The 10 Most Destructive Earthquakes in Human History

Earthquakes are some of the most damaging natural disasters on earth because they can lead to so many other events. In the process of the earth’s plates moving so violently, tsunamis are unleashed, lava flows freely, and landslides devastate cities. Throughout human history earthquakes have been some of worst catastrophes we can experience, with major earthquakes causing billions of dollars worth of damage. Here are 10 of the most catastrophic earthquakes in history.

Spectators watch in horror as the city of San Francisco burns after the earthquake of 1906. Via/ Library of Congress

10) Tangshan, China: 1976

The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 killed more than 242,000 people and leveled the industrial and mining city of Tanghsan, though some sources estimate that the death toll could have been closer to 700,000. 160,000 others were injured and the majority of the city’s buildings were destroyed when this early morning 7.6 earthquake hit on July 28th, 1976. Like many other middle-of-the-night earthquakes, more people were killed because no one had any chance of escape.

Some buildings were never rebuilt, like the library at the Hebei Institute of Technology. Via/ Wiki Commons

Chinese coasts are within the infamous Ring of Fire, a loop that stretches from Chile, up the Western coast of the U.S. and which runs down East Asia into New Zealand, this zone is a source of frequent seismic activity. In fact, the Ring of Fire has already been active in 2018, with researchers warning that a “big one” could be coming soon.

9) Valdivia, Chile: 1960

While this is the most powerful earthquake ever to have been measured by man at 9.2 magnitude, the death toll and monetary loss where not as great as in other earthquake events. Much of the damage and death occurred from tsunamis which echoed throughout the Pacific Ocean afterwards, reaching the Philippines, Hawaii, California, and Australia. The death toll from the earthquake and its after effects is still debated to this day, but is around 5,000.

Some believe that the volcanic eruption of Cordón Caulle in Los Lagos, Chile, 4 days later was a direct result of the seismic activity in the region.

Damage to Hilo, Hawaii, after 35-foot waves crashed into the shore. Via/ NOAA

1960 eruption of Cordón Caulle. Via/ NOAA

8) Prince William Sound, Alaska: 1964

It happened on Good Friday, March 27th, 1964: a 9.2 magnitude megathrust earthquake hit off the coast of Alaska, sending ripples throughout the region. Shortly after, an extremely destructive tsunami engulfed Anchorage and surrounding areas. The death toll was 139 people, a low number accounted for mainly because of the relatively low population of region at the time.

The shaking lasted for around 5 minutes, an extremely long quake! The 1964 Alaska earthquake remains the most powerful earthquake to have ever hit the U.S.

This crumpled building was a 5-story JC Penny’s in Anchorage. Via/ U.S. National Archives

Tsunami forces drove this 2×6 board into a massive 10-ply tractor tire. Via/ Wiki Commons

7) Ashgabat, Turkmenistan: 1948

The name Ashgabat means “city of love” in Arabic and at the time the entire country of what is now Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union. On October 7th, 1948, a massive earthquake leveled the city, killing 110,000 of the 198,000 residents of Ashgabat. The city pretty much had to be completely rebuilt as 98% of Ashgabat’s buildings were destroyed during the quake.

The massive earthquake is now estimated to have been somewhere between a 7.3 and 10 on the Richter scale.

Overhead view of the mountainous region of Ashgabat. Via/ NASA

Oguz Khan Presidential Palace, Ashgabat. Via/ Wiki Commons

6) Ancash, Peru: 1970

Around 25,000 residents of the Peruvian town, Yungay, were killed during the 8.0 earthquake which struck on May 31st, 1970 while most people there were watching the World Cup. Those who died accounted for most of the population of the city of Yungay. The quake caused massive avalanches coming down from Mount Huascaran which buried nearly the entire town. The loss of life was so great that excavations on the city were forbidden afterwards as the town was declared a national cemetery. Some 800,000 people were left homeless.

The current town of Yungay is located about a mile from the original. Other towns near Yungay also sustained incredible loss of life and property, and the total death toll reached around 74,000 people.

Inscription on the back side: “A town where 35,000 people lived stood here; after an earthquake and a subsequent landslide from Huascarán (in the background) here’s just a stone debris. It all happened within a few minutes on May 31st 1970.” Via/ Wiki Commons

First Lady, Pat Nixon with Peru’s First Lady Consuelo Velasco, inspecting earthquake damage and collapsed buildings in a Huascaran mountain area village, Peru. June 29, 1970. Via/ U.S. National Archives

5) Northridge, California: 1994

This intense earthquake charted at around 6.7 on the Richter scale on January 17th, 1994. Very strong aftershocks measuring up to a 6 were felt hours later. Only 60 people died, but more than 9,000 were injured. All in all the quake cause between $25-$50 billion dollars of damage as many roads and bridges were utterly destroyed throughout the San Fernando Valley.

Via/ Flickr

4) San Francisco, California: 1906

Foreshocks heralded the San Andreas fault earthquake which would devastate the city and cause widespread fire and destruction in the early morning hours of April 18th, 1906. The earthquake destroyed about 500 city blocks and resulted in 3,000 deaths. 400,000 of the city’s residents were left homeless and everyone had to do do their cooking in the street as the widespread fires that occurred directly after the earthquake could not be risked after such a huge loss of life and property.

The shaking only lasted for about a minute, but the earthquake was felt all the way in Nevada. Analysis of the geological events of that day led to more modern earthquake study, which is one of the few silver linings of this natural disaster.

Steps to a former building with fires dotting the horizon as far as the eye could see. Via/ Library of Congress

3) Quetta, Pakistan: 1935

Under British rule at the time as part of India, the city of Quetta was hit by a 7.7 quake in the small hours of the morning on May 31st, 1935, taking down much of the city. Imagine being in the midst of the Great Depression, which was felt worldwide, and then losing your home or business or family to this monstrous catastrophe.

Some sources speculate that as many 50,000 people lost their lives in the Quetta Earthquake, which was more than 80% of Quetta’s population at the time. The homeless were housed in tents after the disaster, kept away from the main part of the city in order to avoid the spread of cholera.

The ruins of Kabari Market. Via/ Wiki Commons

Tent city outside Quetta. Via/ Wiki Commons

2) Kobe, Japan: 1995

The massive earthquake in Kobe, Japan, that occurred on January 17th, 1995, was a terrible way to start the new year. The disaster is also known as the Hanshin Earthquake, and the city of Kobe was unprepared for such a massive 7.2 Richter scale quake. 150,000 buildings and 6,000 lives were lost as a result of the earthquake and the resulting fires (which burned up an equivalent to 70 square U.S. blocks). This disaster left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.

The Kobe Earthquake lasted only for 20 seconds yet did $100 billion worth of damage.

Survivors search through collapsed buildings as smoke bellows from other sections of the city. Via/ Wiki Commons

Upturned freeways threw trucks to the ground as if they were mere toys. Via/ Wiki Commons

1) Kashmir, Pakistan: 2005

This 7.6 earthquake triggered a series of landslides across Pakistan, caused by movement along the Balakot-Bagh Fault near Kashmir. The landslides were unfortunately worsened by heavy rainfall just after the earthquake. The October 8th earthquake caused at least 79,000 deaths and almost as many injured. The poor construction of roads and homes in poverty-stricken areas of the region accounted for an increased impact.

The region was rocked by hundreds of aftershocks over the course of months, making this nightmare earthquake’s impact drag on.

The city of Muzafarabad, Pakistan lays in ruins after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that hit the region. Via/ Wiki Commons

As a result of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake massive landslides resulted in the formation of this unreal lake in Gojal valley in Northern Pakistan. Via/ Wiki Commons

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