Worst 8 Disasters in Global History by Deaths Per Second

World history is filled with disasters, and most of them come with extremely high death tolls. This list looks at the top 8 disasters by body count, and even adds two honorable mentions that didn't quite make the list.
Christopher McFadden
Worst Disasters on EarthPixabay

Global disasters can be hard to watch on the news, read about, or even study. The devastation can echo throughout an affected area for decades -- even centuries. However, if engineers can learn more about the impacts of these natural events, then we can better prepare for another catastrophic event.  

This list of eight global disasters includes some of the most violent natural disasters in history, as well as two man-made events. But first, we have to define and set a few parameters. 

House keeping

This is quite a broad subject so we'll try to narrow it down a little, especially for a large topic such as Worst Disasters on Earth. We could easily have made this list a Top 10, 15, 20, or even 50. 

Let's start with some definitions, shall we?


- "Of the poorest quality or the lowest standard; least good or desirable." and;

- "Most severe or serious."

Oxford English Dictionary

This might seem obvious, but worst, in this case, is the adjective use of the word as disaster is a noun. 


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a disaster is defined as:

 - "A sudden accident or a natural catastrophe that causes great damage or loss of life." and;

- "An event or fact that has unfortunate consequences." and;

- "Informal: A person or thing that is a complete failure."

We don't think that last definition is quite strong enough given the weighy subject matter of this list. We hope you agree. 


This might seem a little pedantic, but we are trying to narrow down the many Worst Disasters on Earth throughout the entire history of the world. This could just be filled with mass extinction events if we hadn't gone through this exercise. 

So from the above we can garner the following "filters":

1. The event has to be the either the most severe or serious

2. It has to be a sudden event or natural disaster

3. It must have led to the loss of life or damage. The general tone of the definitions seems to indicate the impact of the event on humans. This is useful as it narrows down our time frame and "victims" considerably. 

And so after that quick exercise, the following will be those events that have led to, relatively, high loss of life or damage over a very quick time period. And so we shall compare events, either natural or man-made based "mass killing" related events with a high rapidity of deaths.

As a control, it is estimated that around 105 people die each minute. So, if it falls below this we'll ignore it.

1. Shaanxi Earthquake 1556

Death Toll: 830,000

Duration: 20 seconds on average

Death rate: (persons/second): 41,500 (average)

Generally known as the worst earthquake in recorded history this event led to a massive death toll. Average estimates of earthquake durations are around 20 seconds. Shaanxi is estimated to have been around a magnitude 8.

2. Tangshan Earthquake 1976

Death Toll: Between 242,000 and 655,000

Duration: 20 seconds on average

Death rate: (persons/second): 22,425 (average)

The Tangshan earthquake's epicenter was near the city of Tangshan which was one of the most heavily populated in China at the time. On July the 28th 1976 the city and surrounding areas were devasted by a magnitude 8 earthquake.

3. Antioch Earthquake 526AD

Death Toll: Between 250,000 and 300,000

Duration: 20 seconds on average

Death rate: (persons/second): 13,750 (average)

Striking the ancient city of Antioch, Antakya in Turkey in AD 526 this horrendous earthquake killed the entire population in very quick order.  Fires quickly spread in its wake devastating any surviving buildings. 

4. Haiyuan Earthquake 1920

Death Toll: 273,400

Duration: 20 seconds on average

Death rate: (persons/second): 13,670

Haiyuan County in the Republic of China was struck by this magnitude 8.5 quake in December of 1920. It killed 273,400 people according to earthquake-report.com

5. Aleppo Earthquake 1138

Death Toll: 230,000

Duration: 20 seconds on average

Death rate (persons/second): 11,500

Once the largest city in Syria, it was completely devastated in October of 1138. The 8.5 magnitude earthquake killed around 230,000 according to historical records.

6. Hongdong Earthquake 1303

Death Toll: 200,000

Duration: 20 seconds on average

Death rate (persons/second): 10,000

A magnitude 8 earthquake destroyed Hongdong in 1303. This was once a large city in within the then Mongol Empire

However, this is our last and final earthquake on this list. Needless to say, they are incredibly devastating. In the interest of variety, let's take a look at the two nuclear bombs dropped on Japan in WW2. While these are man-made disasters rather than naturally-caused, these two instances of engineering gone wrong brough in some of the highest deaths in world history. They cannot be overlooked. 

7. Hiroshima Nuclear Detonation 1945

Death Toll: 90,000–120,000 

Duration: 0.5-1 Minute (shock wave and explosion)

Death rate (persons/second): 2,333 (average)

Although the death toll is lower than other entries on our list, the rate of death is unprecedented. Hiroshima was one of two of the only times nuclear weapons have been used -- and hopefully for the last time.

8. Nagasaki Nuclear Detonation 1945

Death Toll: 60,000–80,000 

Duration: 0.5-1 Minute (shock wave and explosion)

Death rate (persons/second): 1,556 (average)

Nagasaki had a slightly lower rate per person than its Hiroshima counterpart. 


Notable Absences

You'll notice that our list of Worst Disasters on Earth is mainly comprised of earthquakes. Because of the method we chose to rank disasters, this should not be a surprise. Earthquakes are very violent and quick events. Tsunamis -- though equally as devastating -- can take between 5 minutes to several hours between waves for the entire episode to end. Famines and floods also kill a lot of people but generally take longer than a few seconds to "reach" their full death toll.

With that said the following are generally considered the two worst natural disasters in recorded history:

- Chinese Famine (The Great Leap Forward): Death toll generally agreed to be 30 Million over 4 years - Rate: 14.26 ppl/min

- 1931 Chinese Floods (Natural Disaster): Death toll generally agreed to be 2 Million over 4 months - Rate: 11.2 ppl/min

The final word

The Worst Disasters on Earth have been truly devastating, and they go to show that no matter how impressively we build our structures, Nature wins out in the end. Have we missed any big ones? We know we left out a long list of other earthquakes, so which ones do you think should've been included?

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