Earthquakes are a scary thing. The entire Earth seems to shift, causing the very ground to shake beneath our feet, bringing buildings that have been standing strong for decades—sometimes even centuries—to come tumbling down as if they were made of children's blocks instead of bricks. Not every earthquake is devastating, but there have been some that have wiped out thousands of people in one fell swoop. Here are the three worst earthquakes in history and a record of the damage they caused.
Shensi, China - January 23, 1556
Humans have been keeping track of earthquakes for thousands of years, which is why we know that the deadliest one in history occurred in 1556 in Shensi, China. Often referred to as the Jiajing Great Earthquake, this earthquake caused the deaths of around 830,000 people—a horrifying figure both then and now. Unlike other earthquakes that rocked the area around this same time period, this Great Earthquake took out almost 60 percent of the populations of several different counties. It also flattened mountains and caused fires that continued to burn for days at a time and floods that could not be contained. The event was so devastating that it seemed more like a biblical disaster than a natural one. Although it is impossible at this point in time to measure the magnitude of this earthquake, scientists estimate that it was between 8.0 and 8.3 on the Richter Scale.
Tangshan, China - July 27, 1976
The second-worst earthquake in history in terms of lives lost also took place in China. This time the earthquake hit the mining town of Tangshan in 1976 with a recorded magnitude of 7.5. Initial estimates reported that 242,000 people were killed as the city was almost completely destroyed, but later statements conclude that this death toll might have reached more than 655,000. 700,000 others were injured, with most of the fatalities occurring in families who lived in masonry homes that were not properly reinforced to withstand such a disaster. These people were sleeping when the earthquake hit at 3:42 a.m., and people at a distance greater than 680 miles in every direction were able to feel the shaking. An aftershock with a nearly identical magnitude (7.1 this time) occurred later in the same day, which only made matters worse, and caused even more deaths.
Sumatra, Indonesia - December 26, 2004
The worst earthquake in recent history (and one of the strongest earthquakes of all time) occurred in 2004 in Sumatra, Indonesia. An earthquake with an incredible 9.1 magnitude struck deep beneath the sea off the northern coast of Sumatra, causing a tsunami that was recorded by scales all over the planet. 227,898 people were reported dead or missing and more than 1.7 million people were forced to find new places to live as their own houses and towns were completely destroyed. Casualties were found in India and the Nicobar Islands as well, as the effects of this terrible disaster were felt for hundreds of miles.