The 8 Most Powerful Earthquakes Ever Recorded

Based on total energy released

This list gives a numerical ranking of the most powerful earthquakes that have been scientifically measured. In short, it is based on magnitude and not intensity. A large magnitude does not necessarily mean that an earthquake was deadly, or that it even had a high Mercalli intensity rating

Magnitude 8+ earthquakes may shake with roughly the same force as smaller earthquakes, but they do so at a lower frequency and for a longer time. This lower frequency is "better" at moving large structures, causing landslides and creating the ever-feared tsunami. Major tsunamis are associated with every earthquake on this list. 

In terms of geographical distribution, only three continents are represented on this list: Asia (3), North America (2) and South America (3). Unsurprisingly, all of these areas lie within the Pacific Ring of Fire, an area where 90 percent of the world's earthquakes occur. 

Note that the dates and times listed are in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) unless otherwise mentioned. 

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May 22, 1960 - Chile

Aerial Of Waterfront Earthquake Damage
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

 Magnitude: 9.5 

At 19:11:14 UTC, the largest earthquake in recorded history occurred. The earthquake triggered a tsunami that affected most of the Pacific, causing fatalities in Hawaii, Japan, and the Philippines. In Chile alone, it killed 1,655 people and left more than 2,000,000 homeless. 

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March 28, 1964 - Alaska

Railroad tracks damaged by 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
Railroad tracks badly damaged by the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake. USGS

 Magnitude: 9.2

The "Good Friday Earthquake" claimed the lives of 131 people and lasted for four full minutes. The earthquake caused destruction in the surrounding 130,000 square kilometers (including Anchorage, which was heavily damaged) and was felt in all of Alaska and parts of Canada and Washington.

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December 26, 2004 - Indonesia

Tsunami damage in Banda Aceh, Indonesia.
A pile of former homes in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. January 18, 2005. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 Magnitude: 9.1

In 2004, an earthquake struck off the western coast of northern Sumatra and devastated 14 countries in Asia and Africa. The earthquake caused great destruction, ranking as high as IX on the Mercalli Intensity Scale (MM), and the ensuing tsunami caused more casualties than any other in history. 

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March 11, 2011 - Japan

Japan - Earthquake
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Magnitude: 9.0 

Striking near the east coast of Honshu, Japan, this earthquake killed more than 15,000 people and displaced another 130,000. Its damage totaled more than 309 billion U.S. dollars, making it the costliest natural disaster in history. The ensuing tsunami, which reached heights upwards of 97 feet locally, affected the entire Pacific. It was even large enough to cause an ice shelf to calve in Antarctica. The waves also damaged a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, causing a level 7 (out of 7) meltdown. 

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November 4, 1952 - Russia (Kamchatka Peninsula)

Travel time for 1952 Kamchatka tsunami
Tsunami travel time for 1952 Kamchatka earthquake. NOAA/Department of Commerce

Magnitude: 9.0 

Incredibly, no person was killed from this earthquake. In fact, the only casualties occurred more than 3,000 miles away, when 6 cows in Hawaii died from the subsequent tsunami. It was originally given a 8.2 rating, but was later recalculated. 

A 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Kamchatka region again in 2006. 

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February 27, 2010 - Chile

Tsunami damage in Chile.
What remains of Dichato, Chile 3 weeks after the 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Jonathan Saruk/Getty Images

 Magnitude: 8.8

This earthquake killed more than 500 people and was felt as high as IX MM. The total economic loss in Chile alone was more than 30 billion U.S. dollars. Once again, a major tsunami occurred Pacific-wide, causing damage as far as San Diego, CA. 

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January 31, 1906 - Ecuador

A black and white image of buildings destroyed by the Ecuador earthquake

 Magnitude: 8.8

This earthquake occurred off the coast of Ecuador and killed between 500-1,500 people from its ensuing tsunami. This tsunami affected the entire Pacific, reaching the shores of Japan approximately 20 hours later. 

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February 4, 1965 - Alaska

Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

Magnitude: 8.7

This earthquake ruptured a 600-km segment of the Aleutian Islands. It generated a tsunami around 35 feet high on a nearby island, but caused very little other damage to a state devastated a year earlier when the "Good Friday Earthquake" hit the region.

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Other Historical Earthquakes

Tsunami travel time for 1755 Portugal earthquake.
Estimated tsunami travel time for 1755 Portugal earthquake. NOAA/Department of Commerce

 Of course, earthquakes occurred before 1900, they were just not measured as accurately. Here are some notable pre-1900 earthquakes with estimated magnitude and, when available, intensity:

  • August 13, 1868 - Arica, Peru (now Chile): Estimated magnitude: 9.0; Mercalli intensity: XI.
  • November 1, 1755 - Lisbon, Portugal: Estimated magnitude: 8.7; Mercalli intensity: X.
  • January 26, 1700 - Cascadia Region (Pacific Northwest), United States and Canada: Estimated magnitude: ~9. This earthquake is known from written records of its subsequent tsunami in Japan.
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Your Citation
Mitchell, Brooks. "The 8 Most Powerful Earthquakes Ever Recorded." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Mitchell, Brooks. (2021, February 16). The 8 Most Powerful Earthquakes Ever Recorded. Retrieved from Mitchell, Brooks. "The 8 Most Powerful Earthquakes Ever Recorded." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).

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