This article is about earthquakes and other disasters. I hope it’s informative, rather than just morbid or ill-timed or pointless..

With an estimated 144,000 deaths so far as a direct result of the Covid-19 virus, this is the first disaster in the past decade to have killed at least 50,000 people. However, it is the seventh to have done so in the past 15 years. There was the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, which caused an estimated 230,000 deaths, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake (~87,000 deaths), the 2008 Burma cyclone (~138,000), the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (~88,000), the 2010 Haiti earthquake (~220,000-316,000) and the 2010 Russian heat wave (~56,000). Covid-19 may prove to be by far the worst of these disasters, but for now at least it has not been the deadliest.

One obvious lesson here is the destructiveness of earthquakes and earthquake-triggered tsunamis. They  caused 4 out of these 7 disasters, including the two deadliest to have occurred so far.

Financially speaking too, earthquakes have usually been the most devastating disasters. According to Wikipedia, the most expensive disaster was the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, which caused approximately 16,000 deaths (2,203 of which were related to the Fukushima nuclear disaster it caused) and an estimated 411 billion inflation-adjusted dollars worth of damage. That same year, the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand cost an estimated $44 billion, itself one of the most expensive modern disasters. Second costliest was another Japanese earthquake, in 1995 in Kobe (6,400 deaths; $330 billion). Third place was the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (88,000 deaths; $176 billion). The next five were hurricanes in America, all since 2005 (Katrina); three in 2017 alone (Harvey, Maria, Irma). Yet even the 2017 hurricane season as a whole cost less than either of Japan’s big earthquakes.

Of course, these do not come near the figures of the deadliest epidemics, such as the 1957-1958 Asian flu (~2 million), the 1968-1969 Hong Kong flu (1 million), or the AIDS epidemic (~32 million in its 60 years, for an average of 530,000 per year, with a peak of 1.7 million deaths in 2004). Nor (as we have often been told lately) do they approach the number of deaths from other horrible problems, such as car accidents (~1.3 million per year). They also don’t come near the death tolls from the very worst natural disasters, like the floods that occurred in in northern China in 1887 (~900,000-2 million, perhaps half of whom died because of a resulting pandemic and famine) or in 1931 (~400,000-4 million).

These Wikipedia statistics obviously need to be taken with a huge grain of salt. They often range widely: the death toll estimates even for the recent 2010 Haiti earthquake, for example, go from 46,000-85,000 (according to a report made by the US Agency for International Development) to 160,000 (according to a University of Michigan study) to 316,000 (based on numbers from the Haitian government). The death toll from the 1976 North China earthquake, perhaps the deadliest post-WW2 natural disaster, ranges from 240,000-650,000.

All of these estimates may also overlook indirect causes of death and destruction, and certainly they do not include the significant non-fatal consequences disasters usually cause. The 2015 Nepal earthquakes, for example,  led to around 8,000 deaths, but 3.5 million people were made at least temporarily homeless by them.

Nevertheless, these numbers do show that the deadliest disasters in recent years have tended to be earthquakes. Searching online right now, I see that I am hardly the only catastrophist to wonder what would happen if  “the big one”  were to occur in an earthquake-prone area like Tokyo or the US Pacific Northwest in the immediate future, while the current pandemic is still going on. The probability of this happening is small, but not zero. I recommend reading this New Yorker article, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, about this subject.

One of the regions impacted most by the virus thus far, the Mediterranean, is also among the most seismically active, ranging from countries with a medium risk of earthquakes, such as Italy (its deadliest modern disaster was the Messina earthquake in 1908, with an estimated 75,000-123,000 fatalities), to those with a high risk of earthquakes, like Turkey. Iran too, which has suffered the most deaths from Covid-19 of any country outside of the US or Europe, is a high-risk country where earthquakes are concerned. It experienced a deadly earthquake in 1990 (50,000). 

China’s Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, is itself used to earthquakes. The province experienced an earthquake this past Boxing Day, just five days before Chinese authorities first told the World Health Organization that there was an unusual pneumonia in Wuhan, less than a month before much of the province went into quarantine.

Historically speaking, northern and central China have suffered some of the deadliest earthquakes, in large part because of how populous they are. Before the terrible ones in Sichuan in 2008 and Hebei in 1976, there was the Gansu-Ningxia earthquake in 1920 (273,000). [Three years after that, the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake in Japan (100,000-143,000) destroyed large parts of Tokyo and was, at the time, probably the most destructive disaster experienced by a modern industrial city]. According to Wikipedia, possibly the deadliest ever earthquake occurred in Shaanxi, in 1556, killing more than 800,000 people.

Before the horrific Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004, other recent big, deadly disasters include the 2003 European heat wave (70,000), the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone (140,000), the 1976 North China earthquake (240,000-650,000), the 1975 typhoon and resulting Philippine dam failure (230,000) and the 1970 East Pakistan (Bangladesh) cyclone (500,000+).

There have also been a number of disasters with death tolls in the 10,000-50,000 range: earthquakes in Gujarat in 2001 (20,000), Turkey in 1999 (17,000),  Iran in 1990 (50,000), and Armenia in 1988 (28,000). The only non-earthquake disasters in this range during the past few decades were a volcanic eruption in Colombia in 1985 (23,000), and cyclones in Central America and Mexico in 1998 (11,000) and Bangladesh and India in 2007 (15,000).

Certain places have been struck repeatedly by large earthquakes. The most notable of these may be Valdivia, in Chile. It experienced the most powerful earthquake on record, in 1960, an earthquake so powerful that by itself it accounted for roughly 25 percent of the world’s seismic energy released in the 20th century. (The next two biggest in the century, in Alaska and Sumatra, together accounted for roughly another 25 percent). The first really big earthquake recorded was also in Valdivia, in 1575, according to Wikipedia.

The next three big ones after that, all in the 1600s, were in Chile as well, including one in the capital, Santiago. Valparaiso (in central Chile, near Santiago) was then hit with big ones in 1730 and 1822, and Conception (on the coast between Valdivia and Valparaiso) in 1751 and 1835.

The other area to flag in this regard is the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia. It has been hit with one of the only two recent earthquakes with a magnitude of at least 9; namely, the deadly Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004. (The other magnitude 9+ magnitude quake was the costly Japan earthquake in 2011; until then most experts had not believed that an earthquake above 8.4 was even possible in Japan). Before that, no 9+ magnitude earthquakes occurred since Alaska in 1964 or Chile in 1960. A magnitude 9 is about 33 times more seismically powerful than a magnitude 8, and over 1000 times more powerful than a magnitude 7. Sumatra was also hit by two of the three only recent earthquakes in the magnitude 8 range (in 2012 and 2005). The other was just off the coast of Conception in Chile, in 2010. Before 2004, there was no magnitude 8+ since Alaska in 1965.