Top Ten Earthquakes and Volcanic Eruptions

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Largest Recorded Earthquakes 

Date Location Richter Magnitude  Seismic Moment Magnitude
May 22, 1960 Chile 8.5 9.5 
Mar 28, 1964 Alaska 8.4  9.2 
Mar 9, 1957 Aleutians 8.1  9.1
Nov 4, 1952 Kamchatka 8.2 9.0
Dec. 26, 2004 Sumatra N/A 9.0
Jan 31, 1906 Ecuador 8.2 8.8
Feb. 27, 2010 Chile N/A 8.8
Feb 4, 1965  Aleutians 8.2 8.7
Nov 11, 1922 Chile 8.3 8.5
Mar 2, 1933  Japan 8.5 8.4
Aug 15, 1950 India-China 8.6  
Dec 16, 1920 N. China 8.6  

Source: K. Abe, Magnitudes and Moments of Earthquakes, in Global Earth Physics, A Handbook of Physical Constants, American Geophysical Union Reference Shelf Volume 1, p. 206-213. Seismic moment magnitudes determined by recalculation from seismic records for events prior to 2004.

The December 2004 Sumatra event is the first Magnitude 9.0 event since the general adoption of the seismic moment magnitude scale; the old Richter Scale is no longer applied to such events.

Greatest Killer Earthquakes

Year Month Day Mag Deaths Location Notes
July 5, 1201  1,100,000 Egypt-Syria 1
Jan. 23, 1556 830,000 China: Shanxi 2
July 27, 1976  8 655,237 NE China, Tangshan 3
1139 6.8 300,000 Caucasus  
1662 300,000 China  
Oct. 11, 1737  300,000 India: Calcutta 4
115 260,000 Turkey: Antioch  
1139 230,000 Syria: Aleppo  
1876 215,000 India: Bay of Bengal, Andaman Islands  
Dec. 22, 856  200,000 Iran  
1703 200,000 Japan: Jeddo  
Jan. 8, 1780  200,000 Iran: Tabriz  
Dec. 16, 1920  8.5 200,000 China: Gansu and Shanxi  
May 22, 1927 8.3 200,000 China: Qinghai  
Jan. 12, 2010 7.0 200,000 Haiti 12
Dec. 14, 893  180,000 Iran-Armenia  
Dec. 26, 2004 9.0 160,000 Sumatra 10
Sept. 1, 1923 8.2 142,807 Japan: Tokyo-Yokohama 5
Dec. 30, 1730 137,000 Japan: Hokkaido  
Nov. 23, 533  130,000 Syria-Turkey 6
Dec. 28, 1908  7.5 110,000 Italy: Messina, Sicily  
1007 100,000 Iraq  
1138 100,000 Egypt-Syria  
1201 100,000 Greece: Aegean 7
Sept. 27, 1290  6.7 100,000 China: Chihli  
Jan. 9, 1693  100,000 Italy: Sicily  
Nov. 30, 1731  100,000 China: Beijing  
1779 100,000 Iran: Tabriz 8
1780 100,000 Iran-Caucasus 8
Aug. 26, 1883  100,000 Java 9
May 31, 1970 7.8 70,000 Peru 11

Source: Catalog of Significant Earthquakes, USGS

Even for modern events, casualty totals are hard to get accurately (see Note 3). Ancient events are often wild guesses. Authors may make mistakes as to location and date when copying records from other sources. This list includes all events with more than 100,000 deaths in the best available global summary of major earthquakes. The two pre-instrumental magnitudes are estimated from physical effects.

Remarks

  1. Although not widely known, this is the largest event in the catalog. A detailed reference is "The historical earthquakes of Syria: an analysis of large and moderate earthquakes from 1365 B.C. to 1900 A.D." by Sbeinati, M. R.; Darawcheh, R.; and Mouty, M.; Annals of Geophysics vol. 48 (3) p. 347-435., 2005, available on line at http://hdl.handle.net/2122/908. There is an extensive discussion of the 1201 (1202?) event or events starting on page 389. The figure of 1.1 million apparently includes famine deaths. Many may not have been connected to the earthquake.
  2. Most listings cite this event as the greatest killer earthquake. Most fatalities were due to the collapse of dwellings dug into the loess plateau.
  3. The death toll in this event was later dropped to 240,000 with no explanation. Most authors uncritically cite the lower figure. Until I see a satisfactory explanation of how a death toll reported as accurate to six digits turns out to be inflated by a factor of three, I will use the higher figure.
  4. Some authors suggest the accounts may refer to a typhoon rather than an earthquake. This is probably the largest disaster whose exact nature is uncertain.
  5. Many of the casualties in this event died in the subsequent firestorm. (A little known footnote to American history is that U.S. Navy Ensign Thomas Ryan was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing a woman from a burning hotel after the earthquake. Under present regulations, he would have been given a different award.)
  6. Listed as affecting both northern Syria and Constantinople (Istanbul). Either this was a truly huge event or some of the locations are garbled.
  7. Could this be a garbled account of the event of the same year in the Levant (Note 1)?
  8. These are similar enough in date and location to be the same event
  9. Actually due to the great Krakatoa eruption and tsunami.
  10. Almost all deaths due to tsunami. Greatest tsunami disaster in history. Massive casualties and damage in Sumatra, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. Damage and fatalities as far away as Africa.
  11. Includes 20,000 at Yungay due to avalanche from Nevado Huascaran. Largest landslide disaster in history (rivaled by the volcanic mudflow from Nevado del Ruiz, below) and largest natural disaster in the Southern Hemisphere.
  12. Death toll from a relatively modest quake was due to poor construction. The death toll is only a rough guess since no systematic count was kept as bodies were buried.

Largest Known Holocene Volcanic Eruptions 

Year Volcano Location Ejecta km3 Remarks
4650 B.C. Mount Mazama Oregon 100+ Formed Crater Lake
4300 B.C. Kikai Ryukyu Islands, Japan 100+ Pyroclastic flows traveled 100 km, reached southern Japan. Southern Kyushu devastated.
1470 B.C. Santorini    Greece 10+ Destroyed Minoan civilization
186 A. D. Taupo   New Zealand  80+ Pyroclastic flows travelled 100 km
260 Ilopango   El Salvador 10+  
536 Rabaul    New Guinea 10+ Global climatic effects
850 Hekla   Iceland 10+  
1010 Baitoushan China-Korea 150  
1783 Laki    Iceland 1 Largest historic fissure flow
1815 Tambora  Indonesia   150 Global climatic effects
1883 Krakatau   Indonesia  20+ Blast heard 5,000 km away
1912 Katmai   Alaska 10+  
1991 Pinatubo Philippines 10  

Ejecta refers to cubic kilometers of ash erupted. All figures are estimates. Since 10,000 B.C., over 50 eruptions are known to have vented more than 10 cubic km of ash (2006 data from the Smithsonian Global Volcanism Program). Laki, 1783 is also included as the largest historic lava flow. Dates of first six events are from radiocarbon dates and are approximate.

Much larger events are recorded in the geologic past but we cannot claim a complete record. A few examples:

Source, T. Simkin and others, 1984, Volcanoes of the World, Stroudsburg, PA, Hutchinson Ross, 232p.

Greatest Killer Volcanic Eruptions

Date Volcano Location Deaths Remarks
April 10-12, 1815 Tambora,  Indonesia 92000 Ash falls, Tsunami, Disease, Starvation
Aug. 26-28, 1883 Krakatoa Indonesia 36000 Ash falls, Tsunami
May 8, 1902 Mount Pelee Martinique 28000 Pyroclastic Flow
Nov. 13, 1985 Nevado Ruiz Colombia 23000 Mudflow
Aug. 24, 79 A.D. Vesuvius Italy 16000 Ash falls and Pyroclastic Flows. The famous Pompeii eruption.
May 21, 1792 Unzen Japan 14500
1586 Kelut Java 10000
June 8, 1783 Laki Iceland 9350 Fissure Flow, Disease, Starvation
May 19, 1919 Kelut Java 5000
Dec. 15, 1631 Vesuvius Italy 4000
April 24, 1902 Santa Maria Guatemala 4000 Ash falls, Disease, Starvation
Aug. 12, 1772 Papandayan Java 3000
Jan. 27, 1951 Lamington New Guinea 3000 Pyroclastic Flow. Volcano was not known to be active before the eruption.
Mar. 28, 1982 El Chichon Mexico 1880 Ash falls
Aug. 21, 1986 Lake Nyos Cameroon 1700 Carbon dioxide emission from volcanic lake
Jan. 10, 1977 Nyiragongo Congo 70 - 100's? Lava flow from sudden drainage of lava lake.

Note the near absence of reference to lava flows, which rarely result in fatalities. Even the great Laki fissure flow of 1783 produced casualties mostly by ecological disruption. Before the advent of telecommunications and air transport, ecological disruption was the major cause of loss of life in eruptions, with building collapse due to shaking and ash fall probably next most important.

The 1977 event from Nyiragongo is probably the largest recorded direct loss of life from lava flows. Nyiragongo presents the paradox of a steep-sided stratovolcano with extremely fluid lava, possibly because of a recent change in magma composition. When the crater wall failed, lava flows moved downhill at up to 100 km/hour, overwhelming villages without warning. The disaster happened at night, catching many people asleep. In 2002 a flow destroyed nearly half of the city of Goma (population several hundred thousand) and caused some fatalities, easily the worst invasion of a city by lava flows in history.

Top Repeat Offenders

Volcanoes with the largest number of Holocene explosive eruptions. Nice geographic spread. The sixteen volcanoes are distributed among twelve different countries.

Volcano Location Number of Eruptions
Arenal Costa Rica 19
Pelee Martinique, West Indies 19
Ibusuki Volcanic Field Kyushu, Japan 15
Taupo New Zealand 15
Hekla Iceland 13
Vesuvius Italy 13
Katla Iceland 12
Avachinsky Kamchatka, Russia 12
Cotopaxi Ecuador 10
Raoul Island Kermadec Islands 9
Cerro Bravo Colombia 8
Colima Mexico 8
Fuego Guatemala 8
Ksudach Kamchatka, Russia 8
Sakura-Jima Kyushu, Japan 8
St. Helens Washington, USA 8

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Created 24 April 2002, Last Update 08 March 2012

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