The crust of the Earth is made of seven or eight major tectonic plates, or shelves, along with several minor ones, and even more micro-plates. All of the continents and the oceans sit atop these plates, but they don’t sit quietly. Over time, plates can shift around and split or decay or even grow larger, and there have been many earlier configurations of continents and plates. Plates fit together, but due to various pressures and the steady creation of new plate material, as well as the destruction of old material, the plates frequently move, causing them to collide in various ways, which often leads to earthquakes, as one plate slides along the edge of another, or one plate is forced under another or thrust upwards by another. This can lead to volcanic activity, tsunamis, and all sorts of other affects, as well. There are hundreds of earthquakes every year across the world, but the vast majority aren’t large enough to be noticed, or if they are noticed, they don’t do enough damage to really matter. But a few are so powerful that they can cause serious damage to structures, underground utilities, and can lead to loss of life, as well as changing the landscape permanently. The intensity of earthquakes is measured on the Richter scale, which measures the magnitude of energy released by an earthquake; for each increase of one point, the shaking amplitude of the quake is ten times larger. So a 2.0 quake has a shaking amplitude ten times larger than a 1.0 quake. What follows is a list of the twelve most famous earthquakes in recent history. “Recent” history can stretch back nearly five hundred years, but for the most part, earthquakes have only truly been cataloged and studied in the last hundred years or so.

The Shaanxi Earthquake

The deadliest earthquake on record occurred on the morning of January 23, 1556, in Shaanxi, China, during the Ming dynasty. It’s difficult to gauge what actually happened, the true destructive power of the earthquake, and the actual devastation it caused because it was so long ago, accurate, scientific records weren’t kept, and the event is shrouded in mystery with some attaching religious significance to it. Some considered the quake a portent of political turbulence and cited a comet from the same year as a portent of the quake. What we do know is that more than eight hundred and thirty thousand people seem to have been killed and an eight hundred and forty kilometer wide area was destroyed. The actual property damage is nearly impossible to determine, but it was immense. More than ninety seven counties were affected, and in some, more than sixty percent of the population was killed. Much of the population in the affected areas lived in yaodongs, a kind of artificial cave dug in loess soil, many of which collapsed. The earthquake’s epicenter was in the Shaanxi Province, near the cities of Huaxian, Weinan, and Huayin. In these cities, nearly every single building and home was demolished, flattening the cities and killing more than half the residents. Many residents apparently died when they rushed outside during the quake and were crushed by falling debris and collapsing buildings. Many historic and sacred structures were destroyed or damaged. Twenty-meter long crevices opened in the earth in some places, and there are descriptions of new rivers being formed, mountains collapsing, and areas rising. There were also landslides, and aftershocks continued for half a year. Modern analysis estimates the earthquake to have been a 7.9-8.0 magnitude.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake

On November 1, 1755 an estimated 8.5-9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in Portugal (at that time known as the Kingdom of Portugal). An accompanying tsunami, coupled with several fires, almost totally destroyed Lisbon and the surrounding areas. Its epicenter was about two-hundred km out to sea. The death toll is estimated to be close to a hundred thousand casualties. Eyewitnesses reported fissures five meters wide in the city streets. Survivors rushed to the open space of the docks and watched the ocean waters recede. Approximately forty minutes later, a tsunami hit the city, following the Tagus River and overtaking many survivors, forcing those fortunate enough to be on horseback to gallop at full speed to higher ground. Fires broke out and raged for five days. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed either by the earthquake and ensuing tsunami or the fires. One notable tragedy occurred when the Royal Hospital of All Saints was consumed by fire, burning hundreds of trapped patients to death. Surviving citizens were prevented from fleeing and compelled to help clear the city of the thousands of corpses of victims before disease set in. Many of these corpses were loaded onto barges and taken out to be buried at sea, against the wishes of the church. Marshall Law was declared and gallows were built on high points throughout the city to deter looting. Over thirty public executions were conducted. Reconstruction efforts began within a month of the earthquake. In less than a year the city was cleared of debris and a radicle redesign was underway, including widened streets and open piazzas, and seismically protected buildings based on wooden models which had been tested for earthquake resistance. Other areas along the coast were equally damaged in Lagos, waves reached to the tops of buildings. Many towns were heavily damaged as the tsunami waters reached about a hundred and fifty meters inland. Shockwaves were felt as far away as North Africa and even Finland. Tsunamis triggered by the quake and aftershocks hit as far away as the southern English coast.

The devastation of the quake led to political turbulence. There had been tensions between the king and Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, but the quick reactions of the prime minister effectively severed the power of the king to oppose him. The quake also became the first earthquake to be studied scientifically, which eventually led to the birth of modern seismology and earthquake engineering. This was also in large part due to Pombal’s probings as to the cause of the quake, which was the first scientific analysis of a quake. The earthquake and ensuing devastation also had profound philosophical ramifications. The earthquake struck on a major holiday and destroyed most of the churches in the city, which prompted some to claim it was divine judgment, whereas others pointed out that the notorious red-light district only suffered minimal damage. Some philosophers, such as Candide, argued that the devastation proved the negativity of life. Others argued the death toll was due to population density and used this as a springboard for an argument against urbanity. The philosopher Kant, also, wrote widely about the earthquake, presenting one of the earliest explanations on the nature of earthquakes that didn’t rely on supernatural motivations.

The New Madrid Earthquake

Probably the most powerful earthquake ever experienced in the Eastern United States happened long before there was any way to measure it. In 1811, New Madrid, Missouri, USA, was a sparsely populated wilderness of scattered settlers. Beginning on December 16, 1811, a pair of earthquakes hit, and major aftershocks continued for weeks, most notably with two more major quakes. It’s estimated that the earthquake was felt strongly over a hundred and thirty thousand square kilometers away, and some effects were felt over three million kilometers away. Seismologists estimate the quake to be a 7.5-8.0 magnitude. The epicenter of the quakes was mostly uninhabited, but settlements hundreds of kilometers away experienced major property damage, and New Madrid, itself, was totally destroyed. Another town, Little Prairie, suffered a great deal of damage due to soil liquefaction. The Mississippi River flowed backwards in some parts, and its course was altered, creating at least one major lake. Much of the Mississippi River’s shores collapsed, and church bells were heard to ring as far away as Boston. One of the most interesting effects of the earthquake had to do with a murder that coincided with it. A slave named George was murdered by his owners, two brothers named Lewis. The men killed Slave George, as he became known, with an axe in front of several of their other slaves. Normally, they’d have buried him and probably gotten away with the murder, but because of the quakes, they put the body in a chimney, which was then weakened by aftershocks, exposing the corpse. The brothers were arrested and charged. One committed suicide, and the other escaped. The earthquake was an intraplate quake, so it occurred in the middle of a tectonic plate. Intraplate quakes aren’t as well understood as quakes that happen between two plates, but it’s thought that the plate was pulling apart in the New Madrid area, creating a rift. The earthquake has entered into popular culture and achieved the status of a legend, the most notable example of which is a festival in nearby Memphis, Tennessee, USA, which celebrates the anniversary of the quake.

The San Francisco Earthquake

On April 18, 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit San Francisco, California, USA. The quake led to a fire, which led to an estimated three thousand fatalities and left nearly three hundred thousand people homeless, out of a population of four hundred thousand. Much of the fire damage was caused by an unusual set of circumstances. Some fires were direct results of broken gas mains and the like. The fire chief had been killed in the initial quake, which left the fire department leaderless. Coupled with the destruction of many water mains in the city, this left the firemen unable to cope. Also, the improper use of dynamite by firemen in order to create firebreaks led to many buildings being destroyed that would’ve survived. Also, the dynamited buildings often caught fire, further spreading the flames. As if this weren’t bad enough, many of the citizens carried property insurance which covered fire but not earthquake damage, and there were widespread reports of property owners firing their own damaged homes and buildings in order to collect insurance, which only further fueled the flames. All in all, there were over thirty fires reported. One of the most famous incidents leading to these fires was known as the “Ham and Eggs Fire,’ in which a housewife started a major fire when the earthquake upset her attempt to make her family breakfast. The effects of the earthquake and fire were long-reaching and profound. San Francisco, at the time of the quake and fire, had been a cultural and trade hub of the US west coast. Even two years after the disaster, much of the population still lived in refugee camps throughout the area, leading much trade to be diverted south to Los Angeles, and even cultural shifts as artists moved away from the city. Though, through modern research, the death toll has surpassed 3000, at the time, the death toll was reckoned to be much lower. Partly, this was because Chinese victims weren’t counted in the tally, and partly it was because of political pressures to downplay the damage so as not to scare away investors desperately needed to fund the rebuilding of the city. Similarly, much of the new buildings put up following the quake weren’t built to withstand another earthquake. It’s been estimated that whole areas would be wiped out by another, similar or even smaller magnitude quake.

The Great Kanto Earthquake

On September 1, 1923 a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck the Japanese island of Honshu. The quake devastated Tokyo and led to nearly a hundred and fifty thousand deaths, including more than forty thousand missing people who were presumed dead. The earthquake struck during lunchtime when many people were cooking, which led to widespread fires. Firestorms developed throughout the city and some people were trapped when their feet became stuck in melting tarmac. In one area, thirty-eight thousand people were engulfed by a fire whirl, called the “dragon twist,” after having taken shelter. Water mains throughout the city were broken, which hampered firefighters’ efforts. It took two days to put out the flames. Nearly four hundred and fifty thousand homes were destroyed in the flames and many more were destroyed by landslides. One entire village was pushed into the sea by landslides. Shortly afterwards, a tsunami struck nearby, killing many and leaving nearly two million homeless. All told, the tsunami and earthquake killed over a million people. After the disasters, martial law was ordered, and civil unrest heightened. Anti-Korean sentiment led to mobs murdering Koreans after rumors spread that Koreans were poisoning wells. Many thousands of Koreans were murdered as a result. Also, there were record high death rates due to lack of sanitation. The Japanese rebuilt Tokyo after the disaster, modernizing the city, adding better roadways, public parks, and improved sanitation.

The Chilean Earthquake

The 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded, rating 9.5. The tsunami created by the quake reached as far as New Zealand, Japan, Hawaii, and the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The death toll is uncertain but could’ve been as high as six thousand people. The property damage was reported as nearly a billion US dollars, at the time. The seismic event actually consisted of a series of quakes over the course of nearly a month. The main quake was in Valdivia, Chile, and affected more than four hundred thousand kilometers. There was a great deal of flooding as well as soil subsidence, which damaged many buildings. A tsunami struck the coast with waves from eight to ten meters high, and much of the city was flooded. There were also several landslides with further exacerbated the devastation. There was also a volcano eruption two days after the quake, and there may have been further eruptions, though it’s unclear because of the poor communications. The relatively low death toll was due to the low population density of the affected area as well as strict building codes enacted because of the high seismic activity in the area. Following the earthquake, there was a lack of potable water and electricity was out for much of the city. Forty percent of the houses in Valdivia were rendered uninhabitable, leaving twenty thousand people homeless. The worst affected buildings were those made of concrete. Wooden buildings fared better, and many survived but were rendered uninhabitable. To this day, there are areas of the city which haven’t been rebuilt, some with condemned buildings still standing. Some of these areas are used for parking.

Ancash Earthquake

On May 31, 1970, an 8.0 magnitude undersea earthquake occurred thirty five km off the coast of Peru. The resulting landslide, including large amounts of snow and ice, was considered the world’s deadliest avalanche, resulting in over seventy thousand casualties. The massive 1.6 km long landslide from the top of Peru’s tallest mountain, Mount Huascaran, located in the Andes, buried several towns, some completely, and was estimated to have traveled in excess of three hundred kilometers per hour picking up portions of snow and ice from nearby mountains as well as glacial debris, moving so quickly that there was little chance of escape. The effects of the quake could be felt over six hundred and fifty kilometers away. The destruction was exacerbated by the local construction styles, which included using adobe in walls and building on unstable terrain, at times. One of the more interesting elements of this earthquake was that it was apparently predicted. Vlado Kapetanovic, a Yugoslavian electrical engineer working at a hydroelectric plant in Peru, claimed to have been contacted by apus, which some locals believe to be mountain spirits, who warned him. The apus described the avalanche and resulting death and destruction, complete with an accurate description of the affected area. Kapetanovic wrote a book about his experiences, which many consider a nonfiction narrative of his repeated visits with these apus, which he considered to be aliens from the planet Apu. There is an established mythology in Peru and surrounding areas of contact with the apus, who are considered benevolent helpers and guardians. Klapetanovic’s book sparked a whole series of alien contact stories, and gave rise to the legend of the apus as “tall whites.”

The Tangshan Earthquake

The Tangshan earthquake had possibly the highest death toll of any earthquake in the 20th Century, though it’s hard to determine accurate numbers because of the political climate of China, which was reluctant to release this information. It occurred on July 28th, 1976, in the early morning, near Tangshan, China, a heavily populated industrial city, which was nearly flattened. Reports of the death toll vary from two hundred and fifty-five thousand to as high as six hundred and fifty thousand with a further one hundred and sixty four thousand (or possibly as high as seven hundred and seventy-nine thousand) people seriously injured. The quake measured 7.8-82. on the Richter scale and was followed by a 7.1 magnitude aftershock. There were some early warnings of the quake, including odd animal behaviors and similar natural occurrences. There had also been a warning from seismologists that an earthquake was due, which allowed some areas to prepare ahead of time. the earthquake struck just after 4 a.m., when most people were asleep and unprepared. The earthquake affected an area over 6.5 kilometers by 8 kilometers. The region in which the quake struck was mostly alluvial soil, and few buildings were built to withstand earthquakes, which accounts for the massive destruction and much of the loss of life. Many of the survivors of the initial earthquake were trapped under collapsing buildings. Culturally, natural disasters in China are often seen as precursors to dynastic change. The quake occurred during a time of intense political change as the rule of Mao Zedong ended, due to his death shortly after the earthquake for unrelated reasons, and the machinations of various potential successors vying for power. Most famously, the “Gang of Four,” who famously stated that Chinese citizens shouldn’t be concerned over the deaths of a few hundred thousand people when the fates of millions were at stake. Tangshan was rebuilt almost immediately, though China refused offers of outside aid from the United Nations.

The Mexico City Earthquake

In the early morning of 1985, a magnitude 8.1 earthquake struck Mexico City, killing at least ten thousand people and causing severe damage to the city. There were actually four quakes during the entire event, beginning with a 5.2 magnitude quake on May 28th, followed on September 19th by the main quake, and then two aftershocks, the first, a 7.5 magnitude quake on September 20th, and a 7.0 magnitude quake on April 30th, seven months later. The major quake was actually a multiple event with two quakes occurring within thirty seconds of each other, and because of this, the event lasted more than five minutes. The quakes were actually located more than three hundred and fifty kilometers away, off the Pacific coast, but due to the strength of the quakes as well as the fact that Mexico City sits on an unstable old lakebed, Mexico City suffered major damage. Over four billion US dollars in damage occurred. Much of the infrastructure of the city was affected. Potable water became scarce. Forty percent of the population was without electricity, and seventy percent were without telephones. The hardest hit area was also the one that contained most of the hospitals in the city, and the city lost more than four thousand available hospital beds due to quake damage. An accurate death toll is in dispute because of a government enforced news blackout following the quake. The most commonly cited figure is ten thousand, but some claim the number might actually be as high as forty-five thousand. Likewise, from two hundred and fifty thousand to possibly seven hundred thousand people lost their homes due to the quakes.

There was a huge outpouring of support and help from the citizens of the city. Many victims were rescued due to citizens’ efforts, some as late as ten days after the major event. One of the most affecting events during this time was the rescue of nearly all the newborns from Hospital Juarez after being trapped for nearly seven days without nourishment or human contact. Unfortunately, their mothers had died in the quake. Much of the damage to buildings was due to the nature of the land the city is built upon. Some parts are built on clay, some on sand, and some on volcanic remains. The clay tended to vibrate a great deal, causing buildings of a certain height to fail. Strangely, shorter buildings and taller buildings tended to survive because they tended to resonate at a frequency that was unaffected by the quake. Those built on sand failed due to liquefaction, whereas those built on volcanic remains were the most stable. At the time of the quake, it should be noted that Mexico City had one of the most stringent building codes in existence, due to previous earthquakes in the area, but they were unprepared for such a massive event. Populated areas located closer to the epicenter of the quakes actually suffered less damage, mostly due to being built upon bedrock. To better deal with future quakes, a Civil Protection Committee was created, which includes trained response units. Volunteers from the earthquake formed part of this group and have helped with rescue efforts at several major disasters since, including the 2010 Haiti Earthquake.

The Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake

On December 26, 2004, an earthquake measuring 9.1-9.3 magnitude occurred off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, in the Indian Ocean. The quake triggered several deadly tsunamis along most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing over two hundred and thirty thousand people in fourteen countries. One reason for this is that, even though tsunamis hit over a period of up to seven hours after the quake, there are no early warning devices since large tsunamis are rare in that area, though earthquakes occur frequently. Numerous aftershocks followed with magnitudes as high as 6.6. The quake did trigger a volcano. An interesting occurrence was that authorities feared there would be huge casualties amongst the aboriginal tribes on some of the outlying islands, but due to folklore and cultural memory, many of these groups recognized the warning signs of an impending tsunami and fled to higher ground, resulting in much lower casualty rates than among other populations. Two hundred and twenty-eight thousand people did die because of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis, with Indonesia being the worst hit, though there were deaths as far away as the east coast of Africa.

The largest percentage of deaths resulted among children and women, partly because of the high percentage of children in the population, and that children were less able to withstand the flood waters, but also because of the relative locations of people, with many women with their children on the beach or at home, waiting for their fisherman husbands to return. Andrew Browne, a journalist, argued that the level of destruction was exacerbated by a human component; Browne argued that coral reefs as well as coastal mangrove trees and sand dunes would have blunted the force of the tsunamis, but these things were often removed from coastal areas because they were seen as an impediment to shipping. The greatest economic impacts of the earthquake and tsunamis were on the fishing and tourist industries. The greatest environmental effects thus far realized have had to do with contamination of fresh water reserves with salt water and arable land with salt deposits. Many wells and ground water reserves have been affected. In Aceh, the hardest hit area, Acehnese separatists called a cease fire due to the devastation and resumed peace talks. Many, in this deeply conservative Muslim group considered the tsunami to be a sign from Allah, though the meaning of the sign has been disputed. One other notable result of the devastation has been that flood waters uncovered a twelve hundred year old lost city on the southern coast of India called Mahabalipuram, believed to be an ancient seaport that had been swallowed by the sea. Also, a two thousand six hundred ton ship, Apung 1, was flung more than two kilometers inland and has become a popular tourist spot in Banda Aceh.

The Haiti Earthquake

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. At least fifty-two aftershocks measuring 4.5 or higher have been reported. The epicenter was located twenty five kilometers west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. An estimated three million people were affected with the death toll ranging from one hundred and fifty-nine thousand to two hundred and twenty thousand. Nearly three hundred thousand homes and buildings collapsed or were badly damaged. Emergency and essential services were unable to cope with the devastation. Communication services also collapsed. Roads were blocked with debris and rescue and emergency services were unable to reach many victims. Much of the devastation was due to the fact that even though Haiti is in an earthquake prone, it lacked building codes sufficient to address the risks of earthquake damage. Coupled with the fact that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, this meant that few buildings were capable of withstanding an earthquake and relief and aid for victims was difficult. Blocked roads weren’t cleared for days after the quake, and the Haitian government was seen as ineffectual. Six months after the quake, ninety-eight percent of the rubble still hadn’t been cleared. By September of 2010, over a million refugees were still living in tents, and in October, a Cholera epidemic claimed another three thousand lives. Looting and sporadic violence broke out in affected areas, though some officials claimed there was less violent crime after the quake than before.

The aftermath of the earthquake became very visible across the world as journalists rushed to the island. Countries contributed aid, supplies, and volunteers from across the world. Across the border in the Dominican Republic, hospitals were overwhelmed with wounded survivors and soon ran out of even basic supplies. The influx of flights overwhelmed the Haitian capital’s main airport, which led to further allegations of mismanagement. Orphanages were hard hit, and an influx of orphans into US homes began, though many authorities urged an end to this, since some children still had living relatives. A group of Baptist missionaries from the US were charged with kidnapping for trying to smuggle thirty-three orphans out of Haiti into the US. It was discovered that more than twenty of the children had been taken from their parents with promises of “a better life in America.” The US justice system vowed not to interfere, and all of the missionaries were deported, except the leader, Laura Silsby, who was charged and sentenced to time served in Haiti. Silsby has since faced further legal problems upon her return to the US that are unrelated to this incident.

The Tohoku Earthqauke

Off the coast of Japan, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred on March 11, 2011, in the early afternoon and lasted for 6 minutes. The main event was preceded by several foreshocks and hundreds of aftershocks, several measuring move than 7.0. It was the most powerful known earthquake ever to hit Japan and the 5th most powerful earthquake in the world since 1900, when modern record keeping began. It was also the costliest quake on record, with damage estimated at more than US$235billion. The quake triggered tsunamis as high as 40.5 meters, which, in some areas, traveled as far as 10 kilometers inland and caused extensive flooding. There were reports of entire towns being submerged by flood waters, and thousands of bodies have been recovered. Tsunamis struck across much of the Pacific, hitting Hawaii, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Notable occurrences of these floods have been debris washed up on distant shores, such as a soccer ball and a motorcycle from Japan washed up on the shores of Alaska and British Columbia, Canada. Soil liquefaction occurred in several places and a volcano erupted nearby 3 days later. The earthquake was so powerful that it’s estimated the seabed moved as much as 50 meters near the epicenter and rose 7 meters, leading to global effects such as a shortening of the day by 1.8 microseconds, among other things. The earthquake caused nearly 16,000 deaths with another 2600 people missing, as well as over 6000 people injured. Hundreds of thousands of people became homeless because of the damage. More than 4million homes were without power following the quake.

The most notable result of the earthquake was the level 7 meltdown of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Though not the worst nuclear accident in history, it is one of the most complicated. Several nuclear power plants were within the earthquake’s affected area. The plant nearest the quake epicenter was largely undamaged, but the Fukushima plant was damaged to the point that the reactor was unable to cool, properly, leading to leakage of radioactive materials. Though workers were ordered to evacuate, fifty volunteered to stay behind to help stabilize the plant. These volunteers tended to be older and childless, so that any effects of the exposure to radiation would be less likely to manifest before a natural death. These were soon joined by several hundred other emergency workers. A group of two hundred and fifty skilled senior citizens also volunteered to work in the radioactive environment. International news agencies called these volunteers and the remaining plant workers heroes, and they’ve entered into the popular culture of Japan as such. Residents were evacuated from within 20 kilometers of the nuclear power plant, and the lasting effects haven’t been fully determined, though dangers include radiation sickness amongst the population and contamination of sea life. Contamination has already been found in some seafood and beef in Japan.


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