The Deadliest Earthquakes

Jared Wade


April 1, 2010

When Mother Nature shrugs, the shockwaves are felt across the globe. The disaster in Haiti was one of the deadliest tragedies in history while the more powerful, yet less deadly, quake that rocked Chile reportedly shifted the Earth's axis to the point that the day actually became shorter. Both of these catastrophes have provided us with all-too-recent reminders of the vulnerability that exists at every fault line throughout the globe and highlighted the importance that proper construction, building codes, urban planning and disaster preparedness can have in terms of saving lives. Here, we take a look back at some of the deadliest earthquakes throughout history.

Damghan, Iran
200,000 deaths
Little is known about this earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 8.0, other than that it totally destroyed Damghan and damaged communities up to 200 miles away. The Alpide earthquake belt was the source of the fault slip and this area is one of the most active seismic regions on the planet.

Ardabil, Iran
150,000 deaths
Just 37 years after the Damghan disaster, the largest city in Northwest Persia was destroyed. Ardabil would again be hit with a significant earthquake in 1997.

Aleppo, Syria 
230,000 deaths
In the mid-12th century, northern Syria was a war-torn land and the Crusader states set up by Western Europeans were ravaged by a huge temblor. In the city of Harem, the main citadel and church collapsed, killing an estimated 600 of the castle guard. The nearby town of Zaradna was also levelled.

Chihli, China
100,000 deaths
While there is almost no record of the extent of the damage in Chihli, an estimated 100,000 were killed, making it the deadliest earthquake to that point in the history of the country.

Shansi, China 
830,000 deaths
More than 97 counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui were affected by what is easily the worst earthquake in human history. In some counties, 60% of the population was killed, mainly due to the popularity of "yaodongs," or artificial caves, as a dwelling. Widespread mudslides claimed countless lives across more than 500 miles.

Gansu, China
200,000 deaths
A major landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County, killing more than 30,000 people in Guyuan County alone and obliterating nearly all the houses in the cities of Longde and Huining. Aftershocks continued to strike in the region for the next three years.

Kanto, Japan 
143,000 deaths
Striking at just around noon on September 1, this quake ravaged Tokyo and the port city of Yokohama. The ground reportedly shook with such force that the 93-ton Great Buddha statue at Kamakura, located nearly 40 miles away from the epicenter, slid forward two feet. In 1960, Japan named September 1 as Disaster Prevention Day.

Xining, China
200,000 deaths
With businesses from the textiles, fur, meat, milk, salt and light processing industries, Xining was a major hub on the convoy path to Tibet. The 1927 quake devastated the city and was likely induced by the earlier seismic activity that destroyed nearby Gansu in 1920.

Tangshan, China 
270,500 deaths
The one positive thing to emerge from this tragedy was that disaster planning paid off. Qinglong County launched an earthquake preparedness campaign wherein each community conducted educational meetings and building inspections in the years leading up to the disaster. In 1995, the United Nations concluded that the early warnings were overwhelmingly successful, and that public administrators, scientists and citizens working together increased the survival rate.

Indian Ocean (Near Sumatra)
227,898 deaths
The Indian Ocean quake set off large-scale tsunamis that devastated Sumatra, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand and killed some 230,000 people in 14 countries overall. With a magnitude of 9.2, it is the second largest earthquake ever recorded and also had the longest duration in history, shaking the earth for up to 10 minutes. According to scientists, the force generated caused the entire planet to vibrate as much as 0.4 inches and triggered other earthquakes as far away as Alaska.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti
230,000 deaths
The Haitian disaster was unprecedented in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps the deadliest tragedy in a decade that saw all too many catastrophes across the globe. By comparing it with the much stronger earthquake that hit Chile less than two months later, however, we can see the importance of building standards. Haiti had almost none while Chile, as one of the more advanced economies in Latin America, features modern construction practices throughout much of the nation. In Haiti, as with the quake that hit Bam, Iran, earlier in the decade, too many people needlessly died when substandard structures collapsed.

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and a former editor of Risk Management.