The Deadliest Known Natural Disasters

We've scanned through records of every type from hailstorm to tsunami

Written by Carly Hallman

What have been the worst natural disasters in history? We’ve scanned through records to find the world’s worst disasters of every type, from floods to volcanic eruptions. When Earth attacks man, how bad can it be? Scan this list of deadliest natural disasters to see the often-unpredictable toll that world disasters have had on civilizations.

The Deadliest Known Natural Disasters by Type infographic

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The Deadliest Known Natural Disasters of All Time by Type Transcript

Type + Name Death Toll Location + Date Notes Runner-Up, Location, Death Toll
Famine caused by drought, Great Chinese Famine 36,000,000 Northern China, 1959-1961 Drought conditions were exacerbated by Mao Zedong’s ill-advised farming policies. 1876-79 North China famine, North China, 13,000,000
Flood, 1931 Yangzi-Huai Flood Disaster 4,000,000 (disputed) China, Summer 1931 Caused by a combination of long droughts, a harsh winter, and heavy spring rains Yellow River flood (1887), China, 900,000
Earthquake, 1556 Shaanxi earthquake 820,000 (disputed) Shaanxi, China, July 28, 1976 Magnitude 8.0, according to modern estimates Tangshan earthquake (1976), Hebei, China, 242,769-700,000
Tropical cyclone, Bhola Cyclone 500,000 East Pakistan, West Bengal, Nov. 12, 1970 Caused $86.4 million in damage Coringa Cyclone (1839), Coringa, India, 300,000
Tsunami, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami 280,000 Indian Ocean (affected 14 countries), Dec. 26, 2004 U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the earthquake causing the tsunami released the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs 1908 Messina earthquake, Italy, 280,000
Volcanic eruption, Mount Tambora eruption 71,000 Indonesia, April 5, 1815 Believed to have triggered severe climate abnormalities that caused “the Year Without a Summer,” a period of global famine, in 1816 Krakatoa eruption (1883), Indonesia, 36,000
Heat wave, 2003 European heat wave 70,000 Western Europe, July-August, 2003 Hottest summer on record in Europe since 1540 Russian heat wave (2010), Russia, 56,000
Mudslide, Vargas Tragedy 30,000 Vargas, Venezuala, Dec. 15, 1999 As much as 10% of the Vargas population was killed. Armero Tragedy (1985), Tolima, Colombia, 22,000
Avalanche, Huascarán avalanche 20,000 Peru, May 31, 1970 Triggered by an earthquake Advanced 11 miles at a speed of 175-210 mph White Friday (1916), Dolomites, Italy, 10,000
Blizzard, 1972 Iran blizzard 4,000 Iran, Feb. 3, 1972 Southern Iran received as much as 26 feett of snow. Some villages had no survivors. Carolean Death March (1719), Sweden, 3,000
Wildfire, Peshtigo Fire 2,500 Peshtigo, Wisconsin, Oct. 8, 1871 Occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire; burned 1,200,000 acres Kursha-2 Fire (1936), Ryazan Oblast, Russia, 1,200
Limnic eruption, Lake Nyos 1,746 Cameroon, Aug. 21, 1986 Limnic eruption triggered a sudden release of 100,000-300,000 tons of CO2, suffocating nearby villages. Lake Manoun (1984), 37
Tornado, 1989 Daulatpur-Saturia tornado 1,300 Manikganj District, Bangladesh, April 26, 1989 1 mi (1.5 km) in diameter; caused $1.5 million in damages Tri-State Tornado (1925), Midwestern and southern United States, 695
Hailstorm, 1888 Moradabad hailstorm 246 Uttar Pradesh, India, April 30, 1888 Reports state that the hailstones were as big as oranges and accumulated to up to 2 feet in height. Central China hailstorm (1986), 100


What is the worst natural disaster ever?

Excluding viral and bacterial pandemics, the deadliest natural disaster in history was the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 to 1961, which caused a massive loss of life estimated somewhere between 30 and 45 million people. By far, this drought and subsequent famine was the deadliest natural disaster in the world, leading to starvation on a massive scale. Some may argue that this isn’t quite the deadliest natural disaster due to the government of the People’s Republic of China having a hand in bad food distribution, agricultural policies, and regulations that aggravated the problem. One thing’s clear, though: It was the worst famine in the world following what was likely the worst drought in history.

What was the worst flood in history?

As of now, the 1931 Chinese flood of the Yangzi and Huai rivers was the worst flood, killing somewhere between a million and 4 million people. Following a drought, the floodwaters took over an area about the size of England. Dangerous floods affected other waterways throughout the country, too. There was an intense outbreak of illnesses, overcrowding, and a lack of food following the flood. Though the numbers are disputed, with the contemporary Chinese government saying that the death toll was more likely around 2 million, it’s still considered the worst flood in history.

What was the deadliest earthquake in history?

The worst earthquake ever is yet another Chinese catastrophe, but this one happened way back in 1556 in Shaanxi province. If you look at the earthquake death toll, that’s by far the worst at disputably 4 million deaths. If you’re not looking at the most deadly earthquakes but just the worst in order of magnitude, the worst happened in 1960 in Chile, with a magnitude of 9.6. Shaanxi’s earthquake was likely an 8.0, but it’s hard to tell because it happened before modern instruments were available.

What was the biggest cyclone in history?

Of the deadliest tropical cyclones is the mighty Bhola Cyclone in 1970, which caused 500,000 deaths and $86 million in damage. That’s the worst cyclone ever. In case you were wondering, on the other side of the globe, the worst hurricane ever was the Great Hurricane of 1780. In more recent history, the worst was Hurricane Mitch in 1998. It’s the deadliest among a string of recent category 5 hurricanes.

What is the biggest tsunami in the world that’s ever been recorded?

The deadliest tsunami in history was the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, which smashed over areas such as the Nicobar Islands, Burma, Indonesia, and parts of Sri Lanka. The total tsunami death toll was 280,000 people. The total energy of the tsunami was equivalent to about five megatons of TNT. The wave was about 15 to 30 meters (50 to 100 ft) high and traveling at speeds of 800km/h (500mph) when it hit Indonesia. In terms of casualties, it’s the worst tsunami ever, but the biggest tsunami in the world happened in Alaska, where a landslide in 1958 resulted in 100-foot-high waves.

What was the biggest volcanic eruption ever?

The deadliest volcano in the world was the Mount Tambora eruption in 1815, which resulted in 71,000 deaths. Of course, that’s the deadliest volcano eruption in human history; the volcano at Yellowstone erupted about 2.2 million years ago, and it probably packed a bit more of a punch, making it the worst volcano ever.

What was the deadliest tornado in the world?

Luckily, tornadoes are usually not the most dangerous natural disasters around the world, but there has been one twister that managed to kill more than a thousand people: the Daulatpur-Saturia tornado in 1989, the deadliest tornado of all time. The runner-up is considered to be the biggest tornado ever, in terms of its duration and the size of its damage path: the Tri-State Tornado in the U.S., which happened in 1925.

Check our list of disasters to see some of the other categories, like the biggest avalanche in the world, the worst blizzard in history, and the deadliest wildfire ever. We’ve listed the biggest natural disasters in the world by how much they’ve had an impact on human life, but the Earth is far older and stronger than that: Remember that there may have been plenty of volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis that we don’t know about! But you can check out our world’s worst natural disasters list to see how quickly natural events have disrupted human life.

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