Top 10 Deadliest Earthquakes in History

Earthquakes show us just how scary and devastatingly powerful nature can be. These earthquakes from the annals of history (which are listed according to their magnitude and fatalities, rather than the property damage total) literally shook the world and caused untold amounts of damage.

10. Messina (1908)


In 1908, the Messina earthquake and tsunami hit Sicily and Calabria, Southern Italy, claiming the lives of approximately 123,000 people. At 5:20am on December 28th, the earthquake hit the city of Messina and lasted for around one minute. The earthquake measured 7.1 and its effects created a 12m high tsunami which battered nearby coasts and furthered the destruction. The city was essentially destroyed as over 90% of buildings crumbled to the ground. Despite continuous relief effort lasting for days, many remained buried and, with such widespread commotion, the army was given orders to shoot looters on site. Many of the buildings had not been constructed for earthquake resistance so heavy rooftops and weak foundations all contributed to the city’s demise. Due to the extensive reconstruction in the following years, many residents either settled elsewhere in Italy or were forced to emigrate to America, eventually landing in New York.

9. Ardabil/Dvin (893)


Due to the misreading of the Arabic word Dvin as Ardabil, these two earthquakes were originally believed to be separate occurrences, but they were most likely the same. There has been much confusion over the location and date of events and at one point it was considered to have happened in India. The quake is thought to have occurred on 28th December, 893 at around midnight. It completely destroyed the city of Dvin in Armenia, causing at least 150,000 casualties. The aftershocks continued for five days, after which it has been recorded only 100 houses remained standing. Due to the city’s weakened defences and collapsed walls, the Sajid emir of Azerbaijan quickly converted it into a military base.

8. Damghan (856)


The Damghan earthquake hit modern-day Iran in 856 with a magnitude of around 7.9. The shockwave carried the force for nearly 350 km. The towns of Ahevanu, Asta, Tash, Bastam and Shahrud, along with all the containing villages, took severe damage and were most likely razed completely. Along with this the former capital of Parthia was also destroyed. The consequences of the earthquake badly affected the region for quite some time. Springs and qanats dried up and, along with landslides damming streams, the water supplies within the surrounding area remained troubled. The total death toll for the earthquake is reported as 200,000, with nearly a quarter of those casualties being from Damghan alone.

7. Haiti (2010)


The 2010 Haiti earthquake hit approximately 25 km west of the capital on 12th January. An additional 52 aftershocks measuring at least 4.5 followed, affecting approximately 3 million people and killing upwards of 160,000. The earthquake caused catastrophic damage to 30,000 commercial buildings as well as significantly damaging a number of landmarks including the Presidential Palace and the Port-au-Prince Cathedral. More than 1,300 schools were destroyed along with 50 medical centres. Additionally, the Port-au-Prince prison was heavily damaged, allowing at least 4,000 prisoners to escape. A rescue effort continued for 10 days digging out survivors and because local mortuaries were overwhelmed many bodies had to be buried in mass graves.

6. Aleppo (1138)


The Aleppo earthquake in North Syria occurred in 1138. The city itself is located on a series of geological faults along the northern part of the Dead Sea Rift, and the Aleppo catastrophe marked the first of several earthquakes which hit the region throughout October 1138 to May 1159. Politician and chronicler Ibn al-Qalanisi provides the most commonly used account of the first earthquake and its aftermath. Having been preceded by a smaller quake a day earlier on 10th October, aftershocks followed from 20th October right through until the morning of 3rd November. A large citadel, built by the Crusaders, was destroyed when the church collapsed in on itself. Over 600 of the castle guard were killed and the remaining fled to neighbouring towns. Zardana, which had recently been raided by warring factions, was completely destroyed. The city of Aleppo suffered exceptional destruction and the falling of the citadel brought down the walls to the east and west. Houses crumbled and stones littered the streets. Luckily, the residents had been warned by the foreshocks and many fled into the rural countryside. Although the exact number of casualties and death caused has not been accurately recorded, estimates take this number north of 230,000.

5. Indian Ocean (2004)

indian ocean

Occurring on December 26th 2004, this undersea megathrust earthquake triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the Indian Ocean coastal regions. Waves reached over 30 metres high and hit Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. With a magnitude reaching as high as 9.3, it is not only one of the deadliest and largest earthquakes but also ranks first for having the longest duration at close to 10 minutes. Causing the entire planet to vibrate, it triggered earthquakes as far as Alaska. Despite a lag of several hours between the earthquake and subsequent tsunamis, nearly all the victims were taken by surprise due to no tsunami warning systems being in place throughout the Indian Ocean. As a result, upwards of 230,000 people died across 14 countries. Following the disaster, more than $14 billion was donated in humanitarian aid. The Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was constructed and became operational in 2006. The project was a success and helped during the 2012 Indian Ocean earthquakes when it averted another catastrophic disaster.

4. Antioch (526)


The Antioch earthquake hit what is now modern-day Syria and Turkey in the Byzantine Empire. The magnitude is estimated to have been around 7.0, followed by 18 months of aftershocks. Severe damage was caused to all buildings in Antioch and the tragedy was worsened by the fires that burnt for seven days as a result of the high wind. Only houses deep in the mountains are said to have survived, with Constantine’s Great Church being perhaps the biggest structure to fall. The death toll is estimated to be around 250,000 – a number so high because many visitors had come to the city from the surrounding countryside to celebrate Ascension Day. Ambassadors were sent from Constantinople with funds for immediate relief as well as reconstruction efforts. However, only two years later the region was hit by another earthquake. Although fewer casualties were reported, many buildings saw destruction.

3. Tangshan (1976)


Also known as the Great Tangshan Earthquake, this disaster hit on July 28th, 1976, hitting an industrial city of one million inhabitants in China. Measuring a 7.8, the earthquake hit in the early hours and lasted around 16 seconds. Followed up by an aftershock 16 hours later, the reported death toll was 255,000 with an additional 164,000 being injured. As Tangshan was thought to be a region with little risk of earthquakes, very few buildings were built with the threat in mind. Combined with foundations on unstable soil, hundreds of thousands of buildings perished. The earthquake struck just before 4am when many people were asleep, resulting in the higher death toll. Those who survived were trapped under collapsed buildings. Unlike most governments, China refused any aid from the United Nations, preferring to be self-reliant. Despite an economic loss of $1.6 billion, the city was completely rebuilt and is now home to 3 million people, calling itself the ‘Brave City of China’.

2. Haiyuan (1920)


At 8pm on December 16th, 1920, the Haiyuan earthquake struck the province of Gansu, China. Although the magnitude cannot be confirmed, it is believed to have been between 7.8 and 8.5. Aftershocks continued for at least 3 years. Damage and death occurred throughout 7 provinces; in Haiyuan County over 73,000 people died, 30,000 were killed in Guyan County, and a landslide in Xiji buried the village of Sujiahe. Additional landslides occurred in the epicentre, damming rivers and causing further destruction. Due to the frequent occurrence of aftershocks, many of the initial survivors feared building anything other than temporary structures. A harsh winter struck and many perished because of the cold. Although total casualties are unknown, they range between 240,000 and 275,00.

1. Shaanxi (1556)


The Shaanxi earthquake hit on the morning of 23rd January, 1556. More than 95 counties throughout China were affected and it is estimated that as much as 60% of the population perished. Modern estimates give the magnitude of the earthquake as around 8.0, with aftershocks occurring very frequently for around half a year. Places as far away as 500 km from the epicentre were affected, with reports of 20 metre crevices opening up in the ground. Most of the people throughout the regions lived in artificial caves on the Loess Plateau, on top of soft clay. As the earthquake hit, giant landslides hit the region and left very few survivors, adding to the enormous death toll of 830,000. Due to such loss of life and mass destruction (including an 840 km wide region which was flattened), the economic impact is almost impossible to measure.