Waves of Destruction: History's Biggest Tsunamis

Devastating Waves

Bhutan's glacial lakes are at risk of bursting their dams, causing 'mountain tsunamis'.

In landlocked Bhutan, tsunamis are becoming a danger. Climate change is melting Himalayan glaciers, increasing the risk that glacial melt will break through ice dams and wipe out villages. Scientists call these flash floods, one of which killed dozens in 1994, 'glacial-lake-outburst floods,' but in layman's terms, they're mountain tsunamis.

Bhutan is working to ease the danger by draining some high glacial lakes and shoring up their natural dams. Glacial lake outbursts can happen anywhere where glaciers are melting, but according to Bhutan's government and the United Nations, 24 of the country's 2,674 glacial lakes are at risk, making Bhutan the epicenter of this phenomenon. [Ice World: Gallery of Awe-Inspiring Glaciers]

These series of traveling ocean waves are primarily generated in association with underwater earthquakes (though underwater volcanic eruptions and landslides can also trigger a tsunami). In the deep ocean, the waves can reach hundreds of miles or more from wave crest to wave crest and can exceed speeds of 500 miles per hour (805 kilometers per hour). And they're sneaky, unable to be felt even aboard ships, and undetectable from the air.

Here are some of the biggest, most destructive and deadliest tsunamis on record.

The Orphan Tsunami

Tsunami from Japanese earthquake shown in old picture from Katsushika Hokusai. As in the past more and more people get recovered dead from the sea. April 15, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan

Tsunami from Japanese earthquake shown in old picture from Katsushika Hokusai. As in the past more and more people get recovered dead from the sea. April 15, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan
(Image credit: Dr_Flash | Shutterstock)

Around midnight on Jan. 27, 1700, a mysterious tsunami swept through several villages on the eastern coast of Japan. The waves reached as high as 12 feet and flooded rice paddies, washed away buildings and damaged fishing shacks and salt kilns. The tsunami struck not only without warning, but without an apparent cause, leading to its "orphan tsunami" moniker. Then in 2005, an international team of scientists and scholars has linked the orphan tsunami to a massive earthquake that struck a region in North America called Cascadia. [Read full story on the orphan tsunami]

8,000 Years Ago ...

Sixteen feet of storm surge struck the Florida Panhandle during Hurricane Eloise. Photo was taken on September 23, 1975.

Sixteen feet of storm surge struck the Florida Panhandle during Hurricane Eloise. Photo was taken on September 23, 1975.
(Image credit: Image Courtesy of NOAA Photo Library)

A volcano-triggered avalanche in Sicily 8,000 years ago that crashed into the sea at 200 mph, generated a devastating tsunami that spread across the entire Mediterranean Sea. (The avalanche sent tumbling into the sea enough material to cover the entire island of Manhattan in a layer of debris thicker than the Empire State Building is tall.) Though no historical records of the event exist — only geological records — scientists say the tsunami was taller than 10-story building. [Read full story on the Sicily tsunami]

The Great Lisbon Earthquake

A copperplate image showing the mayhem that ensued after the earthquake and tsunami rocked Lisbon.

A copperplate image showing the mayhem that ensued after the earthquake and tsunami rocked Lisbon.
(Image credit: Public Domain / Courtesy of the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering (NISEE), University of California, Berkeley)

On Nov. 1, 1755, a colossal earthquake centered in the Atlantic Ocean — and whose three jolts of shaking lasted 10 minutes — destroyed Lisbon, Portugal, and rocked much of Europe, people took refuge by boat. A tsunami ensued, as did great fires. Altogether, the event killed more than 60,000 people.

(Shown here, a copperplate image showing the mayhem that ensued after the earthquake and tsunami rocked Lisbon.)

Krakatoa Tsunami

A lithograph showing the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption that ultimately caused at least 36,000 deaths and a volcanic winter.

A lithograph showing the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption that ultimately caused at least 36,000 deaths and a volcanic winter.
(Image credit: Public Domain)

On Aug. 27, 1883, eruptions from the Krakatoa volcano fueled a tsunami that drowned 36,000 people in the Indonesian Islands of western Java and southern Sumatra. The strength of the waves pushed coral blocks as large as 600 tons onto the shore.

The Sanriku Tsunami

Tsunami from Japanese earthquake shown in old picture from Katsushika Hokusai. As in the past more and more people get recovered dead from the sea. April 15, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan

Tsunami from Japanese earthquake shown in old picture from Katsushika Hokusai. As in the past more and more people get recovered dead from the sea. April 15, 2011 in Tokyo, Japan
(Image credit: Dr_Flash | Shutterstock)

On June 15, 1896, waves as high as 100 feet (30 meters), spawned by an earthquake that struck Honshu, swept the east coast of Japan. And as is often the case, the waves seemed to come from nowhere. "Fishermen twenty miles out to sea didn't notice the wave pass under their boats because it only had a height at the time of about fifteen inches," according to a website run by the University of Hawaii. "They were totally unprepared for the devastation that awaited them when they returned to the port of Sanriku." Some 27,000 people died.

Lituya Bay

Lituya Bay a few weeks after the 1958 tsunami.

Lituya Bay a few weeks after the 1958 tsunami.
(Image credit: USGS, Public Domain)

On the night of July 7, 1958, a magnitude-8.0 or so earthquake struck along the Fairweather Fault, its epicenter just 13 miles (21 km) from Lityua Bay in Alaska. The earthquake caused a large landslide in the bay — located within Glacier Bay National Park — which triggered one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded in modern times. Waves reached a height of 1,720 feet (576 meters) in the bay, but because the area is relatively isolated and in a unique geologic setting, the tsunami did not cause much damage elsewhere. It sank a single boat, killing two fishermen.

(Shown here, an aerial image showing the bay just weeks after the tsunami.)

The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

In this shot, water rushes ashore in Sri Lanka during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The tsunami killed more than 220,000 people around the world and prompted U.S. officials to focus on tsunami preparedness closer to home.

In this shot, water rushes ashore in Sri Lanka during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. The tsunami killed more than 220,000 people around the world and prompted U.S. officials to focus on tsunami preparedness closer to home.
(Image credit: NASA)

On Dec. 26, 2004, a colossal earthquake with a magnitude between 9.1 and 9.3 shook Indonesia and killed an estimated 230,000 people, most due to the tsunami and the lack of aid afterward, coupled with deviating and unsanitary conditions. The quake was named the Sumatra-Andaman earthquake, and the tsunami has become known as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Those waves traveled the globe — as far as Nova Scotia and Peru.

Japan Quake and Tsunami

Map of Japan earthquake and aftershocks

Map of Japan earthquake and aftershocks.
(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

The magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, was the largest known quake to strike the seismically active country and the world's fourth-largest earthquake in recorded history. While the quake itself was responsible for relatively few deaths, the massive tsunami it generated rapidly inundated coastal areas and took some residents by surprise; the raging waters accounted for the bulk of the deaths in the disaster. Some 20,000 people perished or are considered missing.