There are few things more awe-inspiring and terrifying than natural disasters. The fact that the Earth can shift from being the planet that provides us with life to the very thing threatening our existence is difficult to fathom. Still, these sudden, often unpredictable historic events have been incredibly important in shaping the world to be what it is today. One such natural disaster is the earthquake. While small earthquakes go ignored on a daily basis, more impactful ones have left their mark throughout human history. Here are six earthquakes that taught humanity valuable lessons, inspired thought, or had record-breaking consequences that everyone should know about.
On the morning of November 1, 1755, (corresponding with the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Day) the then-Kingdom of Portugal experienced one of the most destructive earthquakes in recorded history. Modern scientists estimate the moment magnitude (think Richter scale, but more accurate) to have been between 8.5 and 9.0. The combination of ground shaking, fires, and the tsunami produced from the event caused between 60,000 to 100,000 casualties and the almost complete destruction of the city of Lisbon. This earthquake is considered to be the first of its kind to have been studied scientifically for its effects, leading to the eventual creation of the field of seismology. Additionally, the Lisbon earthquake greatly influenced the direction of philosophy and religious thought in Europe and disrupted the Kingdom of Portugal’s plans for colonialism.
In the United States, the West Coast is famous for its earthquakes, specifically California (and for good reason – see the next entry). Did you know that other places in the United States have had major earthquakes, including the interior of the nation? Between December 16, 1811, and February 7, 1812, three earthquakes larger than magnitude 7.0 occurred within the New Madrid region of Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee. These earthquakes represent the largest events to occur east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States since Europeans settled the area, and prove that earthquakes can happen even in areas without active plate boundaries.
When a person thinks about an earthquake in the United States, unless they have specific experience with one, they will probably think about the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. This is the earthquake that really established California as the place to study earthquakes in the United States. Though not the largest earthquake to occur even in California, it is much more significant for the knowledge gained from studying it. Additionally, most of the casualties reported for the event were due to the fires that broke out in San Francisco, not the ground shaking itself. Secondary hazards such as fires continue to be deadly even today.
On May 22, 1960, the largest earthquake to be instrumentally recorded happened near the town of Valdivia in Chile. The moment magnitude was calculated to be 9.5, which scientists believe is basically the largest earthquake possible (rocks can only store so much energy before they break). This event also produced a tsunami that resulted in casualties around the Pacific Ocean, reaching as far away as Japan the day following the earthquake. The extensive reach and the scale of preventable deaths caused by the tsunami helped inspire the creation of the International Tsunami Warning of the Pacific (ITSU) in 1965.
Around dinnertime on March 27, 1964 (Good Friday), a 9.2 magnitude earthquake struck Alaska about 74 miles southeast of Anchorage. This was the largest recorded earthquake in North America and the second largest in the world. Many landslides were triggered from the shaking, including some within downtown Anchorage. Underwater landslides caused local tsunamis while a larger tsunami made its way down the West Coast, causing casualties and extensive damage as far south as California. As with the previous entry, the damage caused by tsunamis helped to prompt the establishment of the ITSU.
I’m fairly sure many people will remember hearing about this one, but I’ll do a quick refresher. The day after Christmas in 2004, tourists were out en masse at popular vacation spots around the Indian Ocean. Tragically, one of the largest earthquakes in modern history struck this idyllic scene. Again, it wasn’t the ground shaking that caused a majority of the destruction; the widespread tsunami produced by the event caused the most damage. Known as the Boxing Day tsunami, it was the deadliest in recorded history. Reaching as far as South Africa, at least 230,000 casualties are reported from the event. In response to the devastating tsunami, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System was established.
As tragic as earthquakes can be, it is important that we continue to study them and learn all we can from them. This is the only way that we may be able to prevent future tragedies of the same kind. Already, the tsunami warning systems are at work to keep people safe. So, learn as much as you want to about these important earthquakes, identify the warning signs for potential secondary hazards (tsunamis!), and learn about the dangers present in the places where you live or visit. The earth is an incredible and dynamic place, full of both wonders and terrors. Keep yourself safe so that you can enjoy the possibilities available to you in the world.