Earthquakes have been with man from the beginning. The ancestors of the Western World, the Greeks and the Romans, long held the movements of the Earth in reverence and we do well to remember what they feared. Just in the first three months of 2010 we have been hit by two massive earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; both leaving an appalling trail of destruction in their wake. So I thought it might be time to look back at the five largest recorded earthquakes, all of them outstripping the disasters so far this year, as far as magnitude is concerned.
Number Five: Arica, Peru 1868
The coastal border region between Peru and Chile was completely decimated by this Magnitude 9 earthquake in August 1868. It resulted in the destruction of over 7 substantial cities located around the epicentre. Shortly after the quake a horrific tsunami hit the area, adding the seaside city of Pisco to the list of the obliterated. The resulting waves also drove portions of the Peruvian Navy hundreds of metres inland, leaving ships as large as 1500 tons wrecked. In total over 25,000 people were killed in the disaster.
Number Four: Kamchatka, USSR 1952
The massive earthquake struck just off the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, located on Russia’s far eastern seaboard, and is remembered as the cause of a chain of Pacific wide tsunami which hit as far away as Chile and New Zealand; although most of the damage was felt in Hawaii, Japan and on the Peninsula itself. No lose of life was reported outside of the USSR, but the casualties around Kamchatka are thought to have been severe.
Number Three: Prince William Sound, Alaska, USA 1964
This earthquake was the largest ever recorded in North America and was so powerful that hundreds of miles of land actually shifted, with one end being over 30 feet higher then before the disaster, the other end finishing 8 feet lower. The resulting tsunami decimated the Alaska shoreline, leaving over 130 people dead and completely wiping several towns right off the map. Waves also hit as far away as Japan and Hawaii, causing substantial damage there.
Number Two: Sumatra, Indonesia 2004
The most recent earthquake on the list, it is most noted as the cause of the horrendous tsunamis that killed over 230,000 people in almost every country boarding the Indian Ocean. It generated waves in excess of 100 feet high, sweeping away villages and towns, leaving thousands of miles of shoreline destroyed. The quake was so powerful that scientists estimate that the entire earth vibrated around half an inch, generating several follow up earthquakes around the world.
Number One: Valdivia, Chile 1960
The most powerful earthquake ever recorded, it not only caused the wholesale destruction of the city of Valdivia but a complete shift in the landscape around the city. Entire areas of land were transformed forever as the quake triggered tsunamis, flooding, landslides and even volcanic eruptions all around the effected area. The already wet region around the Valdivia suddenly became a marshland; cutting off all electricity and clean water supplies from the stricken survivors for weeks. The quake is thought to have had up to 37 epicentres along 840 miles of tectonic plate making it not only extremely powerful but fairly unique. Reports of between 2200 and 6000 deaths have been recorded as well as literally billions of dollars in damage, including many historical sites that can never be replaced.
It is worth noting that all of the earthquakes on the list were considered “mega-thrusts”. This is basically when one plate is forced under another (subduction), and due to imperfections in the face of the plate, gets stuck. Of course when it gets unstuck the entire edge of the plate shifts about; causing obvious consequences for us overhead. These kinds of earthquakes are the only type thought capable of producing magnitudes of over 9.0 and most often occur around the Pacific and Indian Ocean plates, though are not strictly defined to these regions.
The shifting of the earth has always scared mankind. Maybe mostly because of our inability to stop, or even accurately predict when these disasters will strike. It makes us take a step back and remember that we are still very much guests on this planet and that we by no means own the rights to it.