History’s worst natural disaster was caused by a perfect storm of extreme weather phenomenon, all coming together at the worst possible time. It began with a severe drought that hit China from 1928 to 1930. That was followed by an exceptionally severe winter in 1930, which deposited unusually massive amounts of snow and ice in the mountainous areas upstream from the Yangtze and Huai rivers.
In the early spring of 1931, all that snow and ice melted, and flowed downstream into the two rivers. It reached the middle Yangtze just as the region was experiencing exceptionally heavy spring rains. Things were made worse still by an unusually high number of cyclones. On average, the region experiences two cyclones a year. In 1931, it was hit by nine cyclones. All of those factors combined to bring about a calamity.
Between snow and ice melt, heavy rains, and a seemingly ceaseless sequence of cyclones, the Yangtze and Huai rivers underwent disastrous flooding. Downstream, the waters rose nearly 6 feet above the Shanghai Bund – the waterfront area in the city’s center. Upstream, in the region of Wuhan, the water level rose an incredible 53 feet above the yearly average. Significant but relatively less disastrous flooding also occurred in the Yellow River basin and along the Grand Canal.
Farmlands and housing along the rivers were devastated. 15% of the rice and wheat crops were destroyed, in a country that had little margin to spare. 53 million people were impacted. The toll in lives was horrific. About 150,000 people were directly drowned, while millions more perished from starvation and in the subsequent diseases and epidemics. All in all, up to 4 million people perished, making the 1931 China Floods history’s worst natural disaster.
The 1883 Krakatoa disaster is one of the best attested major volcanic eruptions of modern times. It took place on Krakatoa Island, in the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra in the Dutch East Indies – today’s Indonesia. Krakatoa, which had three linked volcanic peaks, began erupting on the afternoon of August 26th, 1883, and peaked the following morning. When it stopped, most of Krakatoa Island and its surrounding archipelago had disappeared, collapsing into a caldera. Minor seismic activity continued for months afterward, before the volcano finally fell silent.
While the intensity of the eruption was surprising, the eruption itself was not: there had been plenty of warnings. Krakatoa had experienced intense seismic activity for years, with earthquakes felt as far away as Australia. Starting in May, 1883, three months before the dramatic explosion, the volcano began venting steam. It spewed ash columns up to 20,000 feet into the air, and gave off explosions that were heard in Jakarta, 100 miles away.
Krakatoa kept acting up for a week, then quieted. Then it began acting up again in mid June, 1883, with a thick black cloud that covered the area for a week as the volcano erupted periodically. Ash was emitted, and pumice was thrown up, landing hundreds of miles away in the Indian Ocean. Tidal activity increased, forcing ships to moor with strong chains to resist the tide’s suddenly strong ebb and flow. By early August, a desolate and abandoned Krakatoa was covered by nearly two feet of ash, and all vegetation had died, leaving only tree stumps.
The final act started early in the afternoon of August 26th. By 2 PM, explosions were heard every ten minutes or so, and Krakatoa had spewed a 20-mile-high ash cloud that was visible from far away. Ships up to twelve miles away reported a heavy ash fall, accompanied by bits of pumice up to four inches wide.
By early evening, August 26th, 1883, Krakatoa’s seismic activity was triggering mini tsunamis that struck the Sumatran and Javan coasts 25 miles away. The climax began early the following morning, with two big eruptions at 5:30 and 6:44 AM on August 27th, that gave rise to more tsunamis.
Then at 10:02 AM, Krakatoa erupted with a huge bang. It was the loudest sound ever heard until then in recorded history: a cataclysmic explosion of about 180 decibels. That was equivalent to 15,000 Hiroshima bombs, and it put the preceding eruptions to shame. It was heard almost 2000 miles away in Perth, Australia, 3000 miles away on the island of Rodrigues, near Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, and produced a tsunami about 100 feet high in places.
29. Krakatoa Broke The Sound Record Twice in a Single Day
Krakatoa’s 10:02 AM eruption was the loudest sound in recorded history until then, but that record did not last for long. At 10:41, a fourth and more powerful eruption occurred, that at 310 decibels was almost twice as loud as the previous one. It was loud enough to rupture eardrums at a distance of 40 miles, and was clearly heard from 3100 miles away.
A tsunami with a wall of water up to 120 feet high raced out. Ash was flung 50 miles up into the sky by an explosion that produced a pressure wave that was recorded in barometers all over the world. It appeared on global barometers not once, but seven times, as the pressure wave raced around the planet for five days. It kept circling the globe and coming back to the volcano, and continuing on, again and again and again, still powerful enough to register on barometers everywhere on earth as it circled the planet multiple times.
By the time Krakatoa’s chaos ended, whole islands had vanished in what is now Indonesia, and tens of thousands had perished. According to the Dutch colonial authorities’ estimates, the catastrophic eruptions and resultant tsunamis killed at least 36,000. However, modern estimates put the disaster’s true casualty figures at up to 120,000.
Ships sailing in Krakatoa’s vicinity after the disaster reported seeing giant rafts of floating pumice, some of them several miles wide. Indian Ocean currents carried some of those rafts up to 5000 miles, to the shores of Zanzibar in East Africa. There, horrified locals discovered that, fused to the pumice, were the bones of numerous human skeletons, monkeys, big cats, and myriad other creatures.
China’s Loess Region is a plateau covering about 250,000 square miles in northern China, along the upper and middle Yellow River Valley. The good thing about the region is that the soil that gave it its name and covers the ground in layers up to 300 meters deep, is great for farming. Loess is porous, with small empty spaces in the soil that allow for excellent air circulation. It is also friable – that is, easy to break into smaller pieces. That makes loess fields relatively easy to plough, requiring less time and effort from farmers.
On the other hand, the very factor that makes loess attractive to farmers and conducive to high population densities – the ease with which it breaks and crumbles – is also a vulnerability. Loose soil might be great for farming, but buildings erected atop it are particularly prone to tumbling down if the ground shakes. Unfortunately, the ground in the Loess Region has a tendency to shake.
According to plate tectonic theory, the earth’s crust consists of several plates floating on top of molten magma. As the tectonic plates slide over that magma, moving away from or colliding with each other, they produce earthquakes and volcanic activity. Most of China sits atop a major tectonic plate: the Amurian Plate, which is part of the Eurasian Plate.
However, in an arc stretching around China and gripping it in a pincer, are the North American Plate, the Philippine Plate, and the Indian Plate, whose collision with China formed the Himalayas. As those plates converge upon China, they pinch and squeeze it from multiple sides, causing its crust to warp hundreds of miles away from the plate boundaries. That tectonic activity is why the world’s highest plateau is located in China, and why the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is on China’s doorstep.
China’s Loess Region, and Shaanxi Province therein, in particular, are highly susceptible to warping from tectonic plate pressures. Lying smack dab in the middle of historic China, Shaanxi and the surrounding region are constantly squeezed by the tectonic plates converging on the country.
That creates faults that lend themselves to energetic seismic activity. In other words, when the pressure builds up from tectonic plates pressing in on the one atop which China rests, it sometimes gets released hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away in Shaanxi, in the form of major earthquakes.
Ming Dynasty China was rocked by a massive earthquake early in the morning of January 23rd, 1556. It was the epicenter in the Wei River Valley’s Huazhou District, in Shaanxi. Damage across a region stretching for hundreds of miles was extensive, and the loss of life was horrific. Because it occurred during the reign of the Jiaging Emperor, the earthquake is often referred to in traditional Chinese history as the Jiajing Earthquake. Today, it is more commonly known as the Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556. Whatever the designation, it proved to be the most catastrophic earthquake in human history.
The upheaval lasted for only a few seconds, but the results were astonishing. Mountains were leveled, fissures up to 66 feet deep were opened, river paths were altered, massive flooding and massive landslides occurred, and extensive fires were ignited that lasted for days. Over half the population of Huazhou was killed, as every single home and building was destroyed in an upheaval that probably registered 8 on the Richter scale.
23. Streams Suddenly Burst, and Gullies Suddenly Appeared
Things in nearby Huayin and Weinan were also terrible. The Shaanxi Earthquake’s mayhem spread far and wide, causing death and destruction at distances up to 310 miles away from the epicenter. Buildings were damaged as far away as Beijing and Shanghai. There have been other earthquakes that registered far higher on the Richter scale, and that lasted for far longer. None, however, have killed as many people as did the Shaanxi Earthquake of 1556.
As described in the annals of China: “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“.
22. Hundreds of Thousands Killed, Millions Injured and Made Homeless
In many counties within the Shaanxi Earthquake’s zone of destruction, over 60% of the population was killed outright. Many of the rest were injured, and all the survivors were left without shelter. Fatalities were particularly high because most of the region’s population, taking advantage of the soft loess soil, had built their homes out of earth shelters known as yaodongs – a form of artificial cave carved out of hillsides.
Such houses have the advantage of being cool in the summer and warm in the winter. However, they have the disadvantage of being particularly vulnerable to seismic activity. When the earthquake struck, they collapsed, with not only the weight of a roof collapsing upon the inhabitants, but an entire hillside falling atop and burying entire communities. When it was over, around 830,000 had been killed, and millions more were injured and/ or made homeless. That made the 1556 Shaanxi Earthquake the most tragic earthquake ever, and the third-worst natural disaster in history, exceeded only by the 1887 Yellow River Flood and the 1931 China Floods.
The charming city of Saint Pierre was the largest settlement in Martinique at the turn of the twentieth century, outshining that French island’s capital city, Fort-de-France. Saint Pierre was Martinique’s economic center, with a busy harbor bustling with ships, offloading imports, and carrying off the island’s exports of rum and sugar to the rest of the world.
Saint Pierre was also Martinique’s cultural center, known as “the Paris of the Caribbean”. However, the beautiful city had a major drawback: it was nestled beneath a massive volcano, Mount Pelee. At 7:52 AM on the morning of May 8th, 1902, Pelee blew its top. A column of dense smoke shot skywards, forming a mushroom cloud that darkened the sky for about 50 miles. Another dense cloud of glowing black smoke shot horizontally, straight into Saint Pierre. The cloud consisted of super heated steam, gasses, ashes, and dust known as tephra, and it raced into Saint Pierre at roughly 420 miles per hour.
When Mount Pelee erupted, all of Saint Pierre’s buildings were flattened, and the population was burned or suffocated to death. Offshore, a witness in a steamship described the city’s fate when the incandescent cloud hit: “The fire rolled down upon Saint Pierre. The town vanished before our eyes“. The eruption killed about 28,000 people in Saint Pierre – nearly the town’s entire population, except for one man: Auguste Cyparis.
A laborer and frequent troublemaker, Cyparis had gotten into a bar brawl on the night of May 7th, some hours before the eruption. He was thrown into jail overnight for assault, and locked in solitary confinement. That was in a partially underground magazine with stone walls, which doubled as a cell. It had no windows, and its only ventilation was through tiny gratings on a door facing away from the volcano. In short, Cyparis’ solitary confinement cell was the most sheltered place in Saint Pierre. That saved his life.
When Pelee erupted, it grew very dark in frequent jailbird Auguste Cyparis’ cell. A short while later, hot air and fine ash began entering his cell through the door’s gratings. He tried stopping it by wetting his clothes with urine and using them to stuff the gratings. That helped a little, but still, it got hot enough to cause deep burns on much of his body. Four days after the eruption, rescuers heard Cyparis’ cries amidst the prison’s rubble.
His miraculous survival garnered worldwide attention, and Cyparis got signed on by Barnum & Bailey to tour with its circus. His cell exists to this day, preserved in the rebuilt Saint Pierre. He was lucky, but many more were not. About 30,000 lives were lost in Saint Pierre and the surrounding region, in the twentieth century’s most horrific volcanic eruption.
The Roman world was rocked by a powerful earthquake early in the morning of July 21st, 365 AD, that killed up to half a million people. Epicenter on Crete, the earthquake registered at least 8 on the Richter Scale. It shook the island and brought about widespread devastation, and was the most powerful seismic upheaval that struck the region in recorded history. In one gigantic push from below, coral reefs surrounding Crete erupted 33 feet upwards, clear of the water. Geologists estimate that the island as a whole was lifted by as much as 30 feet.
The tremors caused a powerful tsunami that wrecked much of the Cretan coast, and raced across the Mediterranean, wreaking havoc around its shores. The tsunami struck Greece to the north, Cyprus to the east, reached south to devastate coastal communities along the North African coast in Alexandria, Egypt’s Nile Delta and Libya and raced westward to cause damage in Sicily and in far off Spain. The wall of water was high enough and powerful enough that it carried ships and hurled them up to two miles inland.
17. The Era’s Literary Decline Left Historians in the Dark About Much of the 365 AD Disaster’s Details
The 365 Crete Earthquake and tsunami were described by many writers of the period. However, the quality of literary writing and intellectual discourse had significantly declined – the days of the high-quality prose of a Thucydides, Cicero, Caesar or Livy, were centuries past by then. Writers of Late Antiquity tended to describe events without paying much attention to details. Instead, they often focused on ascribing events’ occurrence to divine displeasure and intervention from up above in response to political and religious events on earth.
Between that literary decline and religious antagonisms, we ended up with many intellectually dishonest descriptions from contemporaries, who attributed the disaster to heavenly wrath. Most of what we know actually know of the event is derived from archeological evidence, combined with a few references to the earthquake’s occurrence and its massiveness.
The historian Ammianus Marcellinus described the Cretan Earthquake’s impact on Alexandria: “The solidity of the earth was made to shake … and the sea was driven away. The waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning. Huge ships perched on the roofs of houses … hurled miles from the shore“.
Such descriptions were rare, however. The historical records lack a reliable contemporary narrative describing the damage elsewhere in the Mediterranean with the degree of attention that was common when Greco-Roman civilization and culture were at their height. There was no equivalent to Pliny the Younger’s description of the Vesuvius eruption of 79 AD. What is known is that the devastation was massive and widespread, and that the loss of life was high, with estimated casualties between 300,000 to half a million.
Meteor showers occur when streams of cosmic debris known as meteoroids enter Earth’s atmosphere at high speeds. The transition from the airless vacuum of space to the increasingly dense atmosphere of Earth causes them to burn and disintegrate, producing meteor showers. Streaking the dark skies, especially on clear and starry nights, meteor showers are among the most breathtakingly beautiful celestial sights. Usually.
In 1490, in Ming Dynasty China, meteor showers stopped being breathtakingly beautiful to the good people of Ch’ing Yang in Shaanxi Province. They witnessed one such shower suddenly go from the delightfully picturesque to the horrific, when one of the falling objects burst in the air during atmospheric reentry, killing thousands.
Contemporary Chinese records described the 1490 Meteor Shower: “Stones fell like rain in the Ch’ing-yang district. The larger ones were [about 3.5 pounds], and the smaller ones were [about 2 pounds]. Numerous stones rained in Ch’ing-yang. Their sizes were all different. The larger ones were like goose’s eggs and the smaller ones were like water chestnuts. More than 10,000 people were struck dead. All of the people in the city fled to other places.”
There are similarities between Chinese source descriptions of the 1490 event and what is known of the 1908 Tunguska Event. In 1908, an air burst of a meteoroid at an altitude of five miles above a sparsely populated part of Siberia flattened 770 square miles of forest. So it is probable that the 1490 Ch’ing Yang meteor shower was also caused by the disintegration of an asteroid in an air burst during atmospheric entry.
The nineteenth century’s most famous volcanic eruption was that of Krakatoa, in what is now Indonesia. However, Krakatoa was eclipsed by a bigger volcanic eruption, also in Indonesia: the 1815 Mount Tambora Eruption. The biggest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, occurred on Sumbawa Island in what was then the Dutch East Indies.
It was preceded by five days of rumblings, starting on April 5th, 1815, when a loud eruption occurred, with a thunderous clap that was heard almost a thousand miles away. When Tambora finally blew up in a grand finale on April 10th, 1815, it was the strongest volcanic explosion of the past ten thousand years.
12. An Explosion That Shocked People 1600 Miles Away
After its initial pop on April 5th, 1815, Mount Tambora smoldered for the next few days, giving off faint detonation sounds from time to time. Then, on April 10th, people in Sumatra, 1600 miles away, were shocked by what sounded like the boom of big guns opening up nearby. It was the sound of Tambora going off. The eruption instantly killed about 12,000 on Sumbawa Island. 80,000 more died in the surrounding region from famine and starvation, after falling ash and pumice ruined their crops and fields.
As investigators subsequently pieced the chain of events, Tambora’s eruptions had grown more energetic early in the morning of April 10th. Flames shot up into the sky, and lava and glowing ash began pouring down the mountainside. By 8 AM, bits of pumice up to eight inches wide were falling down. Ash spewed into the air so thickly that it was pitch dark for two days, up to 400 miles away. The volcano gushed rivers of glowing ash down its sides to scorch Sumbawa Island, while its tremors sent tsunamis racing across the Java Sea.
Tambora hurled ash and twelve cubic miles of gasses into the skies, causing extreme weather conditions around the planet. The fine ash dispersed throughout the atmosphere created odd optical phenomena throughout the world. The results included prolonged and brilliantly colored sunsets and twilights that were red or orange near the horizon, and pink or purple above. However, the ashes had other impacts that were not so pretty.
The ash caused a volcanic winter, which lowered global temperatures and turned 1816 into what came to be known as The Year Without Summer. The result was disastrous crop failures and food shortages in the northern hemisphere. The weird weather phenomena reached thousands of miles away, all the way to the eastern United States. There, the spring and summer of 1816 were marked by a persistent dry fog that reddened and dimmed the sunlight. That May, a frost killed off most crops in upstate New York, as well as Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, and snow fell as late as June 6th in Albany, NY. Similar examples of unusual weather were recorded around the world.
10. The Earthquake That Temporarily Interrupted the Crusades
The city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria lies on a geologic fault line that separates the tectonic Arabian Plate from the African Plate. The friction between those plates renders Aleppo and the surrounding region particularly susceptible to devastating seismic events. On October 11th, 1138, in the midst of the Crusades, one of history’s worst earthquakes shook northern Syria. It killed about 230,000 people in Aleppo, its environs, and the surrounding region.
Aleppo was a bustling and vibrant medieval city. In the mid-twelfth century, however, the region was ravaged by war as the recently formed Crusader states, such as the nearby Principality of Antioch, vied with the neighboring Muslim states. Aleppo, then part of the Zengid Sultanate, was at the forefront of the anti-Crusader resistance, protected by strong walls and a powerful citadel.
On October 10th, 1138, a small quake shook Aleppo. Warned by the foreshocks, most of Aleppo’s population fled the city for the countryside. Many died there when the main earthquake struck the following day, but far more would have perished had they remained in the city. There, the powerful citadel suffered extensive damage from the tremors that caused its walls to fall down, while in the city below, most of Aleppo’s houses collapsed.
The devastation extended beyond Aleppo and was widespread throughout northwestern Syria. The town of Harem, conquered by Crusaders who fortified it with a strong citadel, was particularly hard hit. The tremors shook apart and demolished its castle, and caused the local church to fall upon itself. The nearby Muslim fort of Atharib also had its citadel destroyed by the earthquake, which caused it to collapse upon and kill 600 of its garrison. The border town of Zaradna, sacked and pillaged multiple times as it changed hands between the combatants, was wholly obliterated.
However, considering what happened not long after the sacrifices stopped, maybe the natives had been on to something. On February 19th, 1600, Huaynaputina exploded in the biggest volcanic eruption ever experienced in South America during recorded history. The consequences were catastrophic locally, and produced negative impacts worldwide, including the killing of millions of Russians thousands of miles away. Naturally, the natives concluded that the end of the sacrifices had angered Supay, their god of death, who expressed his displeasure with the massive eruption.
Rumbling and booming noises were heard in the days before Huaynuptina exploded. Witnesses reported seeing fog and gasses spewing from the volcano’s crater. A local priest reported frightened natives, recently converted to Christianity, falling back on their old religious beliefs and traditions.
Shamans, not seen for years, scrambled to appease the volcano, preparing plants, flowers, pets, and virgin girls for sacrifice. During the sacrifice ceremony, the volcano spewed hot ash. The natives took it as a sign that the gods were too angry by then to be appeased by belated sacrifices, after having being ignored for so long.
Huaynaputina’s seismic and volcanic activity continued and steadily increased. By February 15th, 1600, earthquakes started. By the 18th, tremors were being felt every four or five minutes, some of them powerful enough to shake those who’d managed to sleep into wakefulness.
Finally, around 5 PM on February 19th, Huaynaputina erupted, sending a column of steam and ash high into the skies. Witnesses described the sound as that of giant cannons going off. Streams of lava began flowing down the mountainside, and when they reached the nearby Rio Tambo River, they created lahars – mudflows of volcanic slurry, debris, and water.
Volcanic ash from the Huaynaputina eruption began falling down, and within a day, the city of Arequipa, 50 miles away, was covered by ash nearly a foot deep. Falling ash was recorded over 300 miles away, in Chile and Bolivia.
Smaller eruptions continued for the next couple of weeks, until the volcano finally went quiet on March 5th. In the eruption, lava flowed about ten miles from the volcano, while lahars, or mud slides, made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean, 75 miles away.
4. Worldwide Impact: A Volcano in Peru Killed Millions in Russia
Several villages were destroyed, while the earthquakes stemming from the Huaynaputina eruption caused significant damage in Arequipa and nearby towns. About 15,000 people were killed in the immediate region.
The ashes from Huaynaputina spread into the atmosphere, and had a significant impact in the northern hemisphere, where temperatures cooled considerably. Epidemics ensued in places as far away as China and Korea. In Russia, 1601 was the coldest year in six centuries. That led to crop failures, which in turn led to the Russian Famine of 1601 – 1603. Two million people, or a third of Russia’s population at the time, perished in the famine.
The island of Kyushu, Japan, is home to Mount Unzen – a volcanic group situated on the Shimabara Peninsula, about 25 miles east of Nagasaki. Unzen has several lava domes – mounds atop volcanoes, resulting from the accumulation of slow seeping lava, which cools and solidifies before flowing very far. On May 21st, 1792, a volcanic eruption caused one of those lava domes to fall into the sea, resulting in a tsunami and earthquake that caused considerable devastation and loss of life.
It began months earlier, in late 1791, with tremors and earthquakes on the western side of Mount Unzen, which gradually made their way up to one of its volcanic peaks. In February of 1792, one of those peaks began erupting, causing lava to flow for the following two months.
As the lava kept flowing from Mount Unzen, the earthquakes and tremors continued. On the night of May 21st, 1792, two big quakes hit. They were powerful enough to shake one of the lava domes loose, causing it to collapse down the eastern side of the mountain. That triggered a landslide, which swept through the city of Shimabara down below, and continued on to Ariake Bay.
When the landslide struck the water, it caused a mega tsunami, with waves nearly 70 feet high, rising up to 187 feet high in some places because of the seabed’s topography. The tsunami traveled across Ariake Bay, until it hit the city of Higo on the other side, where it caused widespread devastation. It then bounced back across the bay, and hit the city of Shimabara, where the dust had still not settled from the landslide that had swept through it and triggered the tsunami in the first place. About 15,000 people were killed in the disaster, making it Japan’s worst volcanic eruption.
Of the roughly 15,000 killed by the Mount Unzen eruption, about 5000 were estimated to have been killed in the landslide that swept through Shimabara city. Another 5000 were estimated to have been killed by the ensuing tsunami when it reached Higo, across the bay from Shimabara.
The final 5000 were estimated to have been killed when the tsunami bounced back from Higo, recrossed the bay, and struck Shimabara. It did not go unnoticed that the eruption had occurred Mount Unzen, in the Shimabara Peninsula, but many deaths from the ensuing tsunami occurred in Higo, about 15 miles away across the Ariake Bay. That gave rise to a Japanese saying about things that happen in one place, yet impact those elsewhere: Shimabara erupted, Higo impacted.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading