8 of the biggest natural disasters in history

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, can cause widespread destruction.
Natural disasters, such as earthquakes, can cause widespread destruction. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Natural disasters are devastating events that have the potential to cause huge amounts of damage and loss of life. Globally, around 60,000 people die each year as a result of disasters such as droughts, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, and a further 150 million people are impacted by these events, Live Science previously reported

Over the past decade, global natural disasters have accounted for 0.1% of total deaths, according to data from the University of Oxford (opens in new tab). While the number of deaths from natural disasters has declined over the past century, these events continue to cause significant amounts of loss and damage.

Here are just eight of some of the largest, deadly and costly natural disasters throughout modern history. 

The 1900 Great Galveston Storm

Floating wreckage near Texas City after the Galveston disaster. (Image credit: Underwood & Underwood)
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On Sept. 8, 1900, a storm swept through Galveston, an island off the coast of Texas. At the time, Galveston was one of Texas's biggest port cities, but a hurricane with 140 mph (225 km/h) winds swept it off the map. It's estimated that 3,600 houses and 600 businesses were reduced to rubble across 1,900 acres (770 hectares), according to the Texas Historical Foundation (opens in new tab)

Although it remains unclear exactly how many people perished during the hurricane, the final death toll was estimated to be between 6,000 and 8,000 people — one-sixth of the island's population, according to the foundation. 

Related: Bombogenesis: What's a 'Bomb Cyclone'?

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake

A building destroyed by the Sichuan earthquake in Mianyang, China.  (Image credit: Getty Images)
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In 2008, a deadly 7.9-magnitude earthquake hit several regions of south-central China. It caused multiple landslides and building collapses that killed almost 70,000 people across Sichuan province, according to the Asian Disaster Reduction Center (opens in new tab)

According to research published in the journal Landslides Hazards, Risks, and Disasters (opens in new tab), the landslides created at least 828 makeshift dams across rivers and streams in the region, which caused widespread flooding. The situation was exacerbated by heavy rainfall before military personnel removed these accidental dams, according to NASA (opens in new tab)

The 2019 and 2020 Australia wildfire

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Between 2019 and 2020, Australia experienced some of the deadliest wildfires in recent history. The official death toll for the wildfires was 33, according to the Parliament of Australia (opens in new tab). A further 445 people died from conditions related to smoke inhalation from the wildfires, and 4,000 people were admitted to hospital, according to the BBC (opens in new tab)

Between September 2019 and March 2020, 46 million acres (19 million hectares) of forests in southeast Australia were burnt, according to the Center of Disaster Philanthropy (opens in new tab). Generally, the majority of wildfires are believed to have been ignited by lightning, according to the Parliament of Australia; however, according to research conducted by the University of Oxford (opens in new tab), the risk of intense fire weather during the bushfire season in southeastern Australia has increased by 30% since 1900 as a result of climate change

The 2017 Hurricane Maria

Hurricane Maria caused heavy damage in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  (Image credit: Getty Images )
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On Sept. 20, 2017, Puerto Rico was hit by the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in the last 100 years, according to NBC News (opens in new tab). Hurricane Maria had the highest average rainfall of all 129 storms that have hit Puerto Rico in the past 60 years, according to the American Geophysical Union (opens in new tab)

The hurricane dropped around 41 inches (104 centimeters) of rain onto the island, which caused devastating floods. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (opens in new tab) estimated that the total death toll caused by Hurricane Maria was more than 4,600. Hurricane Maria was also the third most costly tropical cyclone in the U.S., causing around $98 billion worth of damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA (opens in new tab)). 

The 1815 Mount Tambora eruption

An aerial view of Mount Tambora and the summit caldera (cauldron-like depression) of the volcano.  (Image credit: William L. Stefanov, NASA-JSC)
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When the Mount Tambora volcano in Indonesia blew its top on April 10, 1815, it was the climax of the largest eruption in recorded history. It's estimated that 36 cubic miles (150 cubic km) of exploded rock blasted into the atmosphere and could be seen from as far as 808 miles (1,300 km) away, according to NASA (opens in new tab)

The explosion expelled so much volcanic ash into Earth's atmosphere that it reduced  the amount of sunlight reaching Earth's surface. As a result, the temperature in the Northern Hemisphere at the time, fell by 1 degree Fahrenheit (approx 0.56 degrees Celsius), according to NOAA (opens in new tab), and 1816 became known as "the year without a summer." Records indicate that the eruption caused 11,000 immediate deaths from pyroclastic flows (fast-moving solid lava, hot gas and ash), and a further 100,00 people died from food shortages over the preceding decade caused by the reduction in sunlight, according to NOAA (opens in new tab)

Related: Mount Vesuvius & Pompeii: Facts & history

The 1986 Lake Nyos eruption

A panoramic view of Lake Nyos, taken less than a month after its CO2 eruption.  (Image credit: United States Geological Survey)
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In 1986, lethal clouds of carbon dioxide (CO2) bubbled up from the depths of Lake Nyos in northwest Cameroon and  caused the deaths of almost 1,800 people and 3,000 livestock, according to the American Geophysical Union (opens in new tab). Lake Nyos is sat on top of a magma chamber, which leaks CO2 into the water above. In 1986, a sudden eruption of 1.6 million tons (approx 1.5 million metric tonnes) of CO2 gas burst from the lake, in an event known as a limnic eruption. 

The gas cloud rolled down the surrounding hillsides and smothered neighboring villages, according to the University of Wisconsin (opens in new tab). Eight hundred and forty-five people survived the event but were taken to hospital, 19% of whom were treated for lesions and bullae (blister-like protrusions on the skin) caused by the CO2, according to the British Medical Journal (opens in new tab)

The 1970 Huascarán avalanche

A aerial view of the Huascaran avalanche, Peru.  (Image credit: NOAA_NGDC, G. Pflafker, U.S. Geological Survey)
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On May 31, 1970, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake caused one of Peru's deadliest landslides, according to the BBC (opens in new tab). The quake emanated around 22 miles (35 km) from Mount Huascarán, Peru's highest mountain. The force of the earthquake caused massive landslides that buried surrounding towns, in particular Yungay and Ranrahirca. 

It's estimated that cascading mountain ice and rocks sped down Huascarán at around 100 mph (160 km/h), including a 772-ton (700 metric tonnes) boulder that crashed into Ranrahirca, according to the BBC. A total of 70,000 people lost their lives, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (opens in new tab).

The 2005 Kashmir earthquake

An aerial survey of the city of Balakot after a massive earthquake in 2005.  (Image credit: US Air Force)
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On Oct. 8 ,2005, Kashmir in Pakistan was hit by a 7.6-magnitude earthquake, according to the Earth Observatory of Singapore (opens in new tab). Landslides caused by the earthquake buried several towns and villages, including Balakot and Muzaffarabad. 

Around 90% of all buildings in Balakot were demolished by the quake, according to the BBC (opens in new tab). In total, it's estimated that 3 million homes were destroyed throughout Kashmir; more than 75,000 people were killed and a further 100,000 were injured, according to NASA (opens in new tab). It's believed that the sudden and rapid release of seismic stress between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates was the cause of the earthquake. 

Additional resources

Scott Dutfield

Scott is a staff writer for How It Works magazine and has previously written for other science and knowledge outlets, including BBC Wildlife magazine, World of Animals magazine, Space.com and All About History magazine. Scott has a masters in science and environmental journalism and a bachelor's degree in conservation biology degree from the University of Lincoln in the U.K. During his academic and professional career, Scott has participated in several animal conservation projects, including English bird surveys, wolf monitoring in Germany and leopard tracking in South Africa.