Which was the most damaging earthquake in recent history?

Humans have been recording earthquakes for centuries now. Although they are natural occurrences and are bound to take place but they have serious consequences as well. For years, earthquakes have been causing destruction and loss of human lives at a global scale. Today, science is able enough to track and predict earthquakes but unfortunately not stop it. Apart from the earthquake, the waves that follow are the most deadly, usually followed by a tsunami. Let us discuss the most damaging earthquake in recent history and how it shook the world permanently.

Tangshan Earthquake

It was July 28, 1976 earthquake that rocked the Chinese city of Tangshan at four o’clock in the morning. In less than a minute, 89% of the homes and 78% of the industrial buildings were destroyed (photo, above); killing 250,000 people, according to the official report. However, international observers believe that the death toll was even higher – about 750,000, which means that the quake claimed three-fourth of the area’s total population. A quake had not occurred in that region in six centuries and the area was considered to be at low risk for earthquakes. Consequently, the building codes in the region were not stringent enough for the structures to withstand the force of the earthquake.

China was also the site of the worst earthquake recorded: On January 24, 1556, a quake rocked the Shanxi province, killing more than 830,000 people.

Tangshan Earthquake Damage

When it comes to discussing the damage caused by an earthquake, it depends on two primary factors: The shaking intensity of the earthquake and the design and construction of the structures that are being shaken. Perhaps the biggest reason behind Tangshan’s huge destruction in the hands of the earthquake was that the city built structures without seismic considerations. These structures were ofcourse vulnerable to natural calamities. Therefore, the buildings of Tangshan were basically unreinforced brick structures sitting right on top of the earthquake.

Intensity XI and X Zone

The maximum intensity recorded on the Chinese scale was 12-degree. Nearly every structure and building collapsed or partially damaged. Essential services such as water supply, electric power and communications were completely knocked out. 

On the other hand, the area which experienced intensity X saw new, one-story buildings being slightly damaged, while the rest were destroyed or severely damaged. Furthermore, in this high intensity zone, there were five railway bridges and 20 highway bridges, amongst which, only six were able to make it with minor damage.

Coal Mines

One of the industries, Tangshan city heavily relies on is the mining industry. When the earthquake struck, around 10,000 miners were stuck underground. Although the mine roadways were not severely damaged but it became pitch dark due to no supply of power. It was reported that some miners were able to make it out within hours whereas some were not found until 2 weeks later. 


The Beijing-Shanhaiguan Railway was one of the key railways connecting Tangshan to Beijing, and Tianjin along with the seaports. This entire network was built without any consideration for earthquake resistant design. Therefore, these vital arteries were severely damaged by the earthquakes. At the time of the earthquake, there were 28 freight trains and 7 passenger trains operating. The trains derailed due to derangement of the rails. Furthermore, the railways operations were impaired due to loss of communication and water supply. It was a long and hectic process to make the railway network operational again, which lasted a couple of years. 

Death Toll

In 1988, several members of the Chinese State Seismological Bureau stated that 242, 419 people lost their lives due to the earthquakes. This was supported by the Xinhua News Agency, which is run by the state. 

Tangshan earthquake prediction

The Tangshan earthquake raised major alarms at a political level. The question about whether it could have been predicted was soon on everyone’s mind but the major difference lies in the fact that Tangshan was totally unprepared interms of structures and design. Even if had predicted the earthquake, it would not have been able to prevent the damage. After 30 years, it was found that the predictions of the earthquake were short-term and there were many unofficial predictions made as well without scientific support. 

In addition to that, several people belonging to the State Seismological Bureau wanted to warn about an impending earthquake somewhere in the region and was discussed in several meetings as well. However, disagreements along with ignorance prevailed, resulting in tremendous loss of life, which could have been prevented to some extent. 

In the end, the Tangshan earthquake was reported to be the deadliest earthquake in human history. It destroyed everything that stood in its way. Although Tangshan would rebuilt everything in the coming years but it was at the time, hit with something out of this world. While Tangshan moves on towards the future, it still remembers the lives that could have been saved.

Additional reading:

1976 Tangshan earthquake (Wikipedia)

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