10 of the Biggest Earthquakes in History

Modern seismographs were invented in the 1880s. Since that time, Earth has experienced some colossal quakes.

Signs of an earthquake.
Signs of an earthquake. / copyright Jeff Miller/Moment/Getty Images

The earliest written evidence of an earthquake can be traced back to Chinese records from 1831 BCE that reference the “shaking of Taishan mountain.” Almost 2000 years later, in 132 CE, Chinese philosopher Zhang Heng invented the first seismoscope. The urn-shaped device featured several sculpted dragons, each with a ball in its mouth; one dragon dropped its ball into the mouth of one of several sculpted toads depending on the direction a tremor emerged from.

Seismological instruments had come a long way by the time British geologist John Milne invented the modern seismograph in the 1880s. The Richter scale was developed in 1935. Today, most scientists use the moment magnitude scale as the most accurate measurement method, and seismometers can now capture a quake of magnitude 5 and above anywhere on Earth. Here are 10 of the most powerful quakes to shake the world.

Cascadia Megathrust of 1700 // Northern California to British Columbia

January 26, 1700, at 9 p.m. Pacific Time marks the moment for one of the largest earthquakes in the continental U.S. The precise time is known thanks to Japan’s centuries-long practice of recording tsunamis (which began in 684 CE).

When Japan caught the arrival of the orphan tsunami—one that appears without a locally felt disturbance—observers calculated its point of origin as the Cascadia margin, an area 70 to 100 miles off the coasts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia where the Juan de Fuca and North American tectonic plates meet. Modern seismologists have estimated its magnitude at or above 9. The event occurred along a subduction zone, where one tectonic plate thrusts underneath another, pushing down into Earth’s mantle. Those qualities classify it as a megathrust quake.

Oregon and Washington’s “ghost forests” provide more evidence of the event. These still-standing stumps were swamped by saltwater during initial flooding, followed by the land itself subsiding by up to 36 feet. First Nations living on the coast of Vancouver Island also help tell the tale: Their oral histories describe the destruction of low-lying settlements. Scientists say there’s a 37 percent chance that a megathrust above a magnitude of 7 will happen in the Pacific Northwest within the next 50 years.

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 // Portugal

On the morning of November 1, 1755, when much of Portugal’s population was in church for All Saints’ Day mass, an estimated 8.5 to 9.2 magnitude megathrust quake struck the country. The seismic source was a fault in the Atlantic seafloor where the North American, African, and Eurasian plates meet. Releasing an amount of energy roughly equivalent to 32,000 atomic bombs, the earthquake generated a tsunami with waves 20 feet high in Lisbon and 65 feet high in parts of Spain. Waves sped west for nearly 3800 miles to reach Martinique in the Caribbean Sea, and traveled east toward Algiers, 685 miles away. Scotland’s rivers rose, people in Finland felt the quake’s tremors, and lives were lost in Brazil. Approximately 60,000 people died in Lisbon alone, where the quake pulverized public buildings and 12,000 homes.

As devastating as it was, the earthquake delivered an era of enlightenment in philosophy, policy, and urban planning. Minister of State Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis de Pombal, led Portugal’s rebuild and leveraged fresh thinking in seismology, architecture, and disaster prep. Pombal promoted a grid design for Lisbon’s tangled medieval streets to facilitate future emergency evacuation, and firewalls were introduced in construction. A wooden frame called the Pombaline cage was invented for new buildings to better withstand seismic battering.

New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812 // Mississippi Valley

A mural in New Madrid, Missouri, depicting the “Great Quakes” of 1811-1812.
A mural in New Madrid, Missouri, depicting the “Great Quakes” of 1811-1812. / Carol M. Highsmith, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Five major quakes and thousands of tremors rocked the Mississippi Valley in southeast Missouri for three months beginning on December 15, 1811. On the river south of the city of New Madrid on the day it all began, traveler William Pierce wrote, “Never was a scene more replete with terrific threatenings of death.” Researchers have estimated its magnitude as high as 8.8. The previously unknown fault line of the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), more destructive than the more familiar San Andreas fault, was found to run 150 miles from Arkansas to Illinois. And the area’s crustal structure of soft sediment better conducts seismic energy, so shock waves were noticed from the Eastern Seaboard to the Rockies, and from Canada to Mexico—across more than two dozen states and territories.

The fifth and final quake in the series shook citizens on February 7, 1812, causing the Mississippi River to rise about 20 feet. Several small towns were destroyed, but the number of lives lost is undetermined. Experts figure there were relatively few killed given that the region was largely rural (only 5700 people lived in St. Louis at that time).

Ecuador-Colombia Earthquake of 1906 // Northwest South America

On January 31, 1906, a megathrust earthquake erupted on the border between Ecuador and Colombia. The South American plate (the world’s smallest major plate, encompassing South America plus a portion of the Atlantic) collided with the Nazca plate along South America’s west coast, creating a subduction zone that produced an 8.8 magnitude quake.

The earthquake spanned 300 to 370 miles, generating a 16-foot tsunami that affected areas as far away as Hawaii, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, California, and Japan. Waves collapsed buildings, unleashed landslides, and took out transportation routes. The death toll for this earthquake is estimated to be between 500 and 1500 people. It remains the most powerful quake to hit this region, though four subsequent earthquakes have happened in the years since, with the most recent one in 2016.

Kamchatka Earthquake of 1952 // Russia

On November 4, 1952, a megathrust earthquake shattered a section of far eastern Russia along the Kuril-Kamchatka Arc. One of the world’s most seismically active regions, the arc runs approximately 1300 miles from northern Japan, up the Pacific coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, and to Russia’s Commander Islands, where the Pacific plate subducts under the North American plate. The region frequently experiences quakes greater than 7 and 8 in magnitude—nearly 150 along the arc since 1900—which are often followed by devastating tsunamis.

The 1952 event is so far the largest recorded quake in the region’s history, registering as a 9 magnitude event and making it the world’s fifth largest recorded by instruments. The subsequent tsunami produced waves as high as 50 feet, slamming the Russian city of Severo-Kurilsk and leaving 15,000 people dead. Associated waves reached Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Alaska, and California. Outside of the local impact zone, the Hawaiian Islands were hit hardest, with damage estimated at around $23 million in today’s dollars. Waves reaching Oahu’s north shore, a well-known surfing destination, were nearly 15 feet high.

Valdivia Earthquake of 1960 // Chile

Damage to homes in Valdivia, Chile, following the 1960 earthquake.
Damage to homes in Valdivia, Chile, following the 1960 earthquake. / Pierre St. Amand/NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) named the Valdivia earthquake, a.k.a. the Great Chilean Earthquake, the strongest quake ever recorded. The 9.5-magnitude quake clobbered southern Chile on May 22, 1960. Seismographs recorded seismic waves from the event traveling worldwide for many days, a phenomenon called free oscillation, where Earth’s surface shivers like a bell after it’s been struck.

Scientists estimated that the rupture zone ran for 300 to 600 miles along the Chilean coast. The city hurt worst was Valdivia, where nearly 2 million people lost their homes, 3000 were injured, and 1600 people were killed. Financial damages totaled roughly $550 million ($5.6 billion when adjusted for today’s dollars). This quake also produced a terrifying tsunami, flattening communities in Hawaii, the Philippines, Japan, and New Zealand.

Good Friday Earthquake of 1964 // Alaska

Damage to downtown Anchorage, Alaska, after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
Damage to downtown Anchorage, Alaska, after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. / U.S. Geological Survey, Wikipedia Commons // Public Domain

Americans probably think of California when earthquakes are mentioned, but every single U.S. state has been served with at least one. Alaska, another of Earth’s most seismically active areas, receives the most quakes in the country. The state experiences a magnitude 7 earthquake on a near-annual basis, and it’s shaken by a magnitude 8 or greater every 14 years or so.

On the evening of March 27, 1964, Prince William Sound on Alaska’s southern coast instrumentally recorded the largest quake in U.S. history with a magnitude of 9.2. Tremors for this megathrust quake, which occurred about 100 miles southeast of Anchorage, lasted for five full minutes. Tsunamis following the temblor killed 124 of the 139 total victims.

Thousands of aftershocks rumbled for three weeks, with 11 on the first day registering a magnitude greater than 6.2. The continued tremors agitated the ground so that it behaved more like a liquid, leading to landslides, spreading, and settling. One such landslide in Anchorage damaged 30 blocks of homes and commercial buildings, with water, gas, sewer, and power lines also destroyed. Some areas were permanently elevated or diminished by the upheaval: the coastline near Kodiak was raised 30 feet higher, while Girdwood, closer to Anchorage, dropped by about eight feet.

Indian Ocean Earthquake of 2004 // Sumatra and Andaman Islands

A man sits atop wreckage left behind after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck Sri Lanka.
A man sits atop wreckage left behind after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck Sri Lanka. / Scott Barbour/Getty Images

Striking on December 26, 2004, this catastrophic quake began off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The 9.1-magnitude megathrust is world’s third largest in recorded history.

Originating more than 18 miles beneath the ocean floor where the Indian plate subducts beneath the Burma plate, the rupture spanned roughly 800 miles—about the length of California. Tremors were felt across Indonesia and outwards in India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Then came the tsunami. The 167-foot wave hit the northern coast of Sumatra in 20 minutes and rolled three miles inland, crushing everything in its path. The same tsunami reached Somalia seven hours later with waves ranging from 10 to 30 feet high. In total, elevated water levels were recorded at 100 coastal stations in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The tsunami displaced 1.7 million people, killed more than 227,000 in 17 Asian and African countries, and cost $16 billion in today’s dollars. Indonesia bore the worst losses, with 167,000 dead and $7.5 billion in damage. The tragedy led to better warning systems and global awareness for tsunami threats in the Indian Ocean.

Maule Earthquake of 2010 // Chile

A massive 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck south-central Chile on February 27, 2010. The earthquake’s epicenter was in the Conception-Constitucion area, considered a mature seismic gap, which meant it hadn’t ruptured recently and therefore was considered overdue. Another result of the Nazca plate/South America plate boundary, this megathrust was the largest Chilean earthquake since 1960. Helpfully, in the aftermath of the earlier Valdivia event, officials had established a stronger building code that saved lives. Disaster awareness and preparations had also improved in the intervening years.

The Maule quake killed about 570 people, comparatively fewer than other major quakes despite its power: The temblor was felt in six of the country’s regions where 80 percent of the population lives. However, it still caused $30 billion ($42.4 billion today) in damage, while the tsunami that followed the jolt destroyed several coastal towns with 100-foot waves.

Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 // Japan

Japan Moves Forward In Aftermath Of Earthquake Despite Nuclear Fears
Scenes of devastation after the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan. / Athit Perawongmetha/GettyImages

Just 81 miles east of the largest Japanese island of Honshu, a 9.1-magnitude megathrust earthquake exploded across the seabed on March 11, 2011. Disrupting an area 124 miles long and 300 miles wide where the Pacific and North American plates meet, it was Japan’s most powerful earthquake to date and tied with the 2004 Indian Ocean event as third largest recorded since 1900.

Less than 30 minutes later, a colossal tsunami overwhelmed more than 1200 miles of coastline. Much of the destruction centered on Sendai, the capital of the Tohoku region. Waves more than 130 feet high crushed buildings, roads, and railways and left approximately 450,000 people without homes. Of the 18,000 people killed, thousands were simply washed out to sea. Their bodies were never recovered.

Finally, the tsunami broke the power supply and cooling system of the three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, causing a meltdown that released radiation. Tens of thousands of residents were evacuated while workers got the reactors under control, but as of July 2020, 41,000 people were still displaced due to the effects of the disaster.

The 10 Largest Earthquakes Since 1900

According to the USGS, the 10 largest earthquakes since 1900, in order of magnitude, are:





Valdivia Earthquake

Biobío Region, Chile



Good Friday Earthquake

Southern Alaska, U.S.



Indian Ocean Earthquake

Off the coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia



Tohoku Earthquake

Off the east coast of Honshu, Japan



Kamchatka Earthquake

Off the coast of Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia



Maule Earthquake

Offshore Biobío region, Chile



Ecuador-Colombia Earthquake

Near the coast of Ecuador



Rat Islands Earthquake

Rat Islands, Alaska, U.S.



Assam-Tibet Earthquake

Eastern Xizang-India border region



East Indian Ocean Earthquake

Off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia



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