11 of the Deadliest Earthquakes of All Time

Earthquakes can be one of the deadliest natural disasters to hit, and these 11 examples were some of the exceptional ones.
Christopher McFadden

Earthquakes are unfortunate occupational hazards for those living in some of the most tectonically active regions of the world. While the Earth's crust experiences countless earthquakes all the time, sometimes the released energy causes widespread devastation in lives and human infrastructure. 

Here we have gathered some of the very, very worst ever recorded in human history. But just how devastating other earthquakes were in our planet's prehistory will never really be known. 


What makes an earthquake deadly?

Whether or not an earthquake is deadly or not depends on something called its magnitude, as well as, the location where it hits. The former is usually measured on something called the Richter scale which is defined as: 

"An open-ended logarithmic scale for expressing the magnitude of a seismic disturbance (such as an earthquake) in terms of the energy dissipated in it with 1.5 indicating the smallest earthquake that can be felt, 4.5 an earthquake causing slight damage, and 8.5 a very devastating earthquake" - Merriam Webster

The latter, which is really the most significant component of a really bad earthquake, will determine how much damage it will cause and how many people are likely to die. A mid-scale earthquake right under a city would likely be far more destructive than say a massive 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Mariana Trench, for obvious reasons.

deadliest earthquakes richter
Source: Webber/Wikimedia Commons

However, massive earthquakes undersea can trigger very destructive tsunamis that will cause enormous destruction to any coastal towns and cities if close enough to feel its full force. This is exactly what happened with the very tragic events in Haiti in 2010. 

Which earthquake was the deadliest in history?

According to existing records, one of, if not the, deadliest earthquake in history is widely agreed to have been the Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556. It measured somewhere in the region of 8.0 on the Richter scale and killed many hundreds of thousands of innocent souls. 

Has there ever been a magnitude 10.0 earthquake?

While theoretically a possibility according to the Richter scale, there has never actually been one in human recorded history. We have come close in the past, however.

According to sources like Japan Times, there was a 9.6 quake that struck Valdivia in Chile in 1960. This remains one of the most powerful, though not that deadly compared to other smaller ones, to date. 

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The quake struck on the afternoon of the 22nd of May and created a tsunami that affected southern Chile, HawaiiJapan, the Philippines, eastern New Zealand, southeast Australia, and the Aleutian Islands. Its epicenter is thought to have been near Lumaco, 570+ km south of Santiago. 

While death tolls and financial costs of the earthquake are not really known, it is thought that around 7,000 people lost their lives.

What were the deadliest earthquakes in all of human history?

And so, without further ado, here are some of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556 was incredibly deadly

deadliest earthquakes shaanxi
Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1556, one of the world's worst-ever earthquakes struck Shannxi, or Shansi, in China. With an estimated magnitude of 8, it is thought to have killed 830,000 people in less than 20 seconds

An area of somewhere in the region of 840 km was also devastated throughout more than 90 regions of the province of Shaanxi. The earthquake's epicenter is believed to have been in the Huaxian area of the province

This earthquake is widely considered to be the worst in human history.

2. The Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 was also very deadly indeed

world's deadliest earthquakes tangshan
Source: CGTN/Twitter

Also lasting around 20 seconds, the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 was another of the world's most deadly earthquakes. The total death toll from this disaster is thought to have been anywhere between 242 and 655 thousand

It struck, as the name suggests, near the city of Tangshan on July 28th, 1976. This was one of China's most heavily populated cities at the time. This earthquake was also estimated to have reached around magnitude 8 on the Richter Scale. 

3. The Antioch Earthquake in 526 AD was another of the world's deadliest

deadliest earthquakes antioch
Reconstruction of Antioch prior to the earthquake, Source: AlternateHistoryHub/Twitter

In 526 AD a massive earthquake rocked the ancient city of Antioch in Antakya, Turkey. Killing somewhere between 250 and 300 thousand people in a matter of seconds, it completely devastated this historic site. 

This was believed to be, more or less, the entire population of Antioch at the time. Fires soon engulfed those structures that survived the shake further adding to the city's decline. 

4. The 1920 Haiyuan Earthquake also killed a lot of people

deadliest earthquakes haiyuan
Source: HappyMario64/YouTube

In December of 1920, the Haiyuan County of the People's Republic of China was shaken to the core by an 8.5 magnitude earthquake. As the quake subsided, something like 273,000 people were left dead. 

5. The Aleppo Earthquake of 1138 AD also killed a lot of people

deadliest earthquakes aleppo
Source: alchetron

In October of 1138 AD, Aleppo (once the largest city in Syria) was completely devastated by an 8.5 magnitude earthquake. According to historical records, this massive quake killed around 230,000 people before subsiding. 

6. The Hongdong Earthquake of 1303 AD was yet another of the world's worst

world's deadliest earthquakes hongdong
Source: Mark Allen/Twitter

In 1303 AD, an estimated magnitude 8 earthquake smashed the city of Hongdong in the, then, Mongol Empire. It killed somewhere in the region of 200,000 people and buildings, like temples, were severely damaged for miles around. 

7. The Sumatran Earthquake and tsunami of 2004 killed many, many people too

deadliest earthquakes sumatra
Source: NASA Earth/Twitter

In 2004, a deadly earthquake struck Sumatra in Indonesia. Estimated to have been 9.1 on the Richter Scale, it killed somewhere in the region of 227,800+ people.

The earthquake itself was undersea, but the tsunami it caused overwhelmed many coastal regions around the epicenter. 

8. The 2010 Haitian Earthquake also killed hundreds of thousands

deadliest earthquakes haiti
Source: New York Daily News/Twitter

In 2010, a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti. The quake killed something like 222,570+ people and displaced hundreds of thousands to a million more. 

The quake also affected the nearby Dominican Republic, and the main event was followed by several 5.5-5.9 magnitude aftershocks. 

9. Another massive quake struck Damghan in Iran in 856 AD

deadliest earthquakes damgong
Source: Dardodel/Wikimedia Commons

In 856 AD, an enormous magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck the city of Damghan in Iran (then Persia). Both the city itself, and its surrounding area was devastated as a result. 

It is believed that somewhere in the region of 200+ thousand people were killed almost instantaneously. 

10. The 1923 Kanto quake was also another of the world's worst

deadliest earthquakes kanto
Source: David Bressan/Twitter

In 1923, another of the world's most deadly quakes struck the Kanto region of Japan. It killed something like 143,000 people and also led to the Great Tokyo Fire of the same year. 

It is thought to have had a strength of around 7.9

11. The 1948 Ashgabat earthquake also killed many thousands of people

deadliest earthquakes ashgabat
Source: nickcann5/YouTube

And finally, the 1948 earthquake that struck Ashgabat in Turkmenistan, is yet another incredibly deadly earthquake in human history. Measuring around 7.3 on the Richter scale, it is believed to have ended the lives of over 110,000 people