The 10 Biggest Earthquakes in History

Chistchurch earthquake (New Zealand, 2011)
Nature’s Fury offers an overview of plate tectonics—the theory of the movement of the 100 kilometer-thick plates that make up the rigid outer skin of Earth—to examine the causes of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. Faults occur where these plates grind against each other. As the plates move—typically at the rate at which a finger nail grows—the rocks on either side of the fault bend to accommodate that movement, building up stress that eventually exceeds the rock strength and forces the fault to rupture, the rocks to snap back to their original shapes, and the stored energy to be released as a shock wave—the earthquake. (Image credit: © Nigel Spiers)



The locations of the world's largest-recorded earthquakes. These massive quakes outline the volatile Pacific Ring of Fire. (Image credit: USGS.)

As massive and deadly as Japan's recent magnitude 9.0 earthquake was, it's not the world's biggest recorded quake.

It is Japan's largest quake, but dating back to 1900, four other earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have ruptured across the globe, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). We countdown the top 10 biggest recorded earthquakes in the world.

Assam-Tibet, 1950 - Magnitude 8.6


One of the world's largest recorded quakes struck here, near the Himalayas. (Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory.)

At least 1,500 people were killed across eastern Tibet and Assam, India, when this temblor shook the region. Ground cracks, large landslides and sand volcanoes hit in the area. The quake was felt in the Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces of China, and as far away as Calcutta, India.

The quake caused large landslides that blocked rivers. When the rivers finally burst through the walls of debris, waves inundated several villages and killed hundreds of people.

This quake is commonly called the Assam-Tibet earthquake or the Assam earthquake, even though the epicenter was in Tibet. The quake struck at the intersection of the most vigorous collision of continental plates on the planet, where the Indian continental plate smashes into the Eurasian plate and dives beneath it. The slow-motion crash helped create the massive Himalayas.

Northern Sumatra, Indonesia, 2005 - Magnitude 8.6


The Sunda Trench unleased a massive quake near Indonesia. (Image credit: USGS.)

More than 1,000 people were killed, with hundreds more injured, mostly in Nias, in northern Sumatra, Indonesia. The quake hit just months after an even bigger earthquake destroyed the region (see entry #3).

The quake ruptured below the surface of the Indian Ocean, where the Indo-Australian Plate is pushing under the Eurasian plate at the Sunda trench, similar to the 2004 quake.

Rat Islands, Alaska, 1965 - Magnitude 8.7


(Image credit: NASA)

Alaska had been a state for only 7 years when this huge earthquake triggered a tsunami of over 30 feet (10 meters). Despite its size, the quake caused little damage due to its remote location at the tip of the Aleutian Islands.

The tsunami was reported in Hawaii and spread as far away as Japan.

The temblor was the result of the Pacific Plate diving beneath the North American Plate at the Alaska-Aleutian megathrust, which has been the location of many megathrust earthquakes.

The quake cracked wood buildings and split an asphalt runway. Hairline cracks also formed in the runways at the U.S. Coast Guard Loran Station.

Off the Coast of Ecuador, 1906 - Magnitude 8.8


Ecuador is a shakey place, as this map shows. The 1906 quake struck just off-shore. (Image credit: USGS.)

A catastrophic magnitude 8.8 earthquake ruptured off the coast of Ecuador and Colombia and generated a strong tsunami that killed 500 to 1,500 people. The tsunami spread along the coast of Central America, and even stretched to San Francisco and Japan.

The earthquake occurred along the boundary between the Nazca Plate and the South American Plate. It hit more than 100 years ago, so reports are spotty, but according the USGS, witnesses reported a huge rush of water in Honolulu Bay. All the steam and sailboats in the bay were turned around, and then a sudden flood tide roared inland.

Offshore Maule, Chile, 2010 - Magnitude 8.8


(Image credit: USGS.)

Just last year, at least 500 people were killed and 800,000 were displaced by the earthquake and tsunami that hit central Chile. More than 1.8 million people were affected and the total economic loss was estimated at $30 billion USD. Central Chile is still feeling aftershocks to this day.

The earthquake took place along the boundary between the Nazca and South American tectonic plates.

The quake hit just over a month after the disastrous magnitude 7.0 quake in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, which killed more than 200,000 people.

Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia, 1952 - Magnitude 9.0


Kamchatka Krai Russia, is home to one of the most active volcanic regions in the world. (Image credit: ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center.)

The world's first recorded magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the east coast of Kamchatka in 1952. The quake generated a 43-foot tsunami (13 m) locally. The tsunami rocked Crescent City, Calif., which was also hit hard by the recent Japan earthquake.

No lives were lost, but in Hawaii, property damage was estimated at up to $1 million USD. The waves tossed boats onto the beach, caused houses to collide, destroyed piers, scoured beaches and moved road pavement.

Kamchatka has a rumbling past and many active volcanoes. It was also hit by an 8.5 magnitude quake in 1923.

Near the East Coast of Honshu, Japan, 2011 - Magnitude 9.0


earthquake magnitude comparison

On March 11, a magnitude 9.0 quake triggered a tsunami that killed an estimated 29,000 people and damaged some nuclear reactors. This earthquake is the largest ever recorded in Japan.

Aftershocks continue to rock the island of Honshu. The aftershocks include more than 50 of magnitude 6.0 or greater, and three above magnitude 7.0.

The quake was caused by thrust faulting near the Japan Trench, the boundary between the Pacific and North America tectonic plates. Thrust faulting happens when one tectonic plate dives under another. In this case, the Pacific plate is diving under the North America plate.

Off the West Coast of Northern Sumatra, 2004 - Magnitude 9.1


(Image credit: USGS.)

This quake was the third largest earthquake in the world, and the largest since the 1964 earthquake in Prince William Sound, Alaska (see entry #2). In total, 227,898 people were killed or missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in Southeast Asia and East Africa.

The tsunami caused more casualties than any other in recorded history, although some estimates say the death toll from the 2010 Haiti earthquake was larger. The tsunami was recorded nearly world-wide on tide gauges in the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

This quake struck one day after Christmas along the interface of the India and Burma tectonic plates (huge, moving slabs of the Earth's crust) and was caused by the release of stresses that develop as the India plate dives beneath the Burma plate.

Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1964 - Magnitude 9.2


Devastation from the 1965 Prince William Sound earthquake. (Image credit: USGS.)

This great earthquake and ensuing tsunami took 128 lives and caused about $311 million USD in property loss. The earthquake damage was heavy in many towns, including Anchorage, which was about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of the epicenter. The quake ruptured along a seismically active fault between the North American and Pacific plates. The shaking lasted about 3 minutes.

Landslides in Anchorage caused heavy damage. Huge slides occurred in the downtown business section and water mains and gas, sewer, telephone and electrical systems were disrupted throughout the area.

Chile, 1960 - Magnitude 9.5


Wrecked houses in Valdivia, Chile. (Image credit: USGS.)

Approximately 1,655 people were killed during the largest earthquake ever recorded. Thousands more were injured, and millions were left homeless. Southern Chile suffered $550 million USD in damage.

The quake triggered a tsunami that killed 61 people in Hawaii, 138 in Japan and 32 in the Philippines.

The earthquake ruptured where the Nazca Plate dives underneath the South American Plate, on the Peru-Chile Trench.

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