Tsunamis have existed on Earth for as long as there have been oceans. A tsunami is a series of ocean waves that the displacement of water triggers, whether it be by landslide, volcanic eruption or earthquake. The word “tsunami” comes from two Japanese words, “tsu” meaning harbor and “nami” meaning wave. There have been a countless number of tsunamis on the planet. These are the five worst tsunamis in modern history.
5 Worst Tsunamis in Modern History
- The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004: On the morning of December 26, 2004, an underwater earthquake with a magnitude of 9.1 triggered a massive tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean. The tsunami first struck Indonesia followed by Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, South Africa and 11 other countries in a matter of hours. With some waves ascending over 100 feet, this tsunami has the highest recorded death toll with over 230,000 lives. Estimates determined that the material losses from the immense destruction were about $10 billion. There was also long-term environmental damage, displacing hundreds of thousands of people as the tsunami destroyed villages, resorts, farmland and fishing grounds. Prior to this tsunami, there were no proper preparations and communication strategies in the Indian Ocean for these types of disasters. Since then, scientists have prioritized improving the understanding of tsunamis and altered the way research and preparations are conducted. Of the five worst tsunamis, this one is the deadliest of them all.
- The Messina Earthquake and Tsunami in 1908: Southern Italy suffered devastation from both an earthquake and a tsunami in the early morning of December 28, 1908. The 7.5-magnitude earthquake and tsunami almost completely destroyed Messina and several coastal towns in both Italy and Sicily. This disaster claimed at least 80,000 lives and forced thousands more to flee. Even 100 years later, scientists still struggle with the origins of the earthquake and the tsunami. A recent study in 2019 has finally found the fault responsible for the earthquake in the Mediterranean. The combined force of the earthquake and the tsunami makes this disaster one of the five worst tsunamis in modern history.
- The Valdivia Earthquake and Tsunami in 1960: The most powerful earthquake in recorded history occurred on May 22, 1960, off the southern coast of Chile. The 9.5-magnitude earthquake arrived with a Pacific-wide tsunami with waves as high as 80 feet. The earthquake and tsunami claimed 1,655 lives, injured 3,000 and left two million homeless in Chile. The tsunami swept across the ocean, resulting in millions of dollars in damages in Hawaii and killing people in Japan and the Philippines. Estimates determined damages in Chile alone to be about $550 million. This disaster is significant because it was the largest earthquake ever recorded and caused the first global tsunami. This tsunami left no corner of the Pacific Ocean untouched, leaving devastation in its wake and making it one of the five worst tsunamis in modern history.
- The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011: One of the worst disasters in Japanese history is the earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region in Japan on March 11, 2011. The earthquake had a magnitude of 9.0 and a series of waves followed, reaching as high as 132 feet. This disaster claimed over 15,500 lives and left more than 450,000 people homeless. The damages to infrastructure from this event were far greater than any other tsunami in modern history. People estimated that the material losses were $300 billion and the tsunami also resulted in a level seven nuclear meltdown and release of radioactive materials at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Six million Japanese households were without electricity and one million were without running water. About 270,000 people had to evacuate due to the nuclear emergency. While the cleanup was still ongoing, the radiation levels dropped faster than people expected and people deemed some areas to be habitable again.
- The Sunda Strait Tsunami in 2018: The Sundra Strait Tsunami occurred on December 23, 2018. This is the third major tsunami to originate in this area, the first being in 1883 and the second in 2004. This tsunami came with no warning even though the area previously endured two of the worst tsunamis in modern history. At least 373 people died with reports of hundreds more missing and the displacement of almost 2,000 people. While the rest of the list dwarfs this number, what makes this tsunami one of the worst is the fact that the death toll could have been less had people put the proper preparations in place. People only found out that volcanic activity by Anak Krakatoa caused the tsunami after the fact. However, the tsunami warning system was flawed, as its design was only to detect seismic activity, not volcanic, which allowed for this tsunami to come by surprise.
When one imagines the five worst tsunamis in modern history, it suggests that these are the largest or deadliest tsunamis. While most of these tsunamis are among the deadliest, what makes them the worst is that they came when people least expected them. However, each one of these tragedies posed a lesson that allows people to take better preventive measures to save as many lives as possible.
– Emily Young