Before we go the Biggest Earthquake in History, let us understand what an earthquake is.

The earth’s crust, the deepest layer of the Earth, is made of separate pieces that keep moving around slowly. These pieces are what we call tectonic plates. The edge of these plates is what we call faults. These pieces sometimes move and bump each other. Since the edges of these plates aren’t smooth, they get stuck. After a time, these plates will unstick, that’s when an Earthquake happens.

That place where the quake starts below the Earth is a hypocentre and the place above it is the epicentre. To date, there is no technology available that can predict an Earthquake. Some Earthquakes have foreshocks but no one will be able to tell it is a foreshock until the large-scale Earthquake happens.

There is also the aftershock and some of these aftershocks are so big that they reach neighbouring countries. Below are some of the 10 biggest earthquake in history and the damage they have caused.


#1: 9.5 Magnitude in Valdivia, Chile[1]


Date:  May 22, 1960

No. of deaths: 4,485 people

No. of casualties: 2 million homeless

Estimated cost of devastation: USD550 million


To date, this is the biggest earthquake in history. The earthquake caused 5-meter waves to distant neighbours, Hawaii, Japan and Philippines. Almost 200 people died. The devastation doesn’t end there. The very next day, Volcan Puyehue spewed ash and it kept on spewing ash for more than a week.

The earthquake ruptured where the Nazca Plate dives underneath the South American Plate, on the Peru-Chile Trench.


#2. 9.3 Magnitude in Sumatra, Indonesia[1]

 10 Biggest Earthquake in HistoryCredit:

Date: December 26, 2004

No. of deaths: 170,000 to 230,000 people

No. of casualties: 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake

Estimated cost of devastation: There hasn’t been an exact figure but part of the damages included:

66% of agricultural and industrial infrastructure along the coastal region destroyed. However, economist estimate that the impact to Indonesia’s economy is minimal since very low percentage of the GDP rely on tourism and agricultural production.

10 Biggest Earthquake in History

size of the waves caused by the tsunami


The Indian Plate slid under Sumatra which belongs to the Eurasian Plate. This movement shook the ocean floor and pushed water up causing a tsunami. Some reported that the waves went to as high as 25 meters. This wave literally went across the globe, reaching California with waves as high as 40 centimeters.

What is more important is the effect it created on the environment, specifically on the Malacca Straight. The depth was previously 4,000 feet but after the earthquake, it became 100 feet. New navigation maps had to be produced, not to mention changes in the cargo industry.

Note that there are some discrepancies on the final magnitude. Initially, it was stated that the magnitude was 8.8. However, after reviews, it was estimated to be between 9.1 to 9.3.


#3. 9.2 Magnitude in Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA[2]


Date: March 27, 1964

No. of deaths: 131. This is low because there weren’t a lot of people in the area. The quake also happened on a holiday.

No. of casualties: N/A

Estimated cost of devastation: USD311M


Remember the tectonic plates we mentioned in the introduction? Okay, the tectonic plate of the Pacific moves northwest continuously. It’s slow, about 5 to 7 cm per year, but it moves. As a result, Alaska becomes compressed. As a result, some areas in Alaska become higher. However, hundreds of years of compression resulted to the abrupt upward motion of the plates which pushed up the coastal of Alaska.

The geography altered a lot. Several low lying areas raised by as much as 11 meter. It also caused a tsunami that reached up to 67 metres in height.



#4. 9.0 Magnitude in Kamchatka, USSR[3]


Date: November 4, 1952

No. of deaths: 0

No. of casualties:0

Estimated cost of devastation: USD1 million (1952 value)



The damage was primarily to properties and livelihood including:

  • Six dead cows
  • Boats that crashed caused by the tsunami
  • Buildings and houses that were destroyed

The earthquake caused a tsunami that went up to 43 feet.

Kamchatka has a lot of inactive and active volcanoes. The 1952 9.0 magnitude is the most popular one, it has experienced many other earthquakes with greater damages. Unfortunately, not a lot of studies have been done on it because these events happened prior to the development of sophisticated technology that allow for better research.



#5. 9.0 Magnitude in Arica, Chile[3]


Date: August 13, 1868

No. of deaths: 25,000

No. of casualties:

Estimated cost of devastation:


Like Kamchatka, there were barely any studies done in this 1868 occurrence. However, it was estimated that it may have been caused by a thrust fault. This is when one a plate, that is lower, is pushed up and usually over another plate. More of than not, older plates go above younger ones.

 Eight towns were completely destroyed including Arica, Torata and others. There were three ships that were pushed 800 meters to land.


#6. 9.0 Magnitude in Cascadia subduction zone, Canada and USA[4]


Date: January 26, 1700

Note: the magnitude is just an estimate.

No. of deaths:

No. of casualties:

Estimated cost of devastation:


A subduction zone is where there are plates that are below other plates. The Cascadia subduction zone goes from north Vancouver Island to north California. This is one of the longest known faults and it demarcates Juan de Fuca from North America plates.

The plates under Washington and Oregon are being pushed down. The North American Plate continuously goes southwest and is continuously going over the oceanic plate. The North American Plate and the Oceanic Plate has a contact point and that is the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

The 1700 earthquake is an event passed on through oral account but there have been studies that approximated the even to have occurred in January 27 1700.


#7. 9.0 Magnitude in Near the East Coast of Honshu, Japan[4]


Date: March 11, 2011

No. of deaths: 29,000

No. of casualties:

Estimated cost of devastation:


This earthquake has been witnessed around the world. This is the biggest earthquake in history of the modern world. What made this earthquake even worse is the damage it caused to nuclear reactors. Japan is shaken daily by earthquakes but this is the most damaging one.

The earthquake is so powerful that the aftershocks wen to as powerful as 6.0 in magnitude.

This one was caused by another thrust fault. The Pacific plate is slowly moving to go under the North American plate.

#8. 8.8 Magnitude in Maule, Chile[1]_


Date: February 27, 2010

No. of deaths: 500 people

No. of casualties: 800,000 people lost their homes and place or work. 12,000 were injured

Estimated cost of devastation: $30 billion US


Chile, like Japan, is shaken from underneath quite often but the most damaging one to date is the 8.8 that happened in February 2010.

This one was caused by the Nazca Plate going under the South American Plate. They are moving towards each other at 8 cm per year.

The damage was indescribable. It allowed 203 prisoners to escape, destroyed ports, properties and agriculture.


#9. 8.8 Magnitude in Ecuador and Colombia[5]_


Date: January 31, 1906

No. of deaths:  500 to 1,500 people

No. of casualties:

Estimated cost of devastation:


The Nazca Plate is going under South American plate 5mm per year. This fault has caused a lot of earthquakes in the past.

Walls of houses and churches cracked and bridges collapsed. Since there are no modern recording devices at the time, it’s hard to give specifics about the damage that the earthquake brought.


#10. 8.8 Magnitude in Sumatra, Indonesia[2]_


Date: November 25, 1833

Like others on the list, there are no reliable records on the damage that the earthquake caused but some studies revealed that this may have been caused by the between the clashing of Indo-Australian Plate and the Eurasian Plate.

There are estimates that put the magnitude between 8.8 to 9.2.

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