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10 Deadliest Tsunamis in Living Memory

The idea of the earth tearing itself apart is terrifying enough, but the devastation that earthquakes cause is only intensified by the huge waves that can follow a massive seismic disturbance in the ocean bed. Often, coastal inhabitants have just minutes to flee to higher ground, and any delay can cause shocking casualties.

In the last 50 years our ability to investigate, predict and record tsunamis has reached new heights, but the devastation these unstoppable walls of water can cause has also become ever more evident. Here we list the ten most catastrophic tsunamis in recent memory.

10. 1964 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami

March 27, 1964 was Good Friday, but the Christian day of worship was interrupted by a 9.2-magnitude earthquake — the most violent ever recorded in North American history. The resultant tsunamis devastated the western North American coastline (as well as hitting Hawaii and Japan), causing the deaths of 121 people in locations as far apart as Alaska and California. Waves were recorded at heights of up to 100 feet, and a 27-foot tsunami obliterated the tiny Alaskan village of Chenega, killing 23. The earthquake also caused permanent changes to the geography of the region, with areas of land in Alaska dropping up to 8 feet.

9. 2009 Samoa Earthquake and Tsunami

In 2009, the Samoan Islands experienced an 8.1 magnitude earthquake just minutes before 7am on the 29th of September. At their highest, the waves from the resulting tsunami were measured at 45 feet, and they traveled up to a mile inland in places, swallowing up villages and causing widespread destruction. Samoa, Tonga and American Samoa recorded 189 casualties, many of them children, but further loss of life was avoided due to the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, which gave people time to evacuate to higher ground.

8. 1993 Hokkaido Earthquake and Tsunami

On July 12th, 1993, 80 miles off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake sundered the earth. The Japanese authorities responded quickly, issuing a tsunami warning, but the small island of Okushiri was beyond help. Just minutes after the earthquake, the island was bombarded by gigantic waves — some of which reached a staggering 100 feet in height. It was too much for the island’s tsunami barriers, and certain areas were struck by a barrage of multiple waves. One hundred and ninety seven of the earthquake and tsunami’s 250 casualties were inhabitants of Okushiri (Hokkaido and southeastern Russia were also affected) although lives were saved by memories of the 1983 tsunami that had struck the island 10 years before, prompting a swifter evacuation.

7. 1979 Tumaco Earthquake and Tsunami

Just seconds before 8am on December 12th, 1979, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.9 began to rumble off Colombia and Ecuador’s Pacific coast. The tsunami that followed swept away six fishing villages and destroyed much of the city of Tumaco, as well as several other Colombian coastal towns. In total, 259 people were confirmed dead, while 798 were injured and 95 were never heard from again.

6. 2006 Java Earthquake and Tsunami

On July 17th, 2006, the seabed near Java, Indonesia was rocked by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake. The 22-foot-high tsunami slammed into the Indonesian coast, including a 100-mile stretch of Java that had been lucky enough to be left unscathed by the 2004 tsunami. Waves penetrated over a mile inland, leveling buildings in places such as the beach resort of Pangandaran. All told, at least 668 people lost their lives, 65 were declared missing, and more than 9,000 others required hospital treatment for their injuries in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami.

5. 1998 Papua New Guinea Earthquake and Tsunami

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the north coast of Papua New Guinea on the 17th July, 1998 would not normally have been expected to cause such a devastating tsunami. However, the earthquake triggered a large undersea landslide, which in turn generated waves up 49 feet tall and averaging 34 feet in height. When the tsunami hit the coast, it caused at least 2,183 deaths — with a further 500 people missing — and made some 10,000 inhabitants homeless. Numerous villages were extensively damaged, while others, such as Arop and Warapu, were completely destroyed. If there was one positive to be drawn from the disaster, it was that it gave scientists a valuable insight into the threat of undersea landslides and the unexpected tsunamis they can cause, hopefully allowing lives to be saved in the future.

4. 1976 Moro Gulf Earthquake and Tsunami

In the early hours of August 16th, 1976, the small island of Mindanao in the Philippines was struck by an earthquake with a magnitude of at least 7.9. The earthquake caused an enormous tsunami that smashed into over 433 miles of coastline, where inhabitants were unaware of the danger and the need to escape to high ground. Thousands of victims were sucked out to sea. Overall, 5,000 people lost their lives, with a further 2,200 reported missing, 9,500 injured and over 90,000 inhabitants left homeless. Cities and provinces throughout the North Celebes Sea area of the Philippines were devastated by the tsunami, the waves of which reached 15 feet high, and it is considered among the country’s worst ever natural disasters.

3. 1960 Valdivia Earthquake and Tsunami

In 1960, the world experienced the strongest earthquake since we began recording such events. On May 22nd, the 9.5 magnitude Great Chilean Earthquake began off the southern coast of central Chile, causing a volcanic eruption and a devastating tsunami. Waves up to 82 feet high pummeled local areas, while a tsunami also sped across the Pacific, with the first wave hitting land at Hilo, Hawaii around 15 hours after the quake began, killing 61 people. Seven hours later the waves hit the coast of Japan, causing the deaths of a further 142. As many as 6,000 people are estimated to have lost their lives due to the quake and tsunami.

2. 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami

While all tsunamis are dangerous, the 2011 Tohuku Tsunami that struck Japan could have the farthest reaching consequences of all. On March 11th, waves of 33 feet were recorded following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake — though some reports list terrifying heights of up to 133 feet, with waves traveling 6 miles inland — as well as a colossal 97-foot wave that smashed into the coastal city of Ofunato. Some 125,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and transport infrastructure also took a heavy beating. While the large number of people killed or missing — some 25,000 — was terrible enough, the earthquake and resultant tsunami also damaged the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, causing meltdown and a disaster at the highest level of the International Nuclear Event Scale. The full ramifications of this nuclear disaster are still unclear, but radiation has been detected 200 miles from the plant.

1. 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami

The world was stunned by the deadly tsunami that struck countries circling the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004, with $14 billion subsequently given in humanitarian aid. The tsunami was the most lethal ever to have occurred, with a death toll that reached a staggering figure of over 230,000, affecting people in 14 countries – with Indonesia the worst hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. The massive undersea earthquake had a magnitude of up to 9.3, and the deadly waves it triggered were up to 98 feet high. Massive tsunamis swamped various coastlines as quickly as 15 minutes later and as long as 7 hours after the initial quake. Despite having hours to prepare for the impact of the waves in some places, the lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean led to many densely populated coastal areas being taken by surprise. That said, some spots were saved by the input of local folklore and even by the knowledge of children who had learned about tsunamis in school, factors which enabled people to recognize and act upon the early warning signs.

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