10 Biggest Tsunamis in History
A tsunami is a succession of waves displacing large quantities of water from an ocean or lake. The biggest Tsunamis in history are often catastrophic events causing large-scale destruction. They cost thousands of lives, damage large buildings, and even wipe out coastal cities. A Tsunami is not to be confused with a normal ocean wave. The cause of a typical wave is the gravitational pull of the Moon and Sun, triggering tides and winds, while volcanic eruptions, landslides, underwater explosions, meteorites, glacier calving, and earthquakes often cause the subsequent tsunami.
These tsunamis rip through cities, destroying everything in their wake. There have been several devastating tsunamis in history. In the 1800s, a volcanic eruption practically annihilated an island. Massive earthquakes in the 40s, 50s, and 60s triggered the most destructive waves in history. And then there are the 2000s which have seen some of the most costly disasters. Throughout history, devastating tsunamis have profoundly impacted the world as you will read more about below.
1. 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami is one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. The devastating event occurred on December 26, 2004, near Sumatra, Indonesia, in the Indian Ocean. The 9.1 earthquake set off a massive tsunami reaching 30 feet high.
Roughly 227,898 people died along the coastlines of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Somalia, and India. Some coastlines felt the impact within fifteen minutes, while it took seven hours to reach other areas. Since the Indian Ocean doesn’t have a tsunami warning system, several cities along the coastline were caught off guard by the massive waves of water.
2. 1918 Puerto Rico Earthquake
On October 11, 1918, the San Fermím earthquake hit Puerto Rico at 10:14. Also known as the Puerto Rico Earthquake, it hit a 7.1 on the moment magnitude scale. The quake caused severe damage to buildings, structures, and homes across the island. The earthquake occurred near the Puerto Rico Trench, causing a massive tsunami.
Minutes after the quake ended, a 19-foot tsunami struck the west side of the island, wiping out villages, trees, and structures. The devastating tsunami destroyed the island, resulting in between 76 to 118 deaths and over $30 million in damages. It remains one of the most powerful tsunamis of the early 1900s.
3. 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake and Tsunami
The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was one of history’s most destructive natural disasters. On March 11, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9.0 struck the Tōhoku region for six violent minutes. Moments after the quake ended a giant tsunami tore through the region, destroying homes, buildings, and structures in its path.
It caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster requiring further evacuations. Additionally, snowfall and freezing cold temperatures accompanied the already destructive tsunami. The weather made the rescue and recovery effort nearly impossible. Roughly 19,759 people died due to the earthquake and tsunami. It also damaged Japan’s economy and continues to have a long-term impact on the culture.
4. 1958 Lituya Bay Tsunami
On July 9, 1958, a 7.8 earthquake hit the Fairweather Fault setting off a series of devastating events. The force set off the powerful Lituya Bay tsunami as it pushed upwards of 1,720 feet, wiping out hundreds of trees at the entrance of Gilbert Inlet.
The earthquake triggered a massive rockslide, sending 90 million tons of rock into the narrow Lituya Bay in Alaska. The initial impact created a pre-wave that shaved off a substantial portion of the Lituya Glacier. The tsunami followed, destroying trees, erasing the shoreline, and killing five people. It remains one of the strongest tsunamis ever recorded.
5. 1883 Krakatoa Eruption
The Krakatoa caldera is a famous volcano in Indonesia that caused two of the most destructive tsunamis in history. In 1883, the first eruption nearly destroyed Krakatoa island. In August, the volcano released four massive eruptions heard around the world. The third explosion is one of the loudest sounds recorded in history. People heard it as far away as Australia, where most people thought the sound came from a nearby cannon.
The combination of the eruption and part of the caldera falling into the ocean created a series of tsunamis that swept across the globe killing over 36,000 people. As one of the deadliest volcanic eruptions, it had a lasting impact globally and historically.
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6. 2018 Sunda Strait Tsunami
Hundreds of years later, the Krakatoa volcano caused another of the deadliest tsunamis in history. The 1883 eruption created the smaller volcanic island Anak Krakatau that emerged in 1927. On December 22, 2018, the Anak Krakatau collapsed onto its caldera, causing a landslide that triggered a gigantic tsunami.
The 2018 Sunda Strait tsunami targeted the coastal cities of Anyer, Lampung, and Banten. With no advance warning, the landslide and tsunami caught everyone off guard. The majority of citizens had no time to escape the tsunami’s path of destruction. The disaster also occurred at night during the Christmas and New Year’s seasons, resulting in 426 deaths.
It’s the deadliest volcanic tsunami in history. It caused the Indonesian government to establish multiple early warning systems in vulnerable areas. In addition to tracking high-risk signs, the system also detects underwater activity, changes in water levels, and landslides beneath the ocean.
7. 1946 April Fool’s Tsunami
On April 1, 1946, an 8.6 earthquake struck the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The force caused some damage to Alaska, wiping out the Scotch Cap Lighthouse on Unimak Island. It also lifted the sea bed, triggering a tsunami. Five hours later a series of giant tidal waves approached the Hawaiian Islands. Also known as the April’s Fools tsunami, the waves reached 55 feet high, hitting Kauai, Hawaii, four and a half hours after the initial earthquake.
Approximately 30 minutes later the tsunami reached Hilo, Hawaii. It demolished homes and buildings on the islands, killing 173 people. Since the Scotch Cap Lighthouse was out and no tsunami warning system existed, the residents of Hawaii were surprised by the massive waves. The tsunami was so powerful that the impact of the waves was felt in Washington, California, and Oregon. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center went up by 1949 to help prevent an event like this from happening again.
8. 2013 Solomon Islands Earthquake and Tsunami
In 2013, a devastating earthquake struck the Solomon Islands. It reached a magnitude of 8.0 with an epicenter near the Santa Cruz Islands. The impact triggered a destructive tsunami headed toward vulnerable islands. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center sent a warning to the Fiji Islands, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Australia, and the Solomon Islands.
With waves reaching 36 feet, the Solomon Islands Tsunami destroyed property and damaged buildings. The warning allowed many people to escape to safety, however, not everyone made it out. The natural disaster took the lives of nine people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property.
9. 2015 Ice Bay Tsunami
A giant glacier blocked the entrance of Icy Bay at the start of the 20th century. For 100 years the Tyndall, Guyot, and Yahtse Glaciers have been in rapid retreat, helping Icy Bay begin to take shape. In Yakutat, Alaska, Icy Bay was the site of a massive tsunami in 2015.
On October 17, the Icy Bay tsunami struck the area at 8:19 pm. As the Tyndall Glacier continued to retreat, it triggered a landslide setting off a giant tsunami. The Icy Bay tsunami caused the most damage to the uninhabited Taan Fjord. This is why the tsunami initially went undetected. In 2016, researchers and scientists traveled to the Taan Fjord to study the tsunami’s impact.
10. 1964 Alaska Earthquake
The 1964 Alaska Earthquake released over 500 years of built-up stress in the fault line setting off a devastating earthquake. In turn, the earthquake resulted in a significant tsunami followed by smaller tsunamis.
On March 27, 1964, the Great Alaska Earthquake struck across south-central Alaska, notably Prince William Sound. The quake caused property damage to buildings, houses, and sidewalks. The damage continued with aftershocks and tsunamis, causing further destruction to Alaska.
The largest tsunami reached 220 feet high, hitting Shoup Bay, Alaska. Smaller tsunamis followed, causing damage throughout Alaska. Roughly 20 countries, including New Zealand, Japan, Mexico, Peru, and Papua New Guinea, felt tsunami waves.
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