8 of the Most Devastating Deadly Land Disasters


(Part 1 in a 4-Part Exclusive WebEcoist Series on Incredibly Destructive Natural Disasters)

Just as beautiful landscapes of nature can inspire, nature can equally well terrify with her deadly force. Here, captured in images, videos and stories are some of the most stunning natural disasters in recent human memory. From earthquakes to landslides and sinkholes, nature’s power is awe-inspiring and, at times, lethal – particularly land disasters which are often the most deadly to the Earth’s humans inhabitants.

Incredible and Catastrophic Earthquakes

1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake, North America


(Images via Popular Mechanics, wvdhsem.gov, P. Scott Cummins and NOAA)

Though it’s one of the older lethal disasters on record, the tremendous Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 was an earthquake so bad it triggered a tsunami. The 9.2 earthquake released underwater landslides that created devastating tsunamis all along the North American coastline – from San Francisco to British Columbia. The earthquake – North America’s largest ever and the second largest in recorded human history – sloshed 100,000 square miles of Prince Edward Sound so violently, the ground beneath the sea gave way to landslides and the result was a massive tsunami.


(Image via NOAA)

Three children were lost on a beach in Oregon to the 415-mph waves; 10 people perished in Crescent City, California. (The tsunami even reached Hawaii and Japan.) In Alaska, in some places the ground was pushed 30 feet into the air while in others it caved beneath homes, city streets and passerby. The earthquake itself lasted 4 minutes and shook land as far away as Texas and Florida. Over 115 people died just in Alaska, with at least 130 total deaths. In addition to causing tsunamis the earthquake’s sheer magnitude caused 5 massive landslides as well. Miraculously, few were killed compared to historic earthquake fatality rates.

2008 Sichuan Earthquake, China


(Images via 2008Earthquake.com/China Daily, Wikimedia and The New Yorker)

This devastating 8.0 earthquake of May 12, 2008 – called the Great Sichuan Earthquake – had its epicenter in Sichuan province but could be felt over 1,000 miles away in Shanghai and over 900 miles away in Beijing.


(Image via Dainty Flair)

Tragically, many were killed. Nearly 70,000 souls were lost, with over 118,000 more injured seriously and thousands still missing and presumed dead. This quake destroyed the region, quickly turning the massive local population homeless (estimates range from 4.8 million to 11 million).

The powerful quake, according to leading scientest Yuji Yagi, “lasted about two minutes and released 30 times the energy of the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995 in Japan, which killed over 6,000 people.” Thousands were instantly buried by Mother Nature’s blunt force. People in Russia, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Pakistan, Mongolia and India could feel the aftershocks. Strangely, right before the quake struck, hordes of toads swarmed the streets. Note: out of sensitivity to the souls lost, graphic images are not shown.

The Indian Ocean Earthquake, Sumatra, 2004


Images via Nomad4Ever and Crystalinks

Sadly, in the last century hundreds of thousands of people have been lost to large earthquakes. 50,000 in Iran in 1960; 60,000 in Pakistan in 1935; 66,000 in Peru in 1970; 200,000 in China in 1920 and 70,000 in China in 1932 in the same region; 200,000 in another region of China in 1927 and more recently a quarter million lives in China in 1976; 100,000 in Italy in 1908; 110,000 in the USSR in 1948; 143,000 in Japan in 1923, These earthquakes typically ranged from 7.5-8.5 on the Richter scale.

But the day after Christmas, 2004, a combination 9.1-9.3 earthquake-tsunami in the Indian Ocean created untold destruction and took nearly 300,000 lives. Tsunami waves up to 100 feet high wiped out coastlines of eleven countries and that coupled with the earthquake designates this quake as one the worst in history, according to experts. Indonesia, India, Thailand and Sri Lanka suffered the greatest losses and damage. A global outpouring raised over $7 billion in aid and efforts were undertaken to improve the tsunami alert service and technology for these regions.

Deadly and Destructive Landslides

Kansu, China


(Representational images via Telegraph, Draper City and NRCAN)

In 1920, the world’s worst landslide ever to occur slammed Kansu, China (near the border of Tibet). An earthquake triggered massive landslides of dry, rocky mountainsides and loess banks. Loess is a fine, powder mixture of silt and clay that is very susceptible to slides and mudflows. In China, these loess banks were created over millions of years by winds bringing in fine dust from the northern Gobi desert. When the landslides were triggered, all of  these cliffs – and the thousands of cliffside cave dwellings and hundreds of small towns and tiny villages – fell into valleys below. Over 180,000 people were killed. (Note: few photos exist of this event; images are representational only.)

Khait, Tajikistan (formerly USSR)


(Image via unu.edu)

The 1949 landslide at Khait is the second most deadly landslide on record. It killed over 12,000 people. Like many landslides it was triggered by a marginally powerful quake, but the landslide itself proved to be lethal. It is widely considered by experts to be in the top 5 worst landslides in history, and second only to Kansu for most lethal landslide.

Shocking and Sudden Sinkholes

Guatemala City, Guatemala


Images via DVDHardware.net

Fortunately this massive disaster, while shocking, did not cause many deaths. Residents of a Guatemala City heard strange rumblings for weeks but weren’t sure what was happening beneath them. Then, in late February 2007, a near-perfect circle of earth dropped some 30 stories almost instantly. It’s amazing how neat the hole is. Two people died and over 1,000 had to be evacuated; the sinkhole resulted from a corroded sewage system deep beneath the surface (apparently the odor coming from the hole was intolerable).

Agrico Gypsum Stack


(Image via Fluoride Alert)

Florida is plagued by sinkhole erosion, but this disaster in 1994 was one of the most devastating by far. A 15-story sinkhole tore open right beneath an 80-million-ton pile of gypsum stack (toxic industrial waste). The hazardous soup contaminated 90% of Florida’s drinking water and cleanup efforts ran into the millions of dollars. The 2 million cubic foot hole soon was nicknamed the “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, as if to indicate that it was the newest Disney World attraction. Though no one died, millions were put in danger due to the water contamination.

Berezniki, Russia


(Images via English Russia)

Berezniki’s sinkhole began in 1986 and just grows worse with each passing year. It’s unstoppable. Currently it’s over 200m deep, 80m long and 40m wide. Though thankfully no one has died, 10% of the world output of potash comes from this area, and the sinkhole is very close to destroying the mine’s sole rail line.

See Even More Incredible Natural Disasters:

Part Two: 6 Chilling Ice and Water Disasters
Part Three: 6 Scorching Heat and Fire Disasters
Part Four: 10 Sweeping Wind and Sky Disasters