The Deadliest Earthquakes in History

Rescuers in Turkey and Syria have worked through the night to recover thousands of survivors from the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the region on Monday morning. The quake was followed by a second powerful tremor nine hours later, and over 200 aftershocks.

Thousands of buildings have toppled and more than 11,000 people in Syria and Turkey have lost their lives in the aftermath. Turkey has not seen an earthquake of this magnitude since 1939, when a magnitude 7.8 quake hit the city of Erzincan in the country's east, killing 32,700 people. More recently, in 1999, the country was hit by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake in the northwestern Kocaeli Province, which resulted in over 17,000 deaths.

Turkey has been the site of some of the deadliest earthquakes in recorded history, dating as far back as the second century.

1. Shaanxi, China, 1556

Death toll: 830,000

The deadliest earthquake of all time (that we know of) was in Shaanxi Province, China, in 1556. With a magnitude of 8.0 on the Moment Magnitude Scale, this was not the strongest earthquake of all time but it was by far the most devastating, killing an estimated 830,000 people.

Lindsay Schoenbohm, a professor of Earth sciences and chair of chemical and physical sciences at the University of Toronto Mississauga, said that this figure was largely due to poor building design and high population density in the region, which made people vulnerable to the effects of the earthquake. "Many people were living in rooms carved into loess cliffs—fine-grained, wind-blown dust that settles and hardens—which collapsed during the shaking," she told Newsweek.

William Barnhart, assistant coordinator for the U.S. Geological Survey's Earthquake Hazards Program, told Newsweek that there were several contributing factors that made China particularly vulnerable to this devastation. "First, it's a large land mass with a large population that sits in a broad zone of active seismicity, caused by the collision of India with Asia. These plate tectonic processes lead to large earthquakes like those in Turkey, and the local populations are then exposed to the strong shaking from these earthquakes.

"Second, China is also a mountainous country, and the earthquakes commonly generate landslides that cause further casualties."

2. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 2010

Death toll: 316,000

The deadliest earthquake in recent history, and the second-most deadly of all time, was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010. The earthquake had a slightly lower magnitude of 7.0, but was responsible for roughly 316,000 deaths, as estimated by the Haitian government. This number is however highly disputed, and estimates range from 70,000 to 316,000.

Port-au-prince earthquake damage
Photo of destroyed buildings after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti's Port-au-Prince. The magnitude 7.0 quake was the most deadly in recent history. THONY BELIZAIRE/Getty

Again, Schoenbohm said that poor building design and high population density in this region was to blame for the devastation. "In Haiti, poor building codes, or adherence to codes, was to blame [for the devastation]. The earthquake was also quite shallow, which caused intense shaking at the surface, and was very close to the major population center of Port-au-Prince."

3. Antakya, Turkey, 115

Death toll: 260,000

The deadliest earthquake in Turkey's history, and the third-most deadly of all time, occurred in 115 in the city of Antakya. Antakya, historically known as Antioch, is the capital of Hatay Province, the southernmost province in Turkey which has also been the most severely affected by the earthquake on February 6.

Turkey is predominantly situated on the Anatolian plate, which borders two major fault lines: the North Anatolian fault and the East Anatolian fault. "This location is vulnerable to earthquakes because of this tectonic activity and the many faults," Schoenbohm said. "There are hundreds of smaller faults related to these fault systems—it's quite complex!"

Turkey earthquake damage
Photo of a man walking past collapsed buildings in Hatay, Turkey, after Monday's magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Burak Kara/Getty

"The historical Antakya earthquake of 115 AD occurred along a strand of the Eastern Anatolian Fault Zone, which is the same fault that ruptured in the February 6, 2023, earthquake. Although only based on reports that survived to the present, the magnitude is estimated to be similar but slightly lower in intensity, with a magnitude of 7.5."

Earthquakes occur when the massive blocks of rock in the Earth's crust—called tectonic plates— push past each other. These plates are separated by thin fractures called fault lines. These plates are constantly on the move but are held in place by the strong friction forces between them. Eventually, the force pushing them forwards overcomes the friction force and causes the rock on one side of the fault to slip with respect to the other. This releases a large amount of energy in the form of an earthquake.

Roman Emperor Trajan and his successor, Hadrian, were caught up in the devastation but survived the quake, as reported by second/third-century historian Cassius Dio.

The earthquake was followed by a local tsunami, which caused damage to the coast of Lebanon.

4. Antakya, Turkey, 525

Death toll: 250,000

This earthquake occurred in the same region about 400 years later. The earthquake caused severe damage in the city and aftershocks continued in the region for months.

5. Tangshan, China, 1976

Death toll: 242,769

In July 1976, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Tangshan in northeastern China. A report in 2002 estimated that the earthquake resulted in the collapse of, or severe damage to, 85 percent of the buildings in the city. There was also disruption to local power supplies, water, sewer systems, telephones and radio communications.

6. Gyzndzha, Azerbaijan, 1139

Death toll: 230,000

Not much is known about this devastating event, which is often termed the Ganja earthquake. However, despite the destruction, it did result in the formation of eight beautiful lakes in the area, including the so-called "pearl of Azerbaijan," the Goy-Gol Lake.

7. Sumatra, Indonesia, 2004

Death toll: 227,899

The strongest earthquake on this list, and the third-strongest in history, occurred in Indonesia in 2004. With a magnitude of 9.1, the earthquake occurred off the coast of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean, which triggered a series of large tsunamis.

Indonesia earthquake 2004
Photo of a man salvaging a can of fuel gas from his destroyed home in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami. BAY ISMOYO/Getty

"Tsunamis are triggered when large volumes of water are displaced," Schoenbohm said. "This can be by large landslides or volcanic eruptions, but they are often caused when large magnitude earthquakes occur underwater.

"What made [this earthquake] really dangerous was that [it] happened underwater. When the seafloor was displaced in the earthquake, it displaced the water above it, forming a welt that then collapsed and rushed outward. Part went toward the Ache region of Indonesia, which it reached in minutes and where the tsunami reached a height of 12 meters [nearly 40 feet]. The other part traveled out across the Indian Ocean, impacting Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, and as far [west] as Somalia."

8. Damghan, Iran, 856 / Gansu, China, 1920

Death toll: 200,000

Both the earthquake that occurred in Damghan, Iran in 856 A.D. and the one in Gansu, China in 1920, had an estimated death toll of 200,000.

The earthquake in Iran is estimated to have caused damage across an area that was 220 miles long, while the Gansu earthquake caused damage across seven provinces in the region.

The Gansu earthquake had a magnitude of 8.3, the second most powerful on this list.

10. Dvin, Armenia, 893

Death toll: 150,000

The ancient city of Dvin—the capital of medieval Armenia and its religious center—was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 893 A.D., resulting in 150,000 fatalities. By some reports, only 100 buildings were left standing after the devastation.

11. Tokyo, Japan, 1923

Death toll: 142,807

The 1923 earthquake in Japan's capital—often described as the Great Kanto Earthquake—caused over half of the city's brick buildings, and 10 percent of its reinforced concrete structures, to collapse. Large fires broke out around the city, combined with a large tornado which spread the flames. The earthquake also triggered a large tsunami with a height of nearly 40 feet.

In total, the event caused 142,807 people to lose their lives.

Tokyo, Japan, after 1923 earthquake
Photo of the devastated streets of Tokyo, Japan, after the 1923 earthquake. Bettmann/Getty

Why Are Some Earthquakes so Deadly?

Mark Quigley, an associate professor of active tectonics and geomorphology at the University of Melbourne, in Australia, told Newsweek that there were three main contributing factors that determine the death toll of an earthquake:

  1. The characteristics of the earthquake—for example, the size, depth, shaking intensity;
  2. The exposure of populations to the earthquake shaking—for example, a small earthquake in a densely populated area may cause much more damage and loss of life than a much larger but more remote event;
  3. The vulnerability of people and infrastructure to the earthquake—buildings that are more vulnerable to strong shaking will fail at lower shaking intensities than buildings that have been designed to withstand earthquake shaking.

How to Minimize Earthquake Damage

Earthquakes are a natural hazard that we cannot prevent, but we can significantly reduce their impact.

Transamerica pyramid, San Francisco
Photo of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. The 48-story landmark was built in 1989 and designed to withstand earthquakes in the quake-prone region. Robert Alexander/Getty

"Engineering new buildings to survive strong ground shaking, and retrofitting older, vulnerable buildings can help to mitigate damage from large earthquakes," Barnhart said. "These practices are common in the western United States and other earthquake-prone countries like Japan where there is the potential for large populations to be exposed to strong ground-shaking."

Schoenbohm said that, as well as strong infrastructure, people needed to be informed on earthquake safety and preparedness. "Governments should be prepared to respond quickly, and individuals should have key supplies at home and a plan for where to head—under a sturdy object—when shaking starts."

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