The Deadliest Earthquakes Ever

The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake is recorded as the deadliest earthquake ever as it killed approximately 830,000 people and injured even more.

Throughout history, several earthquakes have caused death and destruction. Heavily populated areas have been most severely affected by earthquakes. The powerful earthquakes have claimed the lives of thousands, destroyed property worth millions, changed the courses of rivers, and altered the topography of land. Here, we enlist some of the deadliest earthquakes ever.

8. 856 Damghan earthquake

The Damghan earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters ever, struck the southern edge of the eastern section of the Alborz mountains in an area that is currently part of the Iranian territory. The earthquake occurred on December 22, 856 AD. With a magnitude of 7.9 and an intensity of X on the Mercalli intensity scale, the Damghan earthquake killed nearly 200,000 individuals in the area where it struck. The epicenter of this disastrous earthquake was located close to the Damghan city, a populated capital of the Qumis province of Persia. Almost all the villages in the area and several towns were severely damaged. Nearly half of Damghan was in ruins after the earthquake.

7. 1303 Hongdong earthquake

The Hongdong earthquake, the seventh deadliest earthquake to strike the world, happened on September 25, 1303, in China. Although little details are known about this earthquake as it happened long ago, old records reveal its epicenter was certainly near the current-day Shanxi province’s Hongdong town. The Taigu fault zone in the region was probably the point of origin of the Hongdong earthquake. Seismologists believe the magnitude of the earthquake was somewhere around 8.0. Disaster struck far and wide and nearly all temples and schools in the towns of Hongdong and Zhaocheng collapsed. No building in Huo county survived the earthquake. 200,000 people lost their lives in the disaster. Ground cracks gave way to miniature rivers, and city walls and canals vanished completely. In short, the topographic map of the affected region was significantly altered.

6. 1138 Aleppo earthquake

Remembered as one of the deadliest natural disasters the world has ever witnessed, the 1138 Aleppo earthquake ended the lives of nearly 230,000 victims, as per the accounts of the time. The earthquake struck the city of Aleppo in northern Syria on October 11, 1138, preceding a smaller quake on October 10. The location of Aleppo at the junction of the Arabian and African plates in a seismically active region is believed to have triggered this earthquake. Harem was the worst hit area in the region and a citadel there collapsed killing 600 of the castle guards. City walls collapsed, houses were completely destroyed, and stones hurled onto the streets from collapsing structures everywhere.

5. 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake

On December 26, 2004, a massive natural disaster in the form of the Indian Ocean earthquake struck soon after midnight local time and caused wanton destruction and loss of lives in the area affected by it. The earthquake, recorded as the fifth deadliest in history, had its epicenter off the west coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. The 9.1 to 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck when the Indian Plate was subducted by the Burma Plate. A series of deadly tsunamis soon followed and wiped out everything that came in the path of the humongous waves. Indonesia was the worst-hit by the earthquake followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

4. 526 Antioch earthquake

The 526 Antioch earthquake, the fourth known deadliest earthquake to ever strike the world, occurred probably between May 20 to 29 in Syria and Antioch which were then part of the Byzantine Empire. The earthquake killed approximately 250,000 people. A fire that followed destroyed many of the buildings that were spared by the earthquake. Modern studies estimate that the 526 Antioch earthquake had an intensity between VII and IX on the Mercalli intensity scale. For the next 18 months, aftershocks kept the fear alive. Several buildings of importance like the church Domus Aurea were completely in ruins. According to old accounts, Euphrasius the Patriarch of Antioch was one of the victims of the disaster who died by falling into a cauldron of pitch with only his head remaining unburnt. The high number of casualties is believed to have been a result of numerous people visiting the city to celebrate the Ascension Day.

3. 1976 Tangshan earthquake

The Tangshan earthquake was a catastrophic disaster that struck Tangshan in Hebei, China on July 28, 1976. About 240,000 people died in the industrial city with about one million residents. A further 164,000 people were also reported to be injured severely. The earthquake’s aftereffects also brought about a major change in the politics of the region and led to the expulsion of the then ruling Gang of Four by Hua Guofeng, the successor of Mao Zedong. The events were in line with the traditional Chinese belief that natural disasters trigger dynastic change.

The Tangshan earthquake occurred in the early morning of the fateful day and lasted for 14 to 16 seconds. The earthquake was generated at the 25-mile-long Tangshan Fault when tectonic movements resulted due to the Amurian Plate sliding past the Eurasian Plate. Several signs are believed to have provided an earthquake pre-warning such as rise and fall of well water level or gas spewing out of a well. Reports also indicate that fish were observed jumping out of the aquarium.

The timing and nature of the earthquake are held responsible for the large number of deaths caused due to it. Foreshocks warning of the earthquake were completely lacking and most people were still in bed when the earthquake struck. The buildings in the region were also lankily built on unstable alluvial soil since the region was not considered as too highly prone to earthquakes. 85% of the buildings thus collapsed or became uninhabitable. Today, the city of Tangshan has been completely rebuilt and is tagged as the "Brave City of China".

2. 1920 Haiyuan earthquake

The cataclysmic Haiyuan earthquake of 1920 struck Haiyuan County, Ningxia Province, China on December 16. The earthquake hit at 8 pm in the evening with a 7.8 magnitude on the Richter magnitude scale. The disaster claimed the lives of nearly 273,400 people. Nearly all the houses in the Huining and Longde cities collapsed. Frequent aftershocks discouraged people from building permanent shelters and the severe winter that followed killed many who had survived the initial devastation. The Haiyuan earthquake changes the course of rivers, dammed other rivers, and generated landslides and ground cracks over large areas. 

1. 1556 Shaanxi earthquake

The 1556 Shaanxi earthquake is the deadliest earthquake on record, having killed about 830,000 people. The earthquake struck on the morning of January 23, 1556, in Shaanxi, China during the rule of the Ming Dynasty. Over 97 counties in the region were affected by the earthquake. The earthquake triggered the destruction of an 840-kilometre-wide area and in some of the affected counties, nearly 60% of the population met their death. The fact that most of the population lived in artificial caves in loess cliffs called yaodongs was responsible for a greater number of deaths.

According to modern estimates, the Shaanxi earthquake had a magnitude of approximately 8. Several aftershocks continued to strike the region for several times a month for nearly 6 months after the disaster. Mountains and rivers changed locations and roads were completely damaged. The ground rose and fell in different places created hills, cracks, and gullies. Massive death and destruction thus characterized the Shaanxi earthquake of China.

The Deadliest Earthquakes Ever

11556 Shaanxi earthquakeJanuary 23, 1556Shaanxi, China820,000–830,000
21920 Haiyuan earthquakeDecember 16, 1920Ningxia–Gansu, China273,400
31976 Tangshan earthquakeJuly 28, 1976Hebei, China242,769
4526 Antioch earthquakeMay 21, 526Antioch, Turkey (then Byzantine Empire)240,000
52004 Indian Ocean earthquakeDecember 26, 2004Indian Ocean, Sumatra, Indonesia230,210+
61138 Aleppo earthquakeOctober 11, 1138Aleppo, Syria230,000
71303 Hongdong earthquakeSeptember 25, 1303Shanxi, China200,000
8856 Damghan earthquakeDecember 22, 856Damghan, Iran200,000

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