Today In History: History's Deadliest Earthquake

Today In History |

Today marks the anniversary of the single most fatal earthquake in history, a massive quake that struck Shaanxi, China and killed at least 830,000 people in 1556.


The exact number of deaths is hard to pinpoint with any degree of certainty. It's tough to get an accurate casualty count after major disasters that occur in the modern day, and it's even more difficult to make an accurate estimate based on historical accounts from centuries ago. However, the Shaanxi earthquake is considered the single most fatal natural disaster in recorded history.

Current estimates place the magnitude of the earthquake at between 8 and 8.3 on the richter scale. Not the strongest earthquake ever recorded, but it was part of a perfect storm of circumstances that led to massive casualties.

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The earthquake occurred early in the morning on the 23rd. Shaanxi was a densely populated province, with people living in very shoddily constructed buildings. The bad infrastructure collapsed, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The cities of Weinan, Huaxian and Huayin were very close to the earthquake's epicenter in the Wei River Valley and were the worst hit. Huaxian, especially, was devastated. Virtually every standing structure in the city was destroyed in the quake. Over half the city's population died.

Huayin and Weinan weren't much better off. Indeed, the entire region was badly effected, with earthquake damage being recorded as far as three hundred miles from the Wei River Valley. The quake was so severe that it opened multiple crevices in the ground that were as deep as sixty feet. In addition to structural collapse and holes opening in the earth, the death toll rose from enormous landslides.


The only earthquake that comes anywhere close to Shaanxi in terms of death toll is the one that precipitated the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, which killed over 230,000 people across fourteen countries. Even if the death estimate of the Shaanxi quake is inflated, there's nothing else in history that compares to it in terms of sheer scale.

The highest magnitude earthquake on record was a 9.5 on the richter scale. It ocurred on May 22, 1960, in southern Chile. It is called the "1960 Valdivia Earthquake" or the "Great Chilean Earthquake." Estimates of the quake's death toll vary, but the number is somewhere between one and six thousand people.

While earthquakes are certainly deadly, flooding and drought are actually the natural disasters that have claimed the most human life. The worst natural disaster in history also struck China in 1931. There was a series of floods that killed between one and four million people.

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Ryan is a rabid consumer of content, from movies and television to podcasts and news. He lives in a hole underground with nothing but a computer and a strong internet connection. Ryan spends all of his waking moments online searching for the most interesting stories to share with the rest of the world.