Famous Earthquakes In History

Catalogued below are some of the most infamous earthquake disasters in history, from 16th century China to our own 21st century.

-- 1556, Shaanxi Province, China --

In the morning hours of February 14, 1556, central China was rocked by a devastating earthquake. Centered in the Shaanxi (Shensi) Province, after which it has since been named, the earthquake affected some 500 miles and 10 provinces. The Shaanxi quake is estimated to have been magnitude 8. There is no accurate record of how long the quake lasted, or how numerous the aftershocks were.

To this day the Shiaanxi quake is known as the single most devastating earthquake on record. It took 830,000 lives, destroyed entire communities, and irreparably scarred the landscape. Most of its death toll may be attributed to living conditions in the region. Instead of living in villages, much of the populace lived in caves or under loose loess cliffs which collapsed as the quake shook the earth.

-- 1755, Lisbon, Portugal --

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon was nearly destroyed in total by an earthquake and the resulting tsunami and fire. The initial quake, estimated to have been magnitude 9, lasted for 3 to 6 minutes and was felt as far away as Finland. It literally tore Lisbon apart--giant fissures ripped across the city's center as the quake progressed. Cities across Protugal and southwestern Spain were also damaged in the initial quake.

In the aftermath of the quake, buildings in Lisbon collapsed and caught fire. The fires burned for five days, razing many old, irreplaceable structures "¦ but only in areas not affected by the tidal wave. The violent seismic waves created an equally devastating tidal wave that hit the harbor areas of the city less than an hour later. Between earth, fire, and water, four fifths of Lisbon was destroyed, and 90,000 people were killed.

-- 1906, San Francisco, California --

The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is enshrined as a watershed disaster in American History. Striking in the early morning hours of April 18, the initial quake lasted nearly a minute. It was estimated to be a 7.9 magnitude quake. The initial quake damaged structures throughout the city, and several strong aftershocks sent the damaged buildings tumbling down.

Adding to the devastation was the fire that followed the earthquake. Many buildings in San Francisco were made of wood, were structurally unsound, and were either lit or warmed by wood, coal, and gas-burning devices. Upon collapsing, these buildings quickly went up in flames. The resulting conflagration burned for days after the quake, razing more than 4 square miles of city before it was finally contained.

In the end, San Francisco suffered billions of dollars in damages, and modern estimates place the loss of life at over 500. In addition, the destruction resulted in looting incidents and other lawlessness throughout the city. To try and curb the crime during the weeks after the disaster, Mayor E. E. Schmitz actually issued a temporary shoot to kill order against anyone caught in the commission of a crime; it is unknown how many were killed under this order.

-- 1960, Chile --

Dubbed "the Largest Earthquake in the World" by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Great Chilean Earthquake occurred just off the coast of Chile, on May 22, 1960. The quake's magnitude measured at 9.5, the highest ever recorded by seismologists. The quake was centered beneath the city of Valdivia, which suffered extensive infrastructural damage and loss of life. The whole of Chile was scarred by the quake, and in fact the whole of the South American continent was rocked. The quake was followed by seismic tidal waves that drowned the Chilean coast.

The destructive force of the quake reached all the way to Hawaii, where a seismic tidal wave drowned the city of Hilo. Even the islands of Japan were hit by lesser seismic tidal. In the end, more than 2,000 lives were lost to the Great Chilean Quake, and the combined damages are estimated to have been near three quarters of a billion dollars.

-- 1964, Prince William Sound, Alaska --

The largest earthquake in United States history occurred off the coast of Alaska on Good Friday, March 2727, 1964. The 9.2 magnitude quake lasted for 4 minutes, causing extensive damage to nearby Anchorage, and general damage to many of the towns and cities of Alaska. The quake also created seismic tidal waves that drowned the coast of Alaska. At least one town, Valdez, was utterly destroyed during the event. The quake was felt as far away as Washington State.

The seismic tidal waves created by the Great Alaskan Quake caused extensive damage along the coast of British Columbia, Canada; the Pacific Northwestern United States; as far south as Los Angeles, California; and even as far west as Hawaii. Combined, damage from the quake

-- 2004, Indian Ocean -

A recent major earthquake rumbled deep on the floor of the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. At an estimated magnitude of 9.3, it was the second strongest quake ever recorded by seismologists. Occurring more than 18 miles beneath the ocean, the quake itself was not particularly devastating. Lives were lost and property was damaged in the quake, but because of events that followed there is no reliable estimate of how many or how much.

While the quake itself may have caused some damage, the resulting seismic tidal wave it created was legendary. The Indian Ocean Tsunami struck dozens of countries, including parts of India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Waves measuring between 80 and 100 feet high struck the coastal areas. The force of the waves carried them more than a mile inland, in some areas. Thousands of communities were destroyed, or displaced; resort communities were drowned; coastlines were completely reshaped by the force of the waters; and whole island populations are believed to have perished. Between 175,000 and 250,00 are believed to have perished, though a solid number may never be known, and no reliable estimate of damages yet exists. The entire region was quickly declared a disaster area, and the whole world offered aid.

Ultimately, the Indian Ocean Tsunami reached as far as South Africa to the west and Mexico to the east of the quake epicenter. Every ocean, worldwide, showed at least some measurable effect from the event. It is without question the first great natural disaster of the 21st century.

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