7 Biggest Earthquakes in History

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7 Worst Earthquakes In The History of Mankind

The ground pulsating beneath your feet, the contortions of the earth sending ripples through your flesh. It is a riveting, albeit terrifying experience! Natural catastrophes have wreaked havoc on the planet throughout human history – and even before it. They serve as a humbling reminder of our insignificance in the scheme of things. Here are the seven worst earthquakes in the history of mankind:

1. Antioch Earthquake, Turkey, 115

Antioch Earthquake, Turkey, 115 (Earthquakes)
Antioch Earthquake, Turkey, 115

Antioch Earthquake, Turkey, 115 On December 13, 115 CE, a devastating earthquake occurred in the Antakya Basin in modern-day Turkey. The ancient Hellenistic city of Antioch, affected most by the tragedy, lay close to the modern city of Antakya. The latter derives its name from the former.

Since the region is close to the triple junction of the Dead Sea Transform, the boundary between the African and Arabian  Plates, and the East Anatolian Fault, it has been home to several earthquakes over the last two millennia. Another powerful quake hit the region in 526, causing almost as much damage as the 2nd-century one.

This particular one would have probably registered XI on the Mercalli intensity scale, and its intensity is estimated to be around 7.5 on the surface wave magnitude. It triggered a tsunami that damaged the Caesarea  Maritima harbor, caused devastating loss of life, and damaged quite a lot of property. The estimated death toll was about 260,000. Trajan, the Roman emperor of the time, and his successor, the famous emperor Hadrian, were caught in the earthquake but escaped with bruises and other minor injuries.

The city was destroyed, and Trajan began the restoration process, which  Hadrian would complete in his reign. Historian and Roman senator Cassius Dio claimed that Antioch was full of soldiers and civilians at the time. Since Trajan was staying in the city, it makes sense that there was no shortage of men. The earthquake announced its arrival with a  roaring vibration. Trees started uprooting, and buildings began to rattle. Debris began falling,  and a lot of people were caught underneath it. Other cities like Apamea and Beirut were severely damaged by the earthquake, and the tsunami ran over the coast of Lebanon.

2. Damghan Earthquake, Iran, 856 

 Damghan Earthquake
Damghan Earthquake

Damghan Earthquake, Iran, 856 On December 22, 856, an earthquake hit the Iranian city of Damghan. Of course, it was not referred to as Iran back then; at the time, Damghan was the capital of the Persian province of Qumis. Now, it is the capital of the  Iranian province of Semnan. With an estimated magnitude of 7.9 and X intensity of the Mercalli intensity scale, it is believed to have caused unprecedented destruction in the region, leaving as many as 200,000 people dead. Since the earthquake extended 220 miles along the mountains, towns like Ahevanu, Astan, Tash, Bastam, and Shahrud were badly damaged. 

The earthquake occurred during the night and left the city of Sahr-e-Qumis, the capital of the Parthian Empire, in a heap of debris. The city became uninhabitable and was abandoned after the earthquake. The damage and the ruptures could be seen even after three or four decades. Some reports hypothesize that there could have been a recurrence of earthquakes during a brief period, but there is little support for this theory. The geological work hints at a grand tectonic event between the years 600 BCE and  1300 CE. A few years later, in 893, another earthquake occurred in the region; the Ardabil earthquake had a casualty tally of 150,000. 

3. Aleppo Earthquake, Syria, 1138

Aleppo Earthquake
Aleppo Earthquake

Aleppo Earthquake, Syria, 1138 Aleppo has witnessed soul-shaking, barbarous destruction in recent years. But in 1138, the destruction was purely natural. On October 11, 1138, the Syrian city suffered from one of the deadliest earthquakes in human history.

The previous day, on October 10, a small shockwave came, almost as a warning. Some residents even fled the cities and went to surrounding towns. The next day, when the earthquake hit the city of Aleppo, the city suffered severe structural damage. Aleppo was a bustling city, home to tens of thousands of people. The structural damage was particularly bad as the city walls in the East and West of the city fell.  Even the main citadel collapsed and killed people.

The mid-12th century was a time of conflict in northern Syria. The crusades were underway, and the region was almost always embroiled in some kind of conflict. So, the European crusaders were also stationed and bore the brunt of the earthquake. The situation in Harem, where the crusaders had built a large citadel, was the worst. Both the castle and the citadel fell in on themselves.

The Muslim-controlled town of Atarib,  located in the countryside of modern-day Aleppo, also flattened and killed almost 600 city guards. The earthquake traveled almost 220 miles and was even felt in Damascus, so Aleppo was not the only affected city. The estimated death toll of the earthquake is around 230,000. Subsequent earthquakes in 1138 and 1139 brought unprecedented destruction to northern Syria and western Turkey.

4. Shaanxi Earthquake, China, 1556 

Shaanxi Earthquake
Shaanxi Earthquake

Shaanxi Earthquake, China, 1556 The deadliest earthquake in recorded history. The scene: Shaanxi, northern China; the year: 1556. The earthquake had an estimated magnitude of 8  and registered XI on the Mercalli intensity scale. The historical records describe the events in the following words: “In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces.

In Hua County, various misfortunes took place.  Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses,  temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden.” Most of the people in Shaanxi lived in yardangs –  a sort of cave carved out in a hillside. When the earthquake hit, these caves fell in on themselves,  trapping some people inside and killing the rest. 

On January 23, 1556, the calamity affected around  520 miles and claimed almost 830,000 lives. Several earthquakes followed in the first half of the year and brought more pain and destruction. They all had epicenters in the boundaries of the Wei River basin. The magnitude – estimated to be 8.3 at the most – is not the worst scientists have recorded, but the quake struck a dense and populated area with loose structural bases. Land sliding also claimed many lives since the area was based in hills and valleys. Suffice to say that even if the death toll is slightly exaggerated, it still ranks as one of the worst disasters in human history by a considerable margin. 

5. Valdivia Earthquake, Chile, 1960

Valdivia Earthquake
Valdivia Earthquake

Valdivia Earthquake, Chile, 1960 Now that we have discussed the deadliest earthquake in human history, let’s consider the earthquake with the highest recorded magnitude. The Valdivia Earthquake in Chile had a ridiculous magnitude of 9.5, and it registered XII – the highest level – on the Mercalli intensity scale,  lasting around 10 minutes. Known as the Great Chilean Earthquake, it occurred on May 22, 1960. 

It did not hit a dense, populated area directly, or things might have been much worse. Its epicenter was almost 100 miles off the Chilean coast, parallel to the city of Valdivia and 350  miles south of Santiago. The earthquake extended between over 300 and 600 miles, and it triggered massive tsunamis in distant Pacific coastal areas. Tsunamis would eventually hit Chile,  Hawaii, Japan, the Philippines, New Zealand,  Australia, and the Alaskan Aleutian Islands. The earthquake also triggered landslides and floods.

The earthquake hit at 3:11 PM, and even though the tremors were consequential, most of the damage came from the 80 feet tsunami that made its way to the shore 15 minutes later. Many Chilean cities suffered severe damage.  Two days later, the Cordon Caule volcano in Chile erupted. Seismologists believe that the eruption was linked to the earlier earthquake. Since then, things have not been quite on the seismic front. 

In 2010, another quake of 8.8 magnitudes was detected several miles off the coast of Chile. At the end of the crisis, almost 3,000 people had been injured, and around 1,655 people had lost their lives. The loss of property was estimated at around $550 million back in the day – about $5 billion today, adjusting for inflation. Tangshan Earthquake, China, 1976 From the highest magnitude, let us jump right down to the second-lowest magnitude on this list. 

In 1976, an earthquake hit the Chinese city of  Tangshan. Tangshan, located east of Beijing, is an industrial town with a lot of coal-mining work. When the Great Earthquake of Tangshan – for that is what it is called  – hit, experts recorded a magnitude of 7.5, which is relatively low when compared to the other entries on this list. But it registered XI on the Mercalli scale and devastated the industrial town,  bringing almost 85 percent of its structures down. Most town buildings were either not reinforced or had multiple stories – sometimes both.

The earthquake originated on land, so there was excessive structural damage. Bridges collapsed, and railways and highways were disrupted. The death tally might have run as high as 655,000, but at least 242,000 deaths are confirmed. Another 700,000 people were injured. The initial earthquake occurred at 3:42 AM.  Later that day, an aftershock of 7.1 magnitudes added to the aura of death and destruction.  Since Tangshan was an industrial town, many people were caught under rubble, and the second quake further disrupted rescue efforts.

The earthquake extended quite far, covering almost 3,650 miles of the surrounding region with relatively less intensity – the tremors even reached Beijing. China is caught between the Indian and Pacific plates, making it a  highly active location for earthquakes. But the earthquakes of Shaanxi and Tangshan are, by far, the deadliest of the lot. 

6. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010

Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010 The final and the most recent entry on this list is the 2010 Haitian Earthquake that shook the Caribbean. Many people may remember this from the “Hope for Haiti Now” telethon that aired on television. Within the next day, the fundraising appeal had resulted in the collection of $58 million US dollars.

The earthquake hit the island of Hispaniola on  January 12, 2010. It originated 16 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed anywhere between 100,000 to 316,000 people. The estimates of the death toll vary to this day. Just like the previous entry, the magnitude was relatively low at 7.0, but the fact that its epicenter was so close to a population center made it extremely deadly.  Aftershocks of magnitudes between 5.5 and 5.9 continued for almost two weeks. Haiti’s lack of building codes meant disaster for the country.

The buildings floated like rainwater down the streets. Haiti had witnessed several major earthquakes before this one: 1751, 1770, 1842, and 1946. Even though it is a seismically active region, a lack of infrastructure and the availability of proper services meant that the country was ill-equipped to deal with a situation like this. According to the Haitian government’s estimate, almost 250,000  residences and 30,000 buildings were destroyed. Other earthquakes have shaken the world in recent years.

7. The 2004 Sumatra Earthquake

2004 Sumatra Earthquake
2004 Sumatra Earthquake

The 2004 Sumatra Earthquake, the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, and the 2005  Kashmir  Earthquake come to mind, just to name a few. But, if the estimated death toll of 300,000 is assumed true, the Haitian one can be considered the deadliest of all recent earthquakes. 


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