Geology And Geophysics

Worst Earthquakes on Record



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Earthquakes can strike terror into the mind of almost anyone, but especially those living in earthquake-prone areas. They are among the most common and most feared of all natural disasters partly because they cannot yet be predicted with any certainty, and because they can be so devastating, destroying in an instant all we hold most dear. We think of the ground as being literally rock-solid' and when that ground itself begins to move, it is terrifying.

There have been many devastating earthquakes in recorded history, and many of them have resulted in massive loss of life. (The deadliness of an earthquake does not necessarily depend on its magnitude, since more people are killed and left homeless in a high population density region than in a low population density area, even if the magnitude is lower.)

In order of death toll, the ten deadliest earthquakes are:

1. 1556: Shensi, China (over 830,000 dead)

2. 1976: Tangshan, China (, possibly 650,000 dead)

3. 1138: Aleppo, Syria

4. 2004: Off the coast of Sumatra (227,898 killed by tsunami)

5= 856: Damghan, Iran (about 200,000 dead)

5= 1920: Haiyuan, Ningxia (the Ganshu earthquake) (about 200,000 dead)

7. 893: Ardabil, Iran (about 150,000 dead)

8. 1923: Kwanto (Kanto), Japan (143,000 dead)

9. 1948: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan (110,000 dead)

10. 2008: Eastern Sichuan, China (87,587 dead)

These ten deadliest earthquakes in date order are:

1. 856: Damghan, Iran

2. 893: Ardabil, Iran

3. 1138: Aleppo, Syria

4. 1556: Shensi, China

5. 1920: Haiyuan, Ningxia (the Ganshu earthquake)

6. 1923: Kwanto (Kanto), Japan

7. 1948: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan

8. 1976: Tangshan, China

9. 2004: Off the coast of Sumatra

10. 2008: Eastern Sichuan, China

Ten Deadliest Earthquakes in Terms of Death Toll

1. 1556: Shensi, China

The earthquake that hit near Huaxian, Shaanxi (formerly Shensi) in China on January 23rd, 1556 killed approximately 830,000 identified people, which is the highest death toll from an earthquake in recorded history. The count of unidentified people was uncertain but large. Damage from this earthquake extended to around 430 km from the epicentre, and people felt the quake up to 800 km (500 miles) away.




2. 1976: Tangshan, China

This earthquake was magnitude 7.5, and the official records say 255,000 people died, although the actual number is estimated at over 650,000. Either number makes it the second worst earthquake to have occurred in recorded times. Damage extended as far as Beijing.




3. 1138: Aleppo, Syria

This earthquake struck on August 9, and killed around 230,000 people. The magnitude of the quake is unknown since at the time there was no known way to measure it.




4. 2004: Off Sumartra

The earthquake that occurred at the bottom of the sea on Boxing Day 2004 killed no one, but the tsunami that resulted from the earthquake resulted in 227,898 people killed or missing, presumed dead, in Indonesia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and nine other countries in South Asia and East Africa. Over 1.7 million people were left homeless.




5= 856: Damghan, Iran

This earthquake killed approximately 200,000 people on December 22 in 856 AD.




5= 1920: Haiyuan, Ningxia (often called the Ganshu earthquake), China

About 200,000 people died in this earthquake on December 16. The earthquake magnitude was 7.8 and affected an area about 200 km in diameter. It caused total destruction in the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. The deaths include those whose houses were obliterated in the numerous landslides and ground cracks, and those whose houses collapsed from the earthquake itself. Almost all houses in Longde and Huining collapsed. Several rivers were dammed or changed their course as a result of the earthquake.




(Note that the 1927: Xining, Tsinghai, China earthquake on May 22 is often reported as also having killed about 200,000 people, but the correct death toll is more likely to be about 40,900.)




7. 893: Ardabil, Iran

This earthquake in 893 AD caused an estimated death toll of 150,000 on March 23.




8. 1923: Kwanto (also called Kanto), Japan (8th)

143,000 people died in this 7.9 magnitude earthquake on September 1, 1923. The earthquake caused devastation in the Tokyo/Yokohama regions and resulted in fires that burned most of the houses that had not already been destroyed. This event is often called the Great Tokyo Earthquake, or Great Tokyo fire. In places the ground shifted by up to 4.5 metres in height, and the earthquake generated a 12 metre (39 foot) tsunami.




9. 1948: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, (then USSR)

On October 5th 110,000 people lost their lives in this 7.3 magnitude earthquake in what was then the USSR. Almost all brick buildings and concrete structures collapsed in the earthquake, and freight trains were derailed. (Note that some sources list the death toll as 10,000, but this figure was corrected later.)




10. 2008: Eastern Sichuan, China

This earthquake struck on 12th May and affected over 45.5 million people, reaching 7.9 in magnitude. 87,587 were killed or missing presumed dead and more than 5 million people were left homeless. Some of the dead were killed in the many landslides that cut off roads and dammed rivers.




Earthquakes are among the most devastating and terrifying of all natural disasters, and worst of all, they strike without warning. They can destroy entire towns, leaving little more than piles of rubble behind them. If they occur under the sea they can cause tsunamis that, as we saw on Boxing Day 2004, can kill hundreds of thousands of people with frightening speed.

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