Below, readers can explore the history of the world’s deadliest tsunamis. Each was the result of high, sometimes record-breaking, magnitude earthquakes. They reached over 150 feet and caused incalculable damage and loss of lives.
Tsunamis are often the result of earthquakes in a fault zone but can also be caused by volcanic eruptions, extraterrestrial collisions, major landslides, and more. They produce huge sea waves in the open ocean that grow in size as they approach land. They vary depending on the cause, the fault line, ocean depth, and ocean. The major tsunamis are centered around volcanically active areas, like the Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean. This is particularly true of the east coast of Japan and the west coast of North America.
Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami – December 26th, 2004
Height: 164 feet or 50 meters
Effect: Hundreds of thousands of deaths, thousands displaced from their homes, and billions of dollars in damage.
On December 16th, 2004, in Sumatra, Indonesia, what has commonly been considered the worst tsunami in history occurred. It was the result of a 9.1 magnitude earthquake off the coast of the country. The ensuing tsunami was 50 m, or 164 feet, tall and reached around five kilometers or three miles inland. This terrible natural disaster led to the deaths of around 230,000 people and cost around $10 billion in damage throughout the various towns in affected regions.
Tōhoku Tsunami, Japan – March 11th, 2011
Height: 32 feet (10 meters)
Effect: Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, thousands of deaths, and billions of dollars in damage
Credit: Mitsukuni Sato
On March 11th, 2011, one of the worst tsunamis in recorded history hit the coast of Japan. The waves were recorded at 32 feet or 10 meters in height and traveling at around 500 miles per hour. The earthquake that caused this immense tsunami lasted for six minutes. It is commonly referred to as the “Great East Japan Earthquake.” It was the fourth most powerful earthquake recorded since modern record-keeping began in the 1900s.
Terrifyingly, residents in the affected area, mostly coastal towns, only had a few minutes of warning to escape from the impact zone of the wave. Even then, evacuation sites were heavily impacted, some of which were completely washed away. In 2021, official reports registered 19,747 deaths, with 2,556 people reported missing.
The earthquake and resulting tsunami created high waves that also caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Three of its reactors melted down, and radioactive discharge was released. This affected thousands of residents in the area and led to further evacuations. The earthquake resulted in the loss of somewhere between $14.5 to $34.6 billion. It is often referred to as the most expensive natural disaster in history.
Lisbon Earthquake and Tsunami — November 1st, 1755
Height: between 20 and 65 feet (6 and 20 meters)
Effect: Wide-ranging fires, thousands of deaths, the birth of seismology
On November 1, 1755, an earthquake occurred off the coast of Lisbon, Portugal. It resulted in one of the most destructive tsunamis in history and wide spread fires. The surrounding cities, including Lisbon, were almost completely destroyed. Today, seismologists suggest that the earthquake occurred at an estimated magnitude of 7.7 or more. The epicenter was around 200 km, or 120 miles, west southwest of Cape Saint Vincent. The death toll was estimated to be between 12,000 and 50,000 people.
Today, it is considered to be one of the deadliest earthquakes and tsunamis in history. Interestingly, the earthquake and resulting disasters inspired European enlightenment philosophers who wrote and speculated upon the natural disaster for years. It also led to the birth of seismology and, later, modern earthquake engineering.
Krakatoa Eruption and Tsunami — May 20th, 1883
Height: up to 150 feet (46 meters)
Effect: Thousands of deaths, destruction of Krakatoa, a volcanic winter
The famous eruption of Krakatoa off the coast of Indonesia resulted in a deadly earthquake and tsunami. It began on May 20th and lasted until August 27th. Around 70% of the island of Krakatoa and the surrounding islands were destroyed. The eruption itself is considered one of the most destructive volcanic events in recorded history. It was heard up to 1,900 miles away in Western Australia.
At least 36,000 deaths are attributed to the eruption and the tsunami that resulted. Terrifyingly, ships as far away as South Africa were impacted by the tsunami. Waves as high as 46 meters, or 150 feet, were recorded.
Meiō Earthquake and Tsunami — September 20th, 1498
Height: up to 56 feet (17 meters)
Effect: Between 5,000 and 41,000 deaths and the destruction of the building that housed the Great Buddha at Kōtoku-in
The Meiō earthquake occurred off the coast of Nankaidō, Japan, on September 20th, 1498. Today, seismologists estimate that the earthquake had a magnitude of 8.6. The death toll associated with this horrifying natural disaster ranges from 5,000 up to 41,000 casualties. Famously, the resulting tsunami destroyed the building that housed the Great Buddha at t Kōtoku-in, although the statue itself survived.
Hōei Earthquake and Tsunami – October 28th, 1707
Height: up to 82 feet (25 meters)
Effect: Loss of 5,000 lives, possibly the last eruption of Mount Fuji
The Hōei earthquake was considered the largest earthquake in Japanese history until 2011. In combination with the resulting tsunami created large waves and an estimated 5,000 lives were lost. Scientists have also speculated that it may have triggered the last eruption of Mount Fuji, which occurred 49 days later.
Sanriku Earthquake and Tsunamis — June 15th, 1896
Height: 125 feet (38 meters)
Effect: Two tsunamis, loss of at least 22,000 lives
On June 15th, 1896, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake hit the coast of Japan. It was one of the most destructive in Japanese history. It resulted in two tsunamis that destroyed up to 9,000 homes and took at least 22,000 lives. It broke the record height at the time, reaching 125 feet or around 38 meters.
Arica Earthquake and Tsunami – August 13th, 1868
Height: 39 feet (12 meters) and 52 feet (16 meters)
Effect: 25,000 casualties, destruction of ships and towns
Credit: USMC Archives
On August 13th, 1868, an earthquake somewhere between 8.5 and 9.0 hit the coast of Chile. Multiple tsunamis were produced recorded as far away as Hawaii, Japan, and Australia. The earthquake and resulting tsunamis caused around 25,000 casualties and destroyed numerous ships. Three ships anchored along the coast were carried around 800 meters or 2,600 feet inland. Several others were completely destroyed.
What is the worst tsunami in history?
What has commonly been considered the worst tsunami in history occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004. It was the result of a 9.1 magnitude earthquake that occurred off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. It caused a wave that was a record-breaking 164 feet tall, resulting in around $10 billion in damage and the deaths of 230,000 people.
What are the top three worst tsunamis?
The top three worst tsunamis in history are the Sumatran tsunami of 2004, the Tōhoku tsunami in 2011, and the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami in 1755. Often, the worst tsunamis are not the largest. But, in these instances, waves reached incredible heights of more than 150 feet.
What is the deadliest tsunami in history?
The deadliest tsunami in history occurred in the Indian Ocean in 2004. It was the result of an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra that took around 230,000 lives across fourteen countries.
What happened in Lituya Bay?
One of the largest tsunamis in history occurred in Lituya Bay off the coast of Alaska. It created huge waves, some of the largest in modern history on the north Pacific Coast.