12 of the Worst Natural Disasters Ever (That You've Probably Never Heard Of)

By Andy Roberts on at

Which natural disaster is the worst of all? Events that stick in people's minds are travesties such as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and following tsunami, or further back in time the volcanic eruptions of Krakatoa and Mount Vesuvius. It turns out though, that there have been far more devastating events to shake our Earth.

In every category of natural disaster (cyclone, volcano, tsunami, storm, etc) the event with the greatest death toll seems to have simply fallen from common knowledge. Given the huge death toll in some of these cases it is simply criminal that these disasters are virtually unheard of. Hence, here are the 12 worst natural disasters that have ever occurred, and you won’t have heard of any of them.

The Daulatpur-Salturia Tornado – 1989, Bangladesh – 1,300 Deaths

Apparently it’s not just the Bible Belt of America that suffers the wrath of these natural whirl-winds as there are several tornado hot-spots found across the globe like right here in the UK, South Africa and, the subject of this section, Bangladesh.

Given the sheer frequency of twisters that tear across the US you’d have thought they’d hold the title of ‘Deadliest Tornado’ but, alas, this tragic title actually belongs to Bangladesh.

On April 26, 1989, what is now known as the Daulatpur-Salturia Tornado ravaged the Manikganj District of central Bangladesh. Estimated to be 1.5km (0.9 miles) wide the tornado completely destroyed every tree, crop-field and building along its 80 km (50 mile) path of annihilation. Since most of the dwellings were so poorly built there is no concrete data to measure how strong the tornado was but the best estimate of experts provide a range of 180kph to 350kph (111mph to 217mph).

Over 1,300 people were killed during this brief yet brutal disaster with 12,000 injured and over 80,000 made homeless. Although deadly tornadoes are semi-frequent in Bangladesh, with several throughout the 1960s and '70s creating death-tolls in the hundreds, the Daulatpur-Salturia Tornado is not only the deadliest in the country, but the deadliest in the world.

Peshtigo Fire – 1871, Wisconsin, United States – 1,200-2,500 Deaths

Image via Wisconsin Historical Society

October 8th, 1871. That was the fateful day of the Great Chicago Fire that burned down thousands of buildings, caused $200 million in damages and claimed 300 lives. This infamous Illinois inferno is known by almost every American however should you mention the Peshtigo Fire they would assume you were talking about some weird native American firework.

But not only did the Peshtigo Fire rage across two states (Michigan and Wisconsin), rack up a bigger bill (several million dollars + four million acres of forest land) and claim more lives (1,200-2,500) it even occurred on THE EXACT SAME DAY as the Great Chicago Fire.

While the legendary, yet disputed, cause of the Great Chicago Fire is often blamed on some idiot cow that kicked over a lantern in a barn, the Peshtigo Fire was ignited by one of nature’s most awesome phenomena: the firestorm.

A deadly combination of ideal weather conditions and the ‘slash-and-burn’ tree-felling technique fanned what would be small, manageable flames up into an unstoppable inferno. The fire grew so hot that it burned the living forest, fuelling the flames further, generating a huge temperature difference that resulted in a fire tornado which ripped through the town of Peshtigo and only stopped when it had nothing left to burn.

Some even speculate that both the Chicago and Peshtigo fires are linked and were both caused by... wait for it... a meteorite impact. However, this has been heavily discredited by astronomers as a meteorite that’s too small to make an impact crater would also not be hot enough to ignite anything when it hits the Earth’s surface.

Poison Gas Cloud – 1986, Lake Nyos, Cameroon, Africa – 1,700 Deaths

Image via Water Encyclopaedia

Lakes can be dangerous places. Thousands of people get swept away by sudden surges, drown in the deep waters or freeze in the icy currents. But some lakes will kill you even when you are on dry land and Lake Nyos in Cameroon, Africa, is just one of these culprits.

Lake Nyos was formed by a volcanic explosion that left a huge crater, which filled with rain and river water as time went by. Today this crater still has an active volcano at the base, which constantly emits carbon dioxide (CO2) into the water above it. There are many crater lakes like this across the globe where CO2 is dissolved into the water, and due to the tide of the lake, is subsequently released from the surface. However, Lake Nyos is incredibly calm, meaning there is little to no water turnover so the CO2 just keeps building up to deadly concentrations at the bottom of the lake until *poof* it erupts.

In 1986 this is just what happened, and though the exact cause is still unknown to this day, the eruption devastated the surrounding villages. Some 1.6 million tonnes of CO2 was suddenly released in just 20 seconds from the murky waters and spread over the surrounding areas. Because CO2 is much heavier than air, it stayed close to the ground rather than dispersing upwards into the atmosphere.

Image via First To Know

Carbon dioxide is deadly and will kill humans. While there is a natural abundance of CO2 in the air we breathe, this is just a mere 0.04 per cent of the total volume, so when CO2 levels are raised to 15 per cent you have a poisonous gas on your hands.

Over 1,700 people were suffocated by this toxic gas and the villages of Nyos, Kam, Cha, and Subum were totally wiped out. Over 3,500 precious livestock in the surrounding areas were also wiped out and people more than 25km (15 miles) away were killed by this lethal carbon dioxide cloud.

Today, there are degassing solutions in place at Lake Nyos to prevent this ever happening again but measurements from the lake show CO2 levels are higher today than they were in 1986, and should the natural dam found at the end of the lake fail (which it is in danger of doing) the nearby villages would not only be flooded but poisoned too.

The Desert Blizzard – 1972, Iran – 4,000 Deaths

Given that Iran is part of the Middle East you wouldn’t really expect it to have much snow, let alone lay claim to the deadliest ever blizzard in recorded history. And this wasn’t just a cold snap in the mountains but a nationwide catastrophe the struck at the worst possible time following a four-year drought.

The blizzard began in the 3rd February, as a weather front swept across the border from Azerbaijan into western Iran. Temperatures plummeted to -25°C (-13°F) as the snow buried the population under eight metres (26 feet) of snow forcing many rescue workers to seek shelter. Not that it mattered much because their snow-ploughs just couldn’t handle the sheer amount of snow that had fallen so rapidly.

The blizzard claimed over 4,000 lives and wiped out entire villages such as Kakkan, Kumar and Sheklab. It took six days to rescue those trapped under that snow, many of whom had gone without food, water or medical help since the blizzard hit. To make matters worse, the extreme temperatures further spread a deadly strain of the flu with an infection rate of near 100 per cent.

Over 200 villages were been lost to the snowstorm and with a death toll of 4,000, the Iranian blizzard of 1972 still remains the deadliest blizzard in history.

The Vargas Tragedy: The World’s Deadliest Storm – 1999, Vargas, Venezuela – 10,000-30,000 Deaths

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In December 1999, the gorgeous coastal region of Vargas in Venezuela suffered the worst storm of all time. Still haunting the living memories of those who survived it between 10,000 and 30,000 people lost their lives as a horrific storm inflicted flash-floods and landslides, tearing apart the state of Vargas.

This vicious storm demolished over 10,000 homes. Roads, telephone, electricity, water and sewage systems were all severely disrupted for many years to come causing a total economic loss of $1.79 billion to the country of Venezuela.

The death toll of the disaster varies so much due to that fact many civilians were buried under the landfill debris or swept out to sea by the flash-floods. While only 1,000 bodies were recovered, the cited death toll is often quoted as 30,000 which, if that was indeed the case, a devastating 10 per cent of the population of Vargas was lost in this horrific storm.

To further add to the poignancy of this disaster, this isn’t the first time the state of Vargas had been hit by deadly storms. Major flooding and landslides occur in the region roughly twice a century as historical records states the exact same events have happened on February 1798, August 1912, January 1914, November 1938, May 1944, November 1944, August 1948, and February 1951 – although none have been as merciless as the storm of 1999.

Huascarán Avalanche – 1970, Huascarán, Peru – 25,000 Deaths

Image via Wikimedia Commons

On May 31st 1970 a 7.9 magnitude earthquake struck the coast of Peru. Today it is known as the Great Peruvian Earthquake and it killed over 70,000 people. While the earthquake itself was devastating, it also triggered further deadly landslides and avalanches; specifically, an avalanche on the Peruvian mountain Huascarán.

The earthquake was so severe that is caused a major part of the mountain’s north face, about 900m (3,000 ft) across, to collapse (the missing section can be seen on the lefthand side of the left-lying mountain in the modern picture above).

This wave of mountain is estimated to have been between 50 to 100 million cubic metres of water, mud, and rocks that hurtled down the mountain at 193 kph (120mph) in just 45 seconds. Nothing could survive such a colossal avalanche and, tragically, almost nothing did.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The avalanche tore through the village of Yungay, killing almost all of its 25,000 inhabitants as well as the smaller settlements of Ranrahirca. Only 350 residents of Yungay survived, 300 of which were children who had been taken to see a circus at a stadium out of town.

Today, Yungay has been re-built 1.5km (one mile) north of the ruins, which have been declared as a national cemetery by the Peruvian government. They also banned excavation of the old Yungay meaning you can still visit the buried town today so you can pay respects to those who lost their lives in the deadliest avalanche known to man.

European Heatwave – 2003, Europe – 70,000 Deaths

Image via Wikimedia Commons

That’s right, the deadliest heatwave this side of the most recent ice age occurred less than 13 years ago and within the living memory of almost all of us. The 2003 heatwave was caused by a combination of many things, though mostly by an anti-cyclone that hovered above western Europe, slowly rotating clockwise, bringing hot, dry tropical air from the east of the continent over the western countries. Other factors such as the lingering effects of the 2002 El Nino, an usually active African monsoon season and the effects of global climate change also contributed to this unseasonal heatwave.

In total, over 70,000 people died under heat related circumstances such as heat-exhaustions, dehydration and heat stroke; Spain, France and Italy lost over 55,000 citizens combined. As the summers are not usually too extreme in France the situation soon turned into a crisis where the death toll became so high that mortuaries ran out of space for the vast amount of bodies. At its peak, some cities resorted to storing corpses in refrigerated warehouses just outsides their limits.

As well as tens of thousands of people dying, countless farm animals also perished from the heat, which coupled with it being too hot for the crops to survive caused the whole European agricultural industry to lose over €13.1 billion (£10 million) in the 2003 heatwave. But it wasn’t just food that suffered, the heat caused widespread droughts throughout many countries and infrastructure such as railways, subways and even nuclear power plants had to temporarily close down to the effects of the extreme heat.

As horrific as this all sounds, environmental scientists are predicting that by 2050 every summer will be as hot as the 2003 European heatwave. So, y’know, start stocking up on the sun lotion now.

Eruption of Mount Tambora – 1815, Sumbawa, Indonesia – 70,000-100,000 Deaths

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Indonesian island of Sumbawa is home to nearly one-and-a-half-million residents, several copper and gold mines and a 2,722m (8,930ft) high volcano called Mount Tambora which, in 1815, was responsible for the deaths of 70,000-100,000 people.

The cataclysmic eruption spewed forth a 12-cubic-mile cloud of gas, dust and ash into the atmosphere and caused an explosion so powerful it killed almost the the island's entire 10,000 population in mere seconds. This huge eruption sent tsunamis out in every direction and was so devastating that it blew the top third of the mountain to pieces, reducing its height from 4,300m to its current 2,722m.

But the destruction didn’t stop there as Mount Tambora ejected over 150 cubic km (36 cubic miles) of ash, rock, and aerosols (as well as 60 megatons of sulphur) into Earth’s atmosphere. This dense, grey material reached as high as the stratosphere and mixed with all sorts of atmospheric gases, stopping precious rays of sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface. This resulted in a global cooling event the reduced the average temperature of the entire world by 3°C (5.4°F). While this may seem like an insignificant difference in temperature it had a huge impact on the world resulting in failed crops leading to widespread famine.

This huge volcanic burp also played havoc with the weather, causing heavy snowfalls and lethal frost spells in the summer months of my countries resulting in further fatalities. To top it all off, the Mount Tambora eruption actually turned the sky red and made 1816 the now infamous “Year without Summer”. How’s that for some Game-of-Thrones-sounding shit, eh?!

Bhola cyclone – 1970, Bangladesh – 275,000-500,000 Deaths

Image via the Guardian

The Bhola cyclone of 1970 is the deadliest tropical cyclone ever recorded and killed upwards of 300,000 people, potentially even 500,000. While this number is harrowingly high, the real tragedy is that the death toll could have been much, much lower.

Due to constant tensions between India and Pakistan (Bangladesh was known as ‘East Pakistan’ at the time) both countries refused to share information between one another, despite both sharing a very cyclone-prone coastline. There is also the issue that the Bangladeshi government (at the time) was completely inept, totally ignoring the detailed suggestions and recommendations for an early-warning system and disaster plan from famed meteorologist Dr Gordon E Dunn (AKA Mr Hurricane).

Had both countries shared information and had those responsible pulled their finger out and built some god-damn storm defence systems, even primitive ones then hundreds of lives could have, scratch that, WOULD HAVE been saved. Instead the Bhola cyclone rampaged through Bangladesh, killing 45 per cent of the city of Tazumuddin with winds of over 225.3 kph (140 mph) and surge tides of over six metres.

A month after the disaster, an emergency election was held and those in power were elected out of office, only to be replaced the Awami League who went on to further escalate the conflicts and trigger the Bangladesh Liberation War which, of course, led to horrific atrocities and countless deaths. However, after all the bloodshed, a new country was born – Bangladesh – so in a very, lethal and ruthless way, the Bhola cyclone inadvertently gave birth to a nation.

Shaanxi Earthquake – 1556, Shaanxi, China – 830,000

Given the China is the fourth largest country in the world by landmass it is truly astonishing that an earthquake affected over a third of its massive 9,596,960 square kilometre (3,705,407 square miles) land-area.

The 8.0 - 8.3 magnitude quake struck late in the evening, completely destroying every single building in the city of Huaxian and devastating more than 97 counties in the provinces of Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Gansu, Hebei, Shandong, Hubei, Hunan, Jiangsu and Anhui. While this is not the strongest earthquake to have ever happened (that was the 1960 9.5 magnitude Chilean tremor), because it struck in an immensely populated area, where the homes and buildings were so poorly constructed, the death toll skyrocketed.

As this happened nearly 500 years ago it’s hard to definitely certify the exact death toll but experts suggest that is at least 830,000. This is due to the aforementioned densely populated areas and poorly constructed houses but it’s also down to a vast majority of the population living in Yaodongs.

Yaodongs are man-made caves that are carved into huge chunks of soft rock, such as silty soil dunes from windstorms. While easy to make, they are not structurally sound and hundreds of thousands of people were crushed to death when the quake struck, causing all the Yaodongs to collapse.

We know about the horrific Shaanxi earthquake today thanks to Chinese scholars who made detailed accounts of that day. One script describes the events in such a hauntingly delicate way, it’s almost like poetry:

In the winter of 1556, an earthquake catastrophe occurred in the Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. In our Hua County, various misfortunes took place. Mountains and rivers changed places and roads were destroyed. In some places, the ground suddenly rose up and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a stream burst out in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all of a sudden.

365 Crete Tsunami – 365, Crete, Europe – 300,000-500,000 Deaths

Image via Wikimedia Commons

I know what you’re thinking, how can we possibly know about a disaster that occurred nearly 1,700 years ago?

Well, we have many ancient scholars to thank for that, especially the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. Because of his incredibly detailed writing of the events of 21st July 265 AD we know that a terrible earthquake completely levelled every town on the Greek island of Crete, as well as inflicting major destruction in the surrounding countries of Greece, northern Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Sicily and Spain. The earthquake was so powerful it even raised vast parts of the island to heights of nine metres.

Due to Marcellinus’s accounts we also know that this earthquake triggered a huge tsunami that was so powerful it reached the southern regions of Egypt, utterly savaging Alexandra, the country’s largest city of the time. The unstoppable two-metre wave heaved boats as far as 3km (2 miles) inland, dredging up an insane amount of sea life with it.

Given how long ago it was and a lack of evidence, it’s hard to get a precise number of how many sadly lost their lives. However, experts estimate that as many as 500,000 died given the populations at the time and a notable decline in census numbers in following years.

But we have more than the mere words of Romans to go on and have hard, concrete, geological evidence that this devastating event took place. But with this study came a grave revelation that the tsunamis are a regular occurrence in the entire Hellenic subduction zone (right where Crete is sat) and that they happen once every 800 years. So we're about 900 years overdue for another catastrophic wave to decimate entire Mediterranean coastline.

The Yellow River floods – 1931, China – 4,000,000 Deaths

The deadliest natural disaster in recorded history happened less than 100 years ago in the Republic of China, the effects of which were truly harrowing.

A long drought had plagued the nation since 1928 but in the winter of 1930 the weathered turned bad. Really bad. Heavier-than-usual snowfalls hit China hard, meaning the spring thaw produced a lot more water than expected. This combined with torrential rain and a significant rise in cyclone activity led to a drastic rise in the river levels, particularly the Yangtze River, the Huai River, and the Yellow River.

The sheer scale of devastation the flood inflicted is almost too much to comprehend. Over 140,000 Chinese citizens drowned and a staggering 3.7 million people died in the following nine months. At least 181,000 square km (70,000 square miles) was submerged by water that was up to 4.5 metres deep. To put that in perspective, this flood covered the same area as Syria and was as deep as an Olympic diving pool. Oh, and this lasted for six months after the banks first burst too.

Worst hit by the floods was the Chinese capital at the time, Nanjing; it was an overpopulated city, balanced on a small island making it basically a recipe for disaster. Millions drowned when the flood hit but it was those who survived the initial onslaught that suffered most. Cut off from the rest of China, their homes ruined and supplies washed away, disease swept through the city like a wildfire.

Many died from typhus and cholera, which thrive in stagnant water, and the few that managed to stave off these illnesses tragically starved to death. People were so desperate for food they sold their wives or children just for something to eat.

But still, things somehow managed to go from bad to worse. In some genuinely disturbing cases families actually killed their children rather than letting them starve to death and there are dire reports that some even resorted to cannibalism just to survive.

The response from the Chinese Government was pitiful at best. Virtually no aid or help was sent to any of the citizens and only a few poorly built dams were thrown together in the wake of the disaster. In 1953 the idea for a better, flood controlling dam was commissioned however said dam (the Three Gorges Dam) wasn’t constructed until 1994 and even then it only became operational in 2012.

Mercifully, China hasn’t seen floods as deadly or widespread since the 1931 disaster but, hopefully, are prepared should one strike again.