Most Disastrous Natural Disasters

In the midst of the after-effects of Hurricane Florence sweeping the Carolinas and a more accurate — and higher — casualty count from the September to October 2017 Hurricane Maria, we thought we’d make a map to highlight other historical natural disasters, specifically, the most disastrous. While Hurricane Maria wouldn’t make our list of the most disastrous natural disasters with the previous official report of 64 deaths, it would be considered one of the deadlier hurricanes with what is said to be the more probable death count: 2,975. This is more than 45 times the official number and makes Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S. We searched for even more data about the world’s deadliest earthquakes, floods, and wildfires, and costliest tropical hurricanes and tornadoes, including the overall most disastrous, some pretty recent natural disasters, and where in the world these disasters strike most frequently.

View Most Disastrous Natural Disasters in a full screen map

Check out the map above for the facts regarding the locations and casualty count of the most disastrous natural disasters ever. Or read on for more info about these tragic occurrences.

Dismal Disasters: All-Time Most Disastrous

All of the natural disasters we mapped resulted in the loss of 1,000 or more lives, but there are always those catastrophes that result in the greatest amount of lives lost. Here are the top ten most disastrous natural disasters by their estimated death toll:

Type Rank Estimated Death Toll Event Location Year Notes
Flood 1 1,000,000 1931 China floods China 1931 May have been as high as 4,000,000 casualties
Flood 2 900,000 1887 Yellow River flood China 1887 May have been as high as 2,000,000 casualties
Flood 3 500,000 1938 Yellow River flood China 1938 May have been as high as 800,000 casualties
Hurricane 4 500,000 1970 Bhola cyclone Bangladesh 1970 Then East Pakistan; may have been higher — November 13, 1970
Hurricane 5 300,000 1737 Calcutta cyclone India 1737 October 7, 1737
Hurricane 6 300,000 1839 India Cyclone India 1839 November 25, 1839
Earthquake 7 280,000 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake Indonesia 2004 December 26, 2004
Earthquake 8 273,400 1920 Haiyuan earthquake China 1920 December 16, 1920
Earthquake 9 242,769 1976 Tangshan earthquake China 1976 May have been as high as 700,000 casualties —  July 28, 1976
Flood 10 231,000 Banqiao Dam China 1975

As you can see from the table above, only three of the five types of natural disasters we mapped make the top ten most disastrous. Floods, earthquakes, and tropical hurricanes are the costliest natural disasters in all of history. To see only the three costliest natural disasters for yourself on the map, use our grouping feature to group the map by type. Note that when you do this and select flood, hurricane, and earthquake, 98 out of the 102 disastrous natural disasters we mapped belong to those three categories.

Country-wise, China has bore witness to the worst — and most — natural disasters on the top ten most disastrous list. That is without taking into account that four out of six of China’s top natural disasters may have resulted in more casualties than officially recorded. If those casualty counts are as high as some experts say they are, the #1 ranked 1931 China floods would be eight times the size of Bangladesh’s fourth-ranked 1970 Bhola cyclone. Whether or not the estimated death toll for the 1931 China floods is lower than the reality, it still takes the cake as the costliest natural disaster in history with 1 million deaths, but up to as many as 4 million deaths. The second-place natural disaster, China’s 1887 Yellow River flood would be four times the size of Bangladesh’s fourth-ranked hurricane if experts are correct that the casualty count may have been as high as two million.

India has also seen some pretty terrible disasters, especially in the form of cyclones or hurricanes. India’s hurricanes seem to occur almost exactly one century apart. As for the most recent natural disaster to make the top ten deadliest list: it’s the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which hit Indonesia the day after Christmas just 14 years ago. The deadliest earthquake since the 1600s, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake is only to be beaten by an earthquake from way back in 1556: the Shaanxi, China earthquake. The 1556 Shaanxi, China earthquake is officially reported to have caused the deaths of 820,000 people, but the death count may have been as high as 830,000 casualties.

Modern Mayhem: Worst of the 21st Century

Even more recent than the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake are the following natural disasters, ordered by year:

  • 2016 India floods — estimated death toll of 1,000
  • 2013 North India floods — estimated death toll of 5,700
  • 2011 Southeast Asian floods — estimated death toll of 2,828
  • 2011 Philippines floods — estimated death toll of 1,268
  • 2010 Haiti earthquake — estimated death toll of 160,000
  • 2010 China floods — estimated death toll of 3,189
  • 2010 Pakistan floods — estimated death toll of 1,600
  • 2008 Sichuan, China earthquake — estimated death toll of 87,587
  • 2008 Myanmar Cyclone Nargis — estimated death toll of 138,366
  • 2007 China flood — estimated death toll of 1,348
  • 2006 Southern Leyte, Philippines mudslide — estimated death toll of 1,144
  • 2005 Kashmir, Pakistan earthquake — estimated death toll of 100,000
  • 2005 Fujian, China flood — estimated death toll of 1,624
  • 2005 Mumbai, India flood — estimated death toll of 1,503
  • 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake — estimated death toll of 280,000
  • 2004 Eastern India flood — estimated death toll of 3,076
  • 2004 Haiti Spring Flooding — estimated death toll of 1,605
  • 2004 China flood — estimated death toll of 1,029
  • 2002 China flood, torrential floods, mud-rock flows — estimated death toll of 1,532

Four of these 21st-century natural disasters resulted in over 100,000 deaths. Ranked at #7, #14, #19, and #24 (out of 102), respectively, the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, 2010 Haiti earthquake, Cyclone Nargis, and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake are the natural disasters that have taken place during our current century with the most lives lost.

Floods and Earthquakes and More, Oh My!

Photo by Lori Joan

You would think that the most common deadly natural disasters are the three that appeared on our top ten deadliest natural disaster list. Remember that our top ten deadliest natural disasters since the 1600s were comprised of only three types: four were floods, three were earthquakes, and three were tropical hurricanes.

While these three types of natural disasters certainly are the most common and deadly, it’s not necessarily in the order you’d expect. Of the 102 most disastrous natural disasters on our map, 62 are floods, 27 are earthquakes, and just nine are tropical hurricanes. That’s not necessarily what you’d expect glancing at the top ten list, in which the amount of earthquakes tied with hurricanes. Clearly, floods are by far the most frequent natural disaster to result in the deaths over 1,000 people. As for the low number of hurricanes? Three of the nine tropical hurricanes resulting in 1,000+ deaths since 1600 are accounted for in the top ten most disastrous natural disasters of all time.

So while tropical hurricanes that cause the death of over 1,000 people rarely occur (only nine times since 1600), when they are that severe, they result in lots and lots more casualties than 1,000. Three wildfires also make our map, along with just one tornado that has killed over 1,000 people. Watch out, Dorthy!

Take Caution in these Countries with the Most Disasters

We already know that China has historically been home to many of the costliest natural disasters ever seen, but just how many natural disasters has China withstood over the years? If you count up all of China’s natural disasters on the map above, they total to 28 natural disasters since the 1600s that resulted in 1,000+ deaths, which is more than any other country. India, known to face many a hurricane or cyclone throughout the years, has had 13 natural disasters resulting in 1,000 or more lives lost. Other countries that have witnessed more than one deadly natural disaster include:

  • Bangladesh — 7
  • Iran — 6
  • Pakistan — 5
  • Italy — 4
  • Netherlands — 4
  • Japan — 3
  • Peru — 3
  • Philippines — 3
  • United States — 3
  • Ecuador — 2
  • Haiti — 2
  • Vietnam — 2

Now that we know all about the world’s most disastrous natural disasters, it’s time to do something about it! Learn how to make a Disaster Relief map to help members of your community find the resources they may need after a natural disaster. It’s easy to make maps that matter with BatchGeo.