World's Worst Tsunamis

When an ocean or other body of water experiences a displacement of water due to an earthquake, volcano, underwater explosion, or other altering event, giant deadly waves can rocket toward shore. Here are the worst tsunamis in history.

Boxing Day Tsunami - 2004

Boxing Day tsunami wreckage
Aceh, Indonesia, the most devastated region struck by the tsunami.

U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Even though this was the third greatest magnitude earthquake in the world since 1990, the magnitude 9.1 temblor is remembered for the deadly tsunami that the undersea quake let loose. The earthquake was felt in Sumatra, parts of Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, and the ensuing tsunami hit 14 countries as far away as South Africa. The death toll was 227,898 (about a third of those children)―the sixth deadliest recorded disaster in history. Millions more were left homeless. The fault line that slipped has been estimated at 994 miles long. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the energy released by the quake that triggered the tsunami was equivalent to 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. The tragedy has resulted in numerous tsunami watches when earthquakes have occurred near oceans ever since. It also resulted in a massive outpouring of $14 billion in humanitarian aid to the affected countries.

Messina - 1908

Aftermath of Messina - 1908
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Think of the boot of Italy, and down to its toe where the Strait of Messina separates Sicily from the Italian province of Calabria. On Dec. 28, 1908, a 7.5 magnitude quake, massive by European scales, struck at 5:20 a.m. local time, sending 40-foot waves crashing into each shoreline. Modern-day research suggests that the quake actually triggered an undersea landslide that touched off the tsunami. The waves devastated coastal towns including Messina and Reggio di Calabria. The death toll was between 100,000 and 200,000; 70,000 of those in Messina alone. Many of the survivors joined a wave of immigrants to the United States.

Great Lisbon Earthquake - 1755

Great Earthquake at Lisbon 1755
Ruins of the great earthquake at Lisbon. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

At about 9:40 a.m. on Nov. 1, 1755, an earthquake estimated between 8.5 and 9.0 on the Richter scale was epicentered in the Atlantic Ocean off the coasts of Portugal and Spain. For a few minutes, the temblor took its toll on Lisbon, Portugal, but about 40 minutes after the shaking the tsunami hit. The double disaster sparked a third wave of devastation with fires throughout the urban areas. The tsunami waves had a wide reach, with waves as high as 66 feet striking the coast of North Africa and other waves reaching Barbados and England. The death toll from the trio of disasters is estimated at 40,000 to 50,000 across Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed. The contemporary study of the quake and tsunami gave rise to the modern science of seismology.

Krakatoa - 1883

This Indonesian volcano erupted in August 1883 with such violence that all 3,000 people on the island of Sebesi, 8 miles away from the crater, were killed. But the eruption and its fast-moving waves of hot gas and rock plunging into the sea set off waves that reached as high as 150 feet and demolished entire towns. The tsunami also reached India and Sri Lanka, where at least one person was killed, and the waves were even felt in South Africa. An estimated 40,000 were killed, with most of those deaths attributed to the tsunami waves. The explosion of the volcano was reportedly heard 3,000 miles away.

Tōhoku - 2011

Aerial photo of Minato's tsunami wreckage
Aerial photo of Minato, devastated by both the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Lance Cpl. Ethan Johnson/U.S. Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sparked by an offshore magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11, 2011, waves reaching as high as 133 feet crashed into the east coast of Japan. The destruction resulted in what the World Bank called the most expensive natural disaster on record, with an economic impact of $235 billion. More than 18,000 people were killed. The waves also set off radioactive leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and sparked a global debate on the safety of nuclear energy. The waves reached as far as Chile, which saw a 6-foot surge.