.
  2. Practice the “Drop, Cover, and Hold On” drill. This drill involves dropping to the ground, getting into the fetal position, covering your head and neck with your arms, and holding onto a sturdy piece of furniture.
  3. Practice the “Duck and Cover” drill. This drill involves crouching down, getting into the fetal position, and covering your head and neck with your arms.
  4. Talk to your family, colleagues, or classmates about earthquake safety and prepare an emergency kit with essential supplies, such as food and water, first aid, flashlights, and batteries.
  5. Be aware of your surroundings and watch for any warning signs of an impending earthquake.

By practicing these earthquake drills, you can better prepare yourself and those around you in the event of a seismic event.

5. Understanding the earthquake indicators

Earthquake indicators are subtle signs that an earthquake is likely to occur. These indicators can include changes in the geology of an area, the presence of fault lines, or subtle changes in the water levels and the land that can be monitored by scientists. By keeping track of these earthquake indicators, scientists can help us prepare for an earthquake. For example, they can provide warnings and alerts ahead of time, so people can take the necessary steps to secure their homes and businesses. Additionally, earthquake indicators can also help us determine the magnitude of an earthquake and provide us with better information about what to expect. Finally, earthquake indicators can be used to help scientists better understand the causes and effects of earthquakes, allowing them to more accurately predict future earthquakes.

6. Having a plan in case of an emergency

When an emergency, such as the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that recently struck central Turkey, occurs, having a plan in place is essential for safety, security, and recovery. Planning ahead can help reduce the likelihood of serious injury or death and can provide a blueprint for responding quickly and efficiently. Having a plan can also help to reduce chaos and panic, as well as provide structure and guidance during and after the emergency. In addition, having a plan can ensure that essential resources are allocated quickly and appropriately, and that vital services are resumed quickly and efficiently. Planning ahead can also provide a framework for effective communication and collaboration between local, state, and federal authorities. Therefore, it is important to plan ahead and have an emergency plan in place to ensure that people can stay safe and recover quickly during a crisis situation.

7. Follow the advice of authorities

The devastating earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023 serves as a stark reminder of the importance of being prepared for natural disasters. While no one can predict when an earthquake will strike, following the advice of authorities can help save lives. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to prepare for earthquakes:

  1. Learn about earthquake safety: Find out what types of earthquakes are common in your area and what type of damage to expect from each.
  2. Create an emergency plan: Make sure that everyone in your family knows what to do before, during and after an earthquake.
  3. Make a kit: Stock up on emergency supplies, including food, water, first aid supplies and a flashlight.
  4. Secure your home: Anchor heavy furniture to walls (using furniture anchors) and use straps to secure tall furniture to the floor.
  5. Prepare your workplace: Make sure your workplace is up to code with the latest earthquake safety recommendations.
  6. Educate your family and friends: Share these tips with your family and friends and encourage them to create an emergency plan.

By following the advice of authorities, you can ensure that you and your loved ones are safe in the event of an earthquake.

8. Make sure you have an emergency communication plan

It is important to have an emergency communication plan in preparation for earthquakes because they can cause catastrophic destruction in a matter of seconds. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday is a tragic reminder of the devastation that can occur without warning. With an effective plan in place, individuals and families can be better prepared to respond quickly and safely in an emergency.

By having a plan to quickly contact family members, coordinate for medical help, and locate emergency shelters, people can be better protected from harm. Additionally, having a plan in place can help facilitate the efficient delivery of aid and relief efforts to affected areas. Communication is key in responding to disasters, and having an emergency communication plan in place can help ensure that the right people and resources are in the right place at the right time.

9. Keep an eye on local weather conditions

Step 1: Monitor the weather conditions in areas known to be earthquake-prone. Pay special attention to temperature changes and wind speed, as these can be indicators of a potential seismic activity.

Step 2: Record the weather conditions in a log and compare them over time to look for any patterns that might indicate a potential earthquake. For example, if temperatures drop rapidly prior to a quake, this could be an indication that an earthquake is likely.

Step 3: Use this data to map out potential earthquake hotspots and suggest the best places to take shelter when an emergency does occur.

Step 4: Educate the public on the potential risks of earthquakes, as well as how to best prepare for them. Make sure to include information on what to do in the event of an earthquake.

10. Have a stash of essentials like food, water, and first aid kits

In the event of an earthquake, it’s important to be prepared. Stocking up on essential items such as water, food, blankets, flashlights, batteries, a first aid kit, and a crank radio can help make the aftermath of an earthquake easier to manage. You may also want to have a stash of items such as sturdy shoes, a dust mask, a hard hat, fire extinguishers, a whistle, a wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, and a satellite phone or walkie-talkie in case traditional phone service is unavailable. Staying informed and having a plan can also go a long way in mitigating the potential damage of an earthquake.

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