Tsunamis have occurred frequently throughout human history. Although they
are seen in every ocean on Earth, 80 percent of the worst tsunamis occur in the Pacific “Ring of Fire.”

As a tsunami wave approaches shallow water over land, the wave slows, causing the much quicker traveling water to pull up, extending the wave vertically. Reaching the shore, these waves can then be over 100 feet with multiple waves occurring in succession. Discussed below are the 10 worst tsunamis in history based on fatalities since the year 1700.


The 10 Worst Tsunamis in History

1. Indian Ocean Tsunami – The earthquake that caused the infamous Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 registered a 9.1 in magnitude and was said to have the energy of 23,000 atomic bombs. This extreme rupture caused massive tectonic plate movement, which caused other secondary faults to occur and expose an entirely new oceanic trench. These secondary faults elevated the height and speed of the generated waves.

According to some scientists, the amount of energy released was so great, the Earth’s rotation was slightly altered and wobbling of its axis occurred by 2.3 cm. The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed more than 283,000 people. It produced waves 50 m tall and reached 14 countries. 

2. Messina, Italy Earthquake and Tsunami – On December 28, 1908, an earthquake, lasting for less than a minute, shook the cities of Messina and Reggio. The earthquake registered a 7.1 and caused severe damage to the cities. Only a few moments after the shaking, 12 meter tsunamis inundated nearby coastal areas, destroying almost all of the structures and killing 70,000 people. It was proposed that the tsunami was not caused by the earthquake itself, but rather by an undersea landslide which was caused by the earthquake. In total, 100,000 to 200,000 people lost their lives.

3. Portugal-Morocco Tsunami – The morning of All Saints Day in 1755, Lisbon, Portugal and its surrounding areas were ransacked by a nearly 9.0 earthquake which lasted for several minutes. The earthquake was felt in Africa, Greenland, all the way through Finland and in the Caribbean.

In the center of Lisbon, it opened fissures 15 feet wide. Survivors of the quake rushed to open spaces only to see the waters recede and reveal the sea floor. After 40 minutes, three large tsunami waves inundated the area, forcing people to flee for their lives. In other areas, fires engulfed buildings and raged for five days. The waves then spread out to many surrounding areas in the Atlantic Ocean, including Morocco, where an estimated 10,000 people lost their lives. The total life claim of the earthquake and tsunami was as much as 60,000 to 100,000 people.

4. Tsunami in South Chinese Sea, 1782 – The destructive force of this tsunami lands it on this list. It traveled 120 km into the Chinese mainland, killing over 40,000 people in the process. The tsunami itself was caused by a tectonic earthquake on the ocean floor and it destroyed many crops and farming areas. Other outside information concerning the damage done is unknown.

5. Krakatoa, Indonesia Tsunami – In a series of massive explosions accumulating over August 26-27 in 1883, the eruption of Krakatoa occurred. The sounds produced by this volcanic eruption are considered to be the loudest sounds ever heard in modern history, spreading 3,000 miles from the island chain. Three volcanic peaks erupted over that two day period, unleashing energy four times the strength of a Tsar Bomba (one of which is more than 13 times the force of the Hiroshima, Japan explosion). Devastating tsunamis then spread over the islands, killing an estimated almost 40,000 people.

6. Tokaido-Nankaido, Japan Tsunami – A earthquake of 8.4 magnitude which caused 25 meter waves to engulf the coastal regions of Kyushyu, Shikoku, Honshin and Osaka in 1707. The waves of the tsunami extended several kilometers inland and as many as a dozen occurred over a one hour period. A total of 30,000 people died as a result of the tsunami.

7. Sanriku, Japan Tsunami – The Sanriku earthquake of 1896 was one of the most destructive earthquakes to ever hit Japan. It registered an 8.5 in magnitude and caused two large tsunami waves which caused 27,000 deaths. The waves of the Sanriku event reached 25 meters and swept away everything they came into contact with. Different seismologists have declared that the resulting tsunami waves were much more devastating than they should have been, given the estimated seismic magnitude.

8. Southern Chile Earthquake and Tsunami – Possibly the largest earthquake in recorded history occurred on May 22, 1960 off the coast of Chile. The earthquake registered 9.5 on the Richter scale and sent 80 foot waves pounding into the shore of Chile only 15 minutes after the earthquake occurred. The waves stretched towards Hilo, Hawaii 15 hours after the earthquake and then towards Japan 22 hours later. The tsunami also affected the Philippines, eastern New Zealand, Southeast Asia and the Aleutian Islands. The amount of damage ranged from US $400- 800 million and caused up to 6,000 deaths.

9. Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami – The 2011 earthquake of Tohoku was the most powerful earthquake to have ever hit Japan, and the fifth most powerful earthquake in recorded history.

It registered a 9.0 in magnitude and was preceded by large fore-shocks and hundreds of aftershocks. The main quake lasted several minutes, producing seismic energy that could provide a busy city like Los Angeles power for an entire year.

The resulting tsunami produced record high waves of over 30 meters and inundated several hundred kilometers of land. 15,884 people lost their lives in the resulting tsunami and also in the nuclear disaster of Fukushima. The Tokoku tsunami was the most expensive natural disaster ever recorded, costing the US equivalent of $300 billion.

10. Ryukyu Islands Tsunami – The earthquake that occurred in Ryukyu Islands, Japan in 1771 registered a 7.4 in magnitude. The tsunami that resulted claimed a third of the population (over 12,000 lives), with reports that the waves it produced were 40 to 80 meters high (although there may have been confusion in the original measurements). There was also a claim that an entire islet disappeared as a result of the event, but this has never been verified.

– Ashley Riley

Sources: Potiori, Australian Geographic, Random History, CNN, Some Interesting Facts, World History Project, Berkeley
Photo: Meljay