Which Natural Disasters Are The Most Deadly?

The answer might surprise you. This article considers the deadliest of each type of natural disaster, in the last 100 years, from 1912 to 2011 inclusive. The reason that we should look back to disasters from the not-so-distant past, is to gain some perspective on which disasters we might face in the future. We should prepare for the more likely disasters, as well as for less likely, but more severe ones.

Deadliest Volcanic Eruptions:
deadeventlocationyear
23,000Nevado del RuizColombia1985
5,115Mount KelutIndonesia1912
3,500El ChichónMexico1982
2,942Mount LamingtonPapua1951
1,584Mount AgungIndonesia1963
1,369Mount MerapiIndonesia1930

Source: Wikipedia

A volcanic eruption is a very dramatic event. The more severe eruptions capture the attention of the world, can interfere with air travel, and can even cool the climate. The purported cause of ‘the year without a summer’ (1816) was the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora. Very many persons died due to food shortages caused by widespread crop failures in the northern hemisphere.

However, in the last 100 years, there have been only a few volcanic eruptions that caused over 1,000 deaths. By comparison, earthquakes are much more deadly, and also more frequent. Only a few of the deadliest earthquakes in the last 100 years is listed below.

Deadliest Earthquakes:
yearlocationdead (est.)
2010Haiti316,000
1976China242,000
1920China235,000
2004Indonesia230,000
1923Japan142,000
1948Turkmenistan110,000

The Indonesia earthquake includes deaths from the tsunami caused by the earthquake.

Deaths from earthquakes can easily exceed 100,000, but so can deaths from cyclones and hurricanes. “Depending on their location and strength, tropical cyclones are referred to by other names, such as hurricane, typhoon, tropical storm, cyclonic storm, tropical depression, or simply as a cyclone. A tropical cyclone is generally referred to as a hurricane…in the Atlantic basin, and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean and parts of the Pacific.” (Wikipedia)

Deadliest Tropical Cyclones:
yearlocationdead (est.)
1970Bangladesh500,000
1975China210,000
2008Myanmar146,000
1991Bangladesh138,866
1922China60,000

Deaths from tropical cyclones tend to be much higher in underdeveloped regions. Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst hurricanes in the U.S. in the last 100 years, is estimated to have caused between 1,000 and 2,000 deaths. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 killed an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 people in Galveston, Texas. Hurricanes in the U.S. kill far fewer persons than in other regions of the world. So the severity of the natural disaster can depend on your location.

Natural disasters such as blizzards and avalanches typically kill hundreds of persons, not hundreds of thousands. Wildfires occasionally have killed just over a thousand persons, but typically the death toll is in the hundreds or less. Heat waves occasionally have killed tens of thousands of persons, but more often the number of fatalities is substantially lower. The worst tornadoes kill hundreds of victims, but not thousands.

Deadliest Floods:
yearlocationdead (est.)
1931China2,500,000-3,700,000
1938China500,000-700,000
1975China231,000
1935China145,000
1971North Vietnam100,000
1949Guatemala40,000
1954China30,000
1974Bangladesh28,700

Certain natural disasters are much more deadly in the developing world, than in developed nations such as the U.S. or Europe. Floods are not uncommon in the U.S., but large numbers of fatalities from floods are rare here.

If you don’t live near a volcano, you don’t worry about that type of disaster. If you don’t live in an earthquake-prone area, then you are less likely to be affected by that type of disaster. Even if your area is prone to flooding or cyclones (hurricanes), you will be much better off in a developed nation with that type of disaster.

Which type of natural disaster can kill vast numbers of persons regardless of the region or the wealth of the nation? Which natural disaster is worse than any of the above? — Disease epidemics.

In recorded human history, communicable diseases have killed more persons than all other natural disasters combined. The bubonic plague killed perhaps 100 million persons. Other diseases in human history have accumulated death tolls in the millions. Cholera killed over a million persons just in the 1800′s. So did the Russian flu during the same period. Cholera killed hundreds of thousands of persons in the early 1900′s.

The 1918 flu pandemic killed perhaps 75 million persons worldwide. An outbreak of Asian flu in the 1950′s killed 2 million. And the Hong Kong flu killed about a million persons in the late 1960′s. The AIDS pandemic is estimated to have killed 25 million persons so far. These kinds of numbers are hard to comprehend. In the last 100 years, disease epidemics have killed more persons than any other type of natural disaster.

Antibiotics have resulted in far fewer deaths from bacterial disease, in the last 75 years or so. But viruses continue to be problematic. Anti-viral compounds are far less effective than antibiotics. And some bacteria have developed resistance to multiple types of antibiotics; they are called multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria. The press calls them “superbugs”. Even hospitals have difficult treating in-patients who are infected with this type of bacteria.

So, as a society, we are not out of danger from a widespread pandemic that could kill millions of persons. This type of natural disaster failed to materialize, despite all the warnings in 2009 over H1N1 (‘swine flu’). But medical experts were not wrong about the possibility of great harm from a new version of flu virus. There are few drugs that could be used, and they are not very effective. If a vast pandemic of a more-deadly type of flu were to strike, even the drugs with a minimal effectiveness would be difficult or impossible to obtain.

If you are preparing for various types of disasters, even if you live at the foot of a volcano in an earthquake and hurricane prone area, a disease epidemic should be at the top of the list. (List of Natural Disasters by Death Toll)

– Thoreau

5 Responses to Which Natural Disasters Are The Most Deadly?

  1. You left out the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan year that resulted in a nuclear powerplant failure. Kind of a big one in the realm of disasters. AND Japan has warning systems in place that was still not sufficient for the magnitude of the event that occurred. The U.S. military (my husband included) was there doing disaster relief.

  2. Good article
    Alot of the preparations are the same and will crossover from one event to the next. Facemasks fo example are good for pandemics, volcanic ash clouds to mowing the lawn in high allergy season.
    Antibiotics/first aid kits (real ones) are always good to have after any disaster along with freshwater, filters, clean and safely stored food. The buckets/mylar will stay safe in some pretty harsh stuff as will MREs etc.
    Gas/protective masks are good in several of these senarios as well and while they may seem over the top for new folks it’s one of them items you dont need until you NEED it.
    The aftermath of any event will always call for you to protect yourself as resources are commonly stretched to a breaking point so combat type training, weapons and defense plans go with all of them.
    Shelter both primaries and secondaries in case one becomes unstable or your environment becomes unstable goes with all these.
    You can see where I’m going with this without continued ramblings

  3. Yes, 20,000 deaths is the most current account. BUT, what about the 100+ mile radius where people are no longer allowed to live, rebuild, etc.? That is a long term devastation. All those farms, all the livestock, all contaminated from the radiation for decades to come. Have you seen the pictures of the animals left and dying? Not pretty. You are also talking about a country that lives in generations old family homes that no longer have homes, jobs, etc. and they can’t move back into the “hot zone”. Japan just decided to ship contaminants to every prefecture in its nation to share the responsbility for the cleanup. Even if I was lucky enough to avoid the exposure (and we were safe all the way in Okinawa), I wouldn’t want that crud shipped to my neighborhood. Yet Okinawa was the first one to volunteer to receive it. No thank you!

    • No, it’s not a 100 mile radius for the exclusion zone. It is more like 10 or 20 km. I don’t think we have accurate info from the Japanese government. The culture there is still very closed.