Global Earthquake Trends 1900 – 2010

Killer Earthquakes and Other Problems Beneath the Surface

Silent and unexpected, without warning, they smite with irresistible force. All that dwells upon the surface is subject to the invisible fury of the earthquake. Shacks and mansions, buildings, bridges, and roadways; their permanence rendered illusory. Yet for all its titanic power, the earthquake, unlike other natural forces, does not kill man directly. It exerts itself on the very things that sustain our civilization, causing what normally provides shelter to cave in and crush us.

But in some ways earthquakes are similar to other natural disasters. Like pestilence, its force is unseen and usually takes us by surprise. Like a great flood, it can level villages or cities. And similar to some other natural disasters, there seems to be a rising trend in the number of people killed in recent times. As the bar graph below indicates, there is a clear rise  in the number of people killed by earthquakes in the last few decades.

The question is why? What is causing this increase? Is it due to stronger earthquakes? Poor building practices? These are not just academic questions. They’re on a lot of peoples’ minds nowadays. Subsequent posts on this subject will show that many different theories abound, running the gamut from the religious to the scientific: from the end-of-the world crowd to those who tie earthquakes to global warming.

Yet killer earthquakes raise other questions as well. Which regions of the world are most affected by earthquakes? How have they impacted human life in those areas? Sometimes powerful earthquakes do more than just shatter illusions of permanence. As we have witnessed in the recent case of Haiti, they can also expose shabby facades that have allowed inexcusable circumstances to exist for too long. The terrible earthquake that struck Haiti recently, for example, has unleashed many far-reaching questions. How could a democracy geographically so close to the most powerful country in the world have so little infrastructure that even in good times it must rely on foreign aid organizations just to operate? What are the reasons that led to this deplorable condition? Many recent stories in the mass media inform us how unlucky Haiti has been in recent years, listing numerous other devastating natural disasters as well as crushing poverty and other social ills. Like the Reverend Pat Robertson who claims Haiti is suffering due to a long-ago pact with the devil, the mass media stories seem to imply that Haiti, alone, is to blame for her plight. Is there anything that supports these accusations? Or has the earthquake also laid bare remnants of those historical circumstances responsible for the penury that has gripped this once proud nation for so long?

But is Haiti an isolated case? How many other countries and regions around the world have been crushed by killer quakes? Were many of them also impoverished? What are their stories and do they hold any meaning for those of us who live in areas that aren’t affected by earthquakes? Table 1.below lists the countries that have suffered one thousand or more deaths from earthquakes since 1900. This information was used to create Chart 1., also shown below. The question the chart asks is why earthquakes are causing greater numbers of deaths as the time line approaches the present? How many other Haitis are exemplified  in the incidents contained in this data? Chart 2. demonstrates that some regions of the world suffer much higher death rates than others.

Deadliest Earthquakes 1900 to 2009

Table 1. 1)source: The International Disaster Database, available at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, [accessed 12/22/2009]

[table id=16 /]


The Haitian Example

In what seems to be an increasingly frequent occurrence, the world awoke on a recent morning to the tragic news that another colossal earthquake rocked the world. This time it was Haiti that was smashed by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which, according to USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano, was the most powerful to hit the island nation since 1770—almost 250 years ago.

There were reports that tens of thousands of people may have been killed, including foreign dignitaries and peace keepers. In the words of the New York Times, “huge swaths” of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince, lay in ruins. The President, Renee Preval described the devastation as “unimaginable” in an interview with The Miami Herald.

“Parliament has collapsed,” Préval was quoted as saying. “The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

The chaos is so great right now that no one has a clear grasp of the number of people who’ve been killed. Haitian senator, Youri Latortue, told The Associated Press that as many as 500,000 could be dead. 2)ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS, “Aid workers in Haiti face ‘logistical nightmare'”, Associated Press, 01-14-2010, [accessed 01-14-2010] Based on this estimate the Haiti quake would go down in history as the deadliest on record. As the chart below demonstrates, this would surpass the catastrophic 2004 Asian Tsunami and 1976 earthquake in China by a factor of 100%. On the other hand, Victor Jackson, an assistant national coordinator with Haiti’s Red Cross, told Reuters that he thinks the death toll is between 45,000 and 50,000, a much smaller but nonetheless significant number. 3)HELENE COOPER and SIMON ROMERO, “Obama Pledges Sweeping Aid Effort; Haiti Red Cross Says Toll May Be 50,000”, The New York Times, 01-14-2010, [accessed 01-14-2010]

Who’s right? Unfortunately only time will tell as aid and rescue workers struggle against severe logistical problems involving electricity, medical facilities, communications and transportation systems, all stalwart pillars of modern life. Yet as has happened in other recent disasters, problems in these areas may also prove quite deadly in their own right. During tragedies that occur in urban areas, like the present crisis in Haiti, we realize how beholden our economic and urban development strategies have made us to complex infrastructure. Nightmares inevitably follow when roads and bridges go down or ports become inaccessible; when hospitals no longer have electricity or utilities cannot provide clean water.

Cities with their large populations in small areas have always been scenes of dramatic events. Dirty or clean, cities are paradigms of a civilization’s technology, industry, and culture. But when natural disaster slams into them,  we experience more than just loss and the pain that comes with it. We are plunged headlong  into a state of shock as one reality is suddenly replaced by another. Yet this is not without a silver lining, if we choose to see it.  Such occasions offer us the opportunity to ponder our weaknesses and perhaps even look at presumed strengths in a new light. Too often, however, we become overly fixated on the fight to beat adversity and restore the status quo.

Of course, we must act quickly to save lives. But what about when saving lives becomes merely a stage upon which elites assert themselves for their own future advantage, which doesn’t necessarily jibe with the interests of those who must suffer their aid? Or when the act of bestowing aid becomes enmeshed in politics, propaganda, and pent up foreign policy objectives? As we all know, these actors have already begun to descend upon the scene.  As we re-assert our broken technology to overcome the damage of catastrophe, we should not lose sight of the warning that disaster often brings with it. The unseen tragedy of disaster lies hidden in the fact that we often don’t see or hear its warning as we bulldoze away the wreckage and assemble the material back into bigger and better. We shouldn’t let ourselves be fooled into thinking that just because things look normal again that the causes of the catastrophe aren’t present. Death with his scythe sometimes lingers knowingly waiting.

Unstable Ground

Like other natural disasters, more and more people are starting to take notice of earthquakes. That perhaps, like global warming, there are trends starting to appear in the rate and possibly even intensity of earthquakes. Is their frequency increasing? Or intensity? Searching the Internet reveals that many people, from experts to ordinary folk, are concerned about all the seismic activity occurring beneath our feet. Indeed, what could be more scary than to think that the very ground on which we build our lives is unstable and prone to shaking? As stated above, future posts will delve into the ideas and concerns about earthquakes currently circulating out there. But first, it will be helpful to take a look at the deadliest earthquakes during the last century to see what they have to tell us.

Even a quick glance at the numbers suggests that there is good reason for people to have taken notice of earthquakes in recent years. In addition to the deadly quakes mentioned above, there were other notable incidents in just the last few years, some of which are:

– the 2005 earthquake that struck Pakistan in 2005, killing 73,338;
– 20,000 killed in Iran in 2003;
– 20,005 killed in India in 2001;
– 17,127 killed in Turkey in 1999.

(These are by no means comprehensive.)

While bad economic and foreign policies have played critical roles in exacerbating recent earthquake catastrophes—mangrove deforestation with respect to the Asian Tsunami and recent urban migration policies in Haiti—their frequency and power in recent years is in and of themselves disturbing to many.

Worst Earthquakes and Earthquake-Caused Tsunamis 1900 to 2010

Chart 1. 4)source: The International Disaster Database, available at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, [accessed 12/22/2009]

(click to enlarge)

Deadliest Earthquakes 1900 - 2010

The Rising Kill-Rate of Earthquakes

As the table and graph above demonstrate, countries around the world, since 1900, were affected by earthquakes on 129 individual occasions, each of which resulted in 1,000 or more deaths. There were 9 incidents involving Tsunamis caused by earthquakes. It’s important to keep in mind that there weren’t 129 geologically distinct earthquakes. Some of these incidents are related to the same tectonic movements. The December 26, 2004 Tsunami, for example, impacted a number of countries but was caused by the same earthquake.

2,258,165 people died in the 129 deadliest earthquake incidents from 1900 to 2008, while over 90 million were directly affected. Remember, these numbers only relate to those 129 incidents and do not represent all people that died or were affected by earthquakes during this time. Recorded monetary damages 5)monetary losses appear to be less complete in the earlier parts of the 20th Century compared to the later parts. Of course, another factor decreasing the amount of property damage is less development in many of the affected areas the further back in time one goes. amounted to almost $320 billion or an average of about $3 billion per year for the entire period (values calculated at the time of damage).

One of the most striking observations that the chart above offers is the substantial increase in the rate of deaths as the time line moves toward the present. This is partly the result of population increases. But the rate of population increase doesn’t match the death rate increase. In 1900, the world population was about 1.6 billion, while in 2008 it was 6.7 billion, about a fourfold increase. The chart indicates an average of about 5,000 deaths per occurrence from 1900 to 1910—and this is probably a liberal estimate. From 1998 to 2008, the average is about 40,000 deaths. This represents an eightfold increase, twice the rate of population growth during this time.

This trend is surprising if one considers the huge advances in medicine, technology, and humanitarian assistance over the last century. Why would there be such a significant rise in the number of people dying in earthquakes? Part of the answer may have to do with migration from rural to urban settings, particularly in the earthquake active Asian regions. As Chart 2 below demonstrates, the majority of the deadliest earthquakes have taken place in these regions. Yet, as the chart also demonstrates, there have been high death tolls in Asia, especially China, at various times throughout the 20th Century. While migration to cities may help explain some of this increase, it’s hard to believe that it explains all of it.

Not only has the death rate increased over the last century, but it’s increasing exponentially as the time line approaches the present.  For example, Chart 1.  shows that it took about 70 years for the average death toll to hit 25,000, while it took less than 40 years to approach the 50,000 mark. Furthermore, 593,680 people died between 1980 and 2008. 90% of this total took place since 1990. But a whopping 88% occurred in only 10 years, 1998 – 2008! The exponential rate at which people are dying in the deadliest earthquakes is alarming and may possibly  indicate that the frequency or the strength of earthquakes is increasing, or perhaps even a combination of both. It’s either that or the quality of construction has really gone downhill. Future posts will delve further into these questions.

Deadliest Earthquakes by Region 1900 to 2010

Chart 2. 6)source: The International Disaster Database, available at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, [accessed 12/22/2009]

(click to enlarge)

Dealiest Earthquakes by Region

References   [ + ]

1, 4, 6. source: The International Disaster Database, available at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters, [accessed 12/22/2009]
2. ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS, “Aid workers in Haiti face ‘logistical nightmare'”, Associated Press, 01-14-2010, [accessed 01-14-2010]
3. HELENE COOPER and SIMON ROMERO, “Obama Pledges Sweeping Aid Effort; Haiti Red Cross Says Toll May Be 50,000”, The New York Times, 01-14-2010, [accessed 01-14-2010]
5. monetary losses appear to be less complete in the earlier parts of the 20th Century compared to the later parts. Of course, another factor decreasing the amount of property damage is less development in many of the affected areas the further back in time one goes.

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

2 thoughts on “Global Earthquake Trends 1900 – 2010”

  1. I am in Nanchang, Jianxgi province, China. i live in a 21 story apartment building of recent construction (2 years). I just experienced a pulse or tremor of some-kind that went up through the floor, thru my feet, and gut at about 19:36 Beijing time on Aug 8 2010 (and as i write this–checking the date i just got an eerie feeling as i believe the big Sichuan quake was on this date). It happened two or three days ago as well, only slightly smaller. I see Nanchang had a serious earthquake in 1927 with over 200,000 deaths. And I did some research and found that research shows magnetic pulses are traceable about two weeks before an earthquake. i wonder if that’s what I felt. Should I be worried. The area I live in also has much clay. i wonder if the building is settling into the watery clay–it is a boggish area. I also read a research paper discussing the liquidification of clay during earthquake activity. i am concerned there will be an earthquake in or around nanchang soon.

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