Worst Tremors Since 1900 With Magnitudes Ranging From 8.5 to 9.5
According to the US Geological Survey, the most violent earthquakes in the world have occurred in Chile, Alaska, Sumatra, Russia, and Ecuador since 1900.
The ranking of the top ten earthquakes by the U.S. Geological Survey is based on magnitude according to the Richter scale. Earthquakes with lower magnitudes sometimes cause more severe damage to property and higher death tolls than higher magnitude earthquakes.
Why Do Some Earthquakes Cause More Damage Than Others?
The worst risk during an earthquake is the shaking. Structures that are not earthquake-proof can crumble. If the building is not flexible, it is more apt to fall. A recent example is a devastating earthquake in Haiti where many buildings were constructed of cement block.
Earthquakes send waves through below the earth’s surface and travel at higher speeds through soil or sand but slow down through bedrock. In San Francisco, many buildings collapsed in the Loma Prieta earthquake because some were built on landfill resulting from the disposal of debris from the 1906 earthquake.
Ten Strongest Earthquakes in the World
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the top ten deadliest earthquakes since 1900 are as follows:
Southern Chile: May 22, 1960 Magnitude 9.5
- The most severe damage occurred in the Valdivia and Puerto Montt areas. Approximately 1,655 killed, 3,000 injured, 2,000,000 homeless, and $550 million damage. *
- A massive tsunami spread across the Pacific Ocean. It caused 61 deaths, $75 million damage in Hawaii; 138 deaths and $50 million damage in Japan; 32 dead and missing in the Philippines; and $500,000 damage to the west coast of the United States. *
The Great Chilean Earthquake, the largest seismic event ever recorded, occurred off the south-central coast of Chile and caused a devastating tsunami in the Pacific.
On May 22, 1960, the earthquake that struck Valdivia Chile had a magnitude of 9.5 on the Richter scale. This is the strongest earthquake ever recorded by instruments in the world. On the previous day, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.5 struck the city of Concepción which is north of Valdivia.
Cause of the 1960 Great Chilean Earthquake
There is a subduction zone where the Chile Ridge oceanic plate is slipping under the South American plate. This was a thrust earthquake because the Chilean Ridge plate moved downward. The epicenter was on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, approximately 100 miles off the coast of Chile.
City and Towns Affected by the 1960 Chilean Earthquake
The coastal area of Chile was the worst hit from the city of Concepcion spreading southward to Isla Chiloe.
Near the city of Valdivia, several landslides near Tralcan Mountain blocked the outflow of Riñihue Lake. In addition, 18 people were killed and homes were destroyed. The landslides created new challenges that caused immediate action to reinforce dams in the Seven Lakes chain. In the end, the courses of major rivers were changed forever and new lakes were created.
At Valparaiso, many buildings collapsed. Extensive damage was done to the industrial city of Concepcion.
The coastal city of Peurto Montt sunk downward and causing the ocean water to rush in.
The Tsunami Caused by the 1960 Chilean Earthquake
The damage caused by the Tsunami far exceeded the destruction resulting from the earthquake itself. The wall of water spread across the Pacific reaching Hawaii, the Philippines, and even Japan.
Within 10 to 15 minutes after the earthquake, the tsunami waves struck the coast of Chile. Waves of approximately 25 meters high (1 meter = 3.28 feet) smashed the coastline and traveled inland for almost half a mile.
In particular, the south end of Isla Chiloe suffered the worst damage because it was closest to the epicenter. Approximately 200 people were killed in that area alone.
Approximately 15 hours later, the tsunami reached the Hawaiian Islands. There was not much damage to most areas except for the city of Hilo on the east side of the Big Island of Hawaii. Ten-meter waves wiped out the waterfront and 61 people were killed.
Tsunami waves of similar size hit Japan where 138 people were killed and the Philippines where 32 deaths were reported.
Damage and Death Toll from the 1960 Chilean Earthquake and Tsunami
- Approximately 130,000 homes and buildings were destroyed.
- There were 2 million people displaced.
- The death toll was estimated at 2,000 and 3,000 people injured. (Some sources say as high as 6,000 people killed)
- Total loss and damage to property was approximately $500 million (1960 valuation)
Since 1960, there have been two earthquakes registering around 8 on the Richter scale. Chile will continue to experience earthquakes because of the subduction activity of the South American Plate.
Prince William Sound Alaska: March 28, 1964 Magnitude 9.1
The second strongest earthquake in the world occurred on December 26 2004 and had a magnitude of 9.3. The epicenter was on the ocean floor near the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, and caused a deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
- Anchorage suffered the most damage as well as other cities including Kodiak, Seward, and Valdez. The tsunami generated by the earthquake affected the west coast of Canada and the U.S. and Hawaii.
- The earthquake and tsunami resulted in 113 deaths from the tsunami and 15 from the earthquake. It caused approximately $311 million in property loss. *
West Coast Northern Sumatra: December 26, 2004 Magnitude 9.1
- This earthquake is best known for the giant tsunami that raced across the Indian Ocean. This tsunami holds the record for causing the highest number of deaths and the most destruction.
- In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia, India, and East Africa. *
Kamchatka Russia: November 4, 1952 Magnitude 9.0
- The tsunami resulting from this earthquake adversely affected Hawaii and only caused minor damage in Alaska.
- Property damage from these waves was estimated at $800,000 to $1,000,000, but no lives were lost. *
Coast of Ecuador: January 31, 1906 Magnitude 8.8
- This earthquake generated a powerful tsunami that hit the coast of Ecuador and Colombia. The giant wave also struck Hilo and Honolulu in Hawaii.
- Approximately 500 to 1500 people were killed in Ecuador and Colombia. *
Rat Islands Alaska: February 4, 1965 Magnitude 8.7
The third-strongest earthquake occurred on Good Friday, March 27, 1964, in Alaska, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.2 struck Prince William Sound and caused extensive damage in Anchorage.
- Because the areas affected by this earthquake were sparsely populated, there was little damage and no deaths. A 30-foot tsunami affected the nearby islands in the Aleutian chain.
- Loss caused by flooding on Amchitka Island was estimated at $10,000. *
Northern Sumatra: March 28, 2005 Magnitude 8.6
- Surrounding islands in Sumatra suffered damage and a 10-foot tsunami caused flooding in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Maldives.
- At least 1000 people killed, 300 injured in Nias; 100 people killed in Simeulue; 200 people killed in Kepulauan, Banyak; 3 people killed, 40 injured. At least 10 people were killed during the evacuation of the coast of Sri Lanka. *
Assam & Tibet: August 15, 1950 Magnitude 8.6
- Buildings suffered extensive damage and landslides occurred in eastern Tibet. Areas of Assam in India experienced landslides and a natural dam broke, which created a 23-foot high wave.
- At least 780 people killed in Tibet and 536 people died in Assam. * It is believed that this was not the final total.
Andreanof Islands Alaska: March 9, 1957 Magnitude 8.6
- Docks and bridges were destroyed in neighboring islands in the Aleutians by a 15-foot tsunami. The giant wave continued to Hawaii.
- The tsunami caused about $5 million in property damage on Oahu and Kauai Islands. *
Southern Sumatra Indonesia: September 12, 2007 Magnitude 8.5
- Many buildings were destroyed or damaged in Bengkulu and Sumatera Barat. This earthquake occurred in the Sunda trench, which was ruptured by the earthquake on December 26th, 2004.
- At least 25 people were killed, 161 injured, 52,522 buildings were damaged or destroyed. *
Five of the world’s strongest earthquakes generated devastating tsunamis that hit Hawaii. Two earthquakes spawned tsunamis in the Indian Ocean.
Three earthquakes occurred in Indonesia and three earthquakes took place in Alaska. Two earthquakes were located on the west coast of South America.
All earthquakes, except for Assam & Tibet, occurred in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which circles the Pacific Ocean. It continues to be the most active seismic area in the world.
- U.S. Dept. of Commerce Environmental Science Service Administration
- Extreme Science
- * “Largest Earthquakes in the World Since 1900”, U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Information Center, updated May 14, 2009