The 5 Largest Earthquakes Ever Recorded In The Modern Era

earthquake damage


People often approach survival situations from a somewhat generalized perspective. For example, when we consider how to prep for earthquakes we usually look at the averages and extrapolate from there. But it's also important to consider worst case scenarios by studying the most extreme examples in history.

In the case of earthquakes that means looking at the most significant examples in recent history. We can narrow this down by considering a number of factors. An earthquake's metrics typically include fatalities and significant injuries, damage to infrastructure, and the earthquake's magnitude scale. The magnitude scale begins with a 1 as a measure of an earthquake so small that people won't even feel it. Anything above a 6 on the scale is considered a major event. That in mind, what are the five largest modern earthquakes ever recorded?

earthquake damage

5. The Haiti Earthquake of 2010

2010 marked a devastating event in Hati. The earthquake's magnitude hit an even 7.0. This is considered the general baseline for major earthquakes. Normally a 7.0 wouldn't register among the worst of all time. However, this is where we also see one of the often neglected aspects of earthquakes. The earthquake's severity isn't just determined by magnitude alone. There's a number of other factors which emphasize the fact that magnitude scales are only the beginning of the story. For example, we also need to consider where the earthquake's centered.

The same overall force from the earthquake's movement will be experienced very differently in different environments. A flat plain and a major city will interact with that force in different ways to either increase or decrease the overall severity. In this particular instance the 7.0 event was centered around the highly populated and developed area of Port-au-Prince.

Earthquakes in heavily developed areas will usually cause significant damage to the underlying infrastructure. In this case we find that around 1.5 million people were rendered homeless due to the earthquake's damage. The earthquake's initial damage was due to the 7.0 magnitude tremors, but even the aftershocks took a heavy toll on the environment. The aftershocks ranged from a magnitude of 5.5 to 5.9. One of these aftershocks was especially harmful to the nearby town of Petit Goave. An earthquake's scale is really highlighted by the distance between these two areas. Port-au-Prince and Petit Goave are about 35 miles apart from each other. Yet the earthquake's power was so immense that it covered that entire area.

4. The Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976

The Great Tangshan Earthquake's magnitude is rated at 7.8. This already places it at the higher end of the magnitude scale. However, the sheer severity of the earthquake's damage comes from another factor we haven't touched on yet. An earthquake's toll on humanity is often mitigated by our preparations.

Earthquakes are always more deadly in areas that aren't expecting them. An area that's experienced multiple earthquakes will usually build with earthquakes in mind. They'll ensure solid infrastructure, perform emergency drills, and might even have an MRE supply in case people are trapped indoors.

At a magnitude of 7.8 we'll typically see some significant damage, even to cities that are prepared for it, but the Chinese city of Tangshan was blissfully unaware of the danger. In fact, much of the city's infrastructure was tied into mining. Between the mining and lack of preparation the city simply wasn't prepared for earthquakes of any severity. Getting hit by a 7.8 quake was just too much for an area with lots of underground work and unreinforced masonry.

The end result is one of the largest death tolls in recorded history. We'll never know exactly how many people died during this event, but it's estimated that as many as 655,000 people died as a result of the earthquake's damage. On top of that, about 700,000 people sustained injuries.

earthquake damage

3. The Ancash Earthquake of 1970

Ancash is a large coastal region in Peru. In 1970 the area was home to several coastal towns and even more villages closer to the Santa River valley. The area is also notable for its proximity to Peru's largest mountain.

Unfortunately, the proximity to Mount Huascaran proved to be extremely unlucky. Most towns in the area weren't constructed with durability in mind. The earthquake's damage alone would have been severe given a magnitude of 7.9. But the strength of those reverberations was enough to set off a landslide from Mount Huascaran.

An avalanche of snow, ice, and dirt rained down from the mountain as the earthquake's reverberations shook anything loose that could move. Two villages, Yungay and Ranrahirea, were mostly lost beneath the landslide. Many of the neighboring villages suffered nearly as badly. In total, the earthquake's damage killed about 70,000 people.

2. The Sumatra Earthquake of 2004

This earthquake's 9.1 magnitude also demonstrates how one natural disaster can create others. People often think of an earthquake's impact as something isolated to land. After all, earth is right there in an earthquake's name. However, the earth covered by water is just as subject to earthquakes as any other area. That's exactly what happened off the coast of Sumatra in 2004.

We've seen how an earthquake's force can cause a landslide. But it can do something similar to water. The earthquakes under the sea around Sumatra set off a tsunami in 2004. This effect didn't just impact Sumatra. It actually reached over the Indian Ocean all the way to East Africa. The waves hitting that shoreline reached heights of up to 30 feet.

This also highlights why it's so important to have an emergency food supply on hand. And it's particularly important to have an MRE supply that can be stored long term. We often plan for the specifics of a disaster, but in a case like this one natural disaster set off a chain of detrimental effects. Some people were hurt by the earthquake's direct impact. Other people faced the fury of the tsunami triggered by the earthquake's effects.

This particular event set off a number of difficult situations, and it's estimated that at least 225,000 people were killed. The fatalities run through a variety of different countries thanks to how widespread that causal chain turned out to be. We always need to carefully plan for the most fundamental aspects of survival when looking at any natural disaster. We can't always know how one event may or may not trigger another, but we can plan for universal needs like food and water.

tsunami warning

1. The Valdivia Chile Earthquake of 1960

A 9.5 is the highest magnitude quake ever recorded and in 1960, we saw just what an earthquake which nearly hit the top of the scale could do. It's thought that the earthquake's effects reached a total area of about 621 miles.

In total, 1,655 people died during this event, but as we've seen from other examples, this is only the tip of the iceberg. It's really the impact on people's lives that makes this the most devastating of all known earthquakes. In addition to the fatalities, over two million people were left homeless in the wake of the disaster. To illustrate just how huge that number is, the entire population of New Hampshire only reaches 1.36 million. Imagine the sheer horror of an entire state rendered homeless in a single day.

The quake also triggered a tsunami. Though thankfully the impact here was less severe than we've seen in other quakes. The loss of life was obviously still tragic, but in total only 61 lives were lost as a result of the quake-triggered tsunami.