Modern media and seismic measuring equipment make it easy to assume that the biggest, baddest earthquakes all have occurred in relatively recent times. In some cases, this is true. After all, the world’s population has exploded over the past century with huge numbers of people living along the Pacific’s Ring of Fire where fully 80 percent of the world’s earthquakes occur. But better building standards and, in some cases, early warning systems (particularly for the possibility of tsunamis) make for higher survival rates. At a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale, the March 2011 earthquake off northeastern Japan, for example, ranks as the fifth largest ever recorded. But its death toll doesn’t put it near the top 10 deadliest in large part because of Japan’s sophisticated approach to preparing for earthquakes (including state-of-the-art building standards and tsunami early warning systems). Herewith, a list of the world’s deadliest earthquakes.
1. Shaanxi China, 1556
Estimated at a magnitude of 8.0 or higher, the earthquake struck a heavily populated region living in poorly constructed homes, often along terraced hillsides. At least 830,000 people were killed, either crushed in pancaked homes or buried in landslides caused by liquification of the soil. Official reports state that a stretch of nearly 500 miles was devastated by the temblor.
2. Tangshan China, 1976
Known today as the Great Tangshan Earthquake, it was actually two magnitude-7.8 temblors that struck just 16 hours apart, devastating the country’s northeast. Far more reclusive than today’s modern China, the country refused to accept international aid, leading to significant confusion as to the final death toll (estimates range from 250,000 to 700,000).
3. Indian Ocean Tsunami, 2004
The magnitude-9.2 subduction earthquake struck the day after Christmas, lasted nearly 10 minutes, altered the Earth’s axis, and sent tsunamis roaring across the Pacific in all directions including a wall of water nearly 100 feet high smashing across Sumatra. The official death toll across 14 affected countries stands at 227,898.
4. Haiyuan China, 1920
On Dec. 16, a magnitude-7.8 earthquake rocked seven Chinese provinces, burying entire cities beneath landslides and killing at least 200,000 people. The temblor was powerful enough to be felt across Europe and reversed the course of rivers in the region.
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