The massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti yesterday may be the most powerful quake to strike the island nation in more than 200 years. The epicenter of the quake was about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
When Nature unleashes her fury, humanity can seem instantly frail and subordinate. Cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes and volcanoes can kill thousands in moments. Often the final death tolls are never truly known.
It is impossible to compare modern and historical disasters and develop any objective list of the worst, yet a subjective list can prove instructive. Here are the challenges:
- The world's population has increased dramatically in the past century and a far higher percentage of people live near dangerous coastlines, so coastal storms and tsunamis stand to kill more people nowadays than in the past.
- Records of events long ago are typically much less accurate.
All that in mind, here we present 15 of the worst disasters of all time in reverse chronological order, with no attempt to rate one in comparison to another. We recognize the list is weighted heavily with modern events and that other disasters — both in modern times and in the distant past — could arguably supplant some of these based on individual perspective and interpretation.
January 12, 2010 - Casualties resulting from the Haiti quake are still unknown, but the Red Cross estimates that up to 3 million people may have been affected.
May 2, 2008 - The death toll from Cyclone Nargis remains uncertain but has been put at 140,000 or more. Caught with nowhere to run, residents of low-lying rice fields in Maynmar were simply swept away.
Oct. 8, 2005 - Magnitude-7.6 earthquake in Pakistan killed more than 40,000 people. The destruction was due in part to the quake's shallow origin.
August 2005 - Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and is the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. More so than any U.S. disaster in recent decades, its effects linger even today as New Orleans and many coastal communities still struggle to get back on their feet.
Dec. 26, 2004 - The magnitude-9.3 Indian Ocean earthquake and resulting Sumatran tsunami is estimated to have killed more than 225,000 people. It affected a broader region and more people than any modern disaster.
1992 - Hurricane Andrew killed 26, but property damage was $25 billion -- most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history at the time.
1985 - Nevado del Ruiz (Columbia) volcano killed 25,000 people, most caught in a massive mudflow.
1976 - Tangshan earthquake in China, a magnitude-8 event, killed somewhere between 255,000 and 655,000.
1931 - Yellow River flood, estimated to have killed 1 million to 3.7 million people via drowning, disease, ensuing famines and droughts. The river also had flooded catastrophically in 1887, killing nearly as many.
1815 - Tambora, Indonesia, volcano of 1815. 80,000 people died of subsequent famine.
1811-12 - Three New Madrid earthquakes in Missouri represent some of the strongest earthquakes in the contiguous United States in recorded history. With magnitudes estimated as high as 7.8 or so, they were felt as far away as Boston. Damage was relatively light due to sparse population, but the quakes serve as a frightening reminder of how fickle nature can be and they are also alarmingly predictive of what could happen in the future now that the area is far more populous.
1737 - Calcutta, India, event killed 300,000. Once thought to have been an earthquake, scientists now lean toward typhoon.
1556 - Shaanzi, China, earthquake killed 830,000. Nobody knows the seismic magnitude.
1330-1351 - The Black Death or Bubonic Plague, a pandemic caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, killed an estimated 75 million people, wiping out somewhere between 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population.
1138 - Aleppo earthquake in Syria, killed about 230,000. It is listed by the U.S. Geological Survey as the fourth deadliest earthquake of all time.
1500 B.C., or so - The Mediterranean Stroggli island blew up. A tsunami virtually wiped out Minoan civilization. Area now called Santorini; Plato called it the site where Atlantis disappeared.
SOURCES: David Crossley of St. Louis University; Livescience research and reporting