The Deadliest Natural Disasters in the World
Our planet is a powerful one, and much of its power comes from forces that are beyond our control. Each year, places across the globe fall victim to natural disasters. These are major events, like floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, that come from the Earth's natural processes. While, yes, humans can have a negative effect on the environment, natural disasters have been around for far longer than humans.
Natural disasters kill about 60,000 people annually worldwide. As humans learn from the past and know how to better prepare for them in the future, the annual number of deaths from disasters has decreased. But every now and then, there is still one that takes the world quite literally by storm and leaves devastation in its wake.
Just how dangerous are natural disasters, and in what parts of the world do they occur most? Read on to find out — we’ve even listed them from least deadly to deadliest.
Lightning, while beautiful to look at, can be deadly and occurs every day in various parts of the world. Lightning is an electrical discharge caused by an imbalance between storm clouds and the ground.
What kind of imbalance exactly? Well, when the ground is hot, it heats the air above it. Warm air rises and, as it rises, water vapor cools and forms a cloud. When the air continues to rise, the cloud increases in size. At the top of the clouds, the temperature is below freezing, and the water vapor turns to ice. As these ice pieces knock against each other, the collisions cause a build up of electricity.
Soon, the cloud is filled with electric charges, which eventually cause a spark or lightning. Much of the time lighting stays within the clouds, but sometimes, it strikes down. And this is where it can become deadly.
Where Lightning Occurs Most
While, yes, lightning happens every day in places around the world, there’s one place you might find yourself more at risk.
The world’s top lightning hotspot is in Venezuela over Lake Maracaibo, where there are thunderstorms about 297 days a year that produce an average of 232 lightning flashes per year.
Deadliest Lighting Strikes in History
According to Our World In Data, the first decade of the 20th century saw an average of 4.5 per million deaths in the U.S. due to lighting strikes. But in the first 15 years of the 21st century, the death rate declined to .12 deaths per million.
That's to say, death by lightning is highly unlikely. The deadliest lightning strike in history happened in 1807 when lightning hit a gunpowder factory in Luxembourg, killing more than 300 people.
10. Extreme Heat
Extreme heat is defined as a long period (two to three days) of high heat and humidity when evaporation is slowed, and the body has to work even harder to maintain a normal temperature.
Heatwaves are caused by higher atmospheric pressure, where air from the upper levels of the atmosphere descends and rotates out. As it descends, it compresses, which drives the temperature up.
Where Extreme Heat Occurs Most
Perhaps you saw the headlines in 2022 when an extreme heatwave hit Europe, killing more than 20,000 people and pushing temperatures into an all-time high across the continent.
Some places are hotter than others, so what is “extreme” is relative based on that particular location at that time of the year. As you might guess, extreme heat is more common in places that are closer to the equator.
Deadliest Heat Waves in History
Many illnesses can come from extreme heat, like heat exhaustion or stroke, which can happen when the body can't properly cool itself. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are about 618 annual deaths in the U.S. due to extreme heat.
The worst heatwave in history was in 1913 in California, when a heatwave struck Death Valley, showing a record-high temperature of 134 degrees Fahrenheit.
As for the deadliest, the record goes to the 2010 Russian heatwave, which killed around 56,000 people in the country.
Tornadoes seem scary, but they’re actually a lot less deadly than people think. Similar to hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones (more on them later), tornadoes are strong winds that swirl around a center. But this wind funnel touches ground and causes destruction for only a couple of hours (as opposed to several days).
Thunderstorms typically pave the way for tornadoes, especially when warm and cold air clash.
Where Tornadoes Occur Most
Most tornadoes in the world are found in America’s Great Plains, aka Tornado Alley, as well as South America. Southern Brazil, northeastern Argentina, and parts of Uruguay and southeastern Paraguay are particularly well-known for having tornadoes.
But tornadoes can really happen anywhere in the world if the conditions are right.
Deadliest Tornadoes in History
The U.S. averages about 1,000 tornadoes every year. Annually they cause approximately 80 deaths.
The deadliest tornado in history was the Daulatpur-Saturia tornado in Bangladesh in 1989, which killed approximately 1,300 people.
8. Extreme Cold
Extreme cold, or the opposite of extreme heat, can be just as deadly. The U.S. National Weather Service defines extreme cold as anything -35 degrees Fahrenheit or colder with winds less than 5 miles per hour.
In these conditions, the unprotected skin of a healthy adult will develop frostbite in 10 to 20 minutes.
Where Extreme Cold Occurs Most
Like extreme heat, “extreme” is relative based on a particular location and time of year. For instance, the Canadian standard is lower than the -35 degrees Fahrenheit defined in the U.S.
Extreme cold can occur anywhere, but it’s more likely to happen in destinations that are closer to either the north or south pole.
Deadliest Extreme Cold in History
According to the Public Health Post, about 1,330 people die of cold exposure in the U.S. each year.
The 1936 North American Cold Wave ranks among the most intense in history. February 1936 was the coldest month on record for Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, where temperatures hit as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Every year, the U.S. West Coast braces itself for a traumatic season of wildfires. A major cause of forest fires in the U.S. is human activity, combined with a very dry environment.
All it takes is a spark, be it from a poorly-disposed-of cigarette or a campfire, combined with dry forests and winds to explode out of control.
Where Wildfires Occur Most
A wildfire can occur anywhere but tend to be most common in the forested areas of the U.S. and Canada, as well as areas of Australia and South Africa.
Deadliest Wildfires in History
According to FEMA, there is an average of more than 3,000 wildfire deaths in the U.S. each year.
The single-worst wildfire in U.S. history is known as the Great Peshtigo Fire, which burned 3.8 million acres and killed at least 1,500 in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It happened in 1871 and was most likely caused by unattended fires at logging camps following a very hot and dry summer season.
6. Volcanic Eruption
Volcanic activity is something that happens almost every day all around the world. We only hear about volcanoes when they are active enough to be noticed or, in some instances, to be deadly.
A significant eruption is classified as one that meets one of the following criteria: caused fatalities; caused moderate damage (approximately $1 million or more); had a Volcanic Explosivity Index of 6 or higher; caused a tsunami; or was associated with a major earthquake.
Where Volcanic Eruptions Occur Most
Much like earthquakes, 60 percent of all active volcanoes occur at the boundaries between tectonic plates, where plates of mostly oceanic crust are sinking beneath each other. The world's greatest earthquake belt is the circus-pacific seismic belt, also known as the Ring of Fire.
The belt spans from New Zealand, up through the South Pacific and into Indonesia, across Japan, over the Bering Strait, down through Alaska and the west coast of North and South America all the way to Patagonia.
Deadliest Volcanic Eruptions in History
Deaths from volcanic eruptions include direct deaths, in addition to secondary impacts like tsunami or earthquakes. In 2017, there were 19 deaths from volcanoes around the world.
The deadliest volcanic eruptions in history include the Nevado del Ruiz eruption in Colombia in 1985, which killed about 23,000 people; Mt. Pelee eruption in Martinique in 1902, which killed 29,000 people; and the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia, which destroyed more than 70 percent of the island and killed at least 36,000 people.
A landslide is the movement of a mass amount of rock, debris or earth down a slope. We realize that’s a broad definition, but landslides encompass many different things, like mudslides or rockslides. Almost every landslide has multiple causes, like changes in water level, erosion, earthquakes, volcanic activity, disturbance by human activity or a combination of factors.
Landslides can also happen underwater, known as submarine landslides, which can sometimes cause tsunamis that damage coastal areas.
Where Landslides Occur Most
Landslides can occur anywhere. They happen in every single state and U.S. territory. Around the world, they are common in hilly, mountainous regions or areas prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.
The risks of landslides are much higher in mountainous regions with dense populations. This means mortality rates are higher in regions in South America, like the Andes, and the Himalayas across Asia.
Deadliest Landslides in History
The largest landslide in the world was in China in 1920, which killed 100,000 people.
In the U.S., the largest landslide occurred in Alaska during the 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
4. Hurricane, Typhoon and Cyclone
The difference between a hurricane, typhoon and cyclone is location, location, location. At the end of the day, they're really the same thing, but receive different names in different regions.
Regardless of what they are called or where they exist, they are all storms with strong winds that swirl around a center and move across a body of water. They can drag on for days or even weeks, and all three can be highly destructive and deadly.
Where Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones Occur Most
Anywhere with a large body of water is at risk of being damaged by a hurricane, typhoon or cyclone.
As for which one you’ll experience? In the North Atlantic Ocean and Northeast Pacific, they’re called hurricanes. Typhoons take place in the Northwest Pacific, and cyclone is the correct term for what takes place in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean.
Deadliest Hurricanes, Typhoons and Cyclones in History
Hurricanes cause an average of 17 deaths per year, but there are certain years when the death toll is ridiculously high. The deadliest hurricane in history was the 1900 Great Galveston Storm in Texas, which killed 8,000 to 12,000 people.
The worst cyclone in history was the 1970 Bhola cyclone, which struck East Pakistan and India's West Bengal. At least 500,000 people lost their lives.
Believe it or not, earthquakes happen every single day. The thing is, most of the time you don't even know they're happening. The land masses of our planet sit on thin, relatively rigid plates, known as tectonic plates that are constantly moving, ever so slightly, on the outer surface of the Earth.
An earthquake happens when the tectonic plates get stuck at their edges due to friction. When the stress on the edge overcomes the friction, that is what an earthquake is — a release of energy that travels through the crust and causes a shake. Earthquakes are measured on what is known as the Richter scale. Some movement is more palpable than others, and the ones that we feel score higher.
Where Earthquakes Occur Most
Earthquakes can happen anywhere, but, as previously mentioned, the world's greatest earthquake belt is the Ring of Fire.
This is where we can expect to see the majority of seismic activity. The number of deaths that occur from earthquakes each year has dropped significantly, as the world continues to become more and more resilient. In 2017, for example, there were only 1,222 deaths from earthquakes.
Deadliest Earthquakes in History
There are still those rare earthquakes that continue to be catastrophic, though, like the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in China, which killed almost 250,000 people and the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, earthquake of 2010, which killed 200,000.
These two had magnitudes of 7.0 or more and are among the deadliest in history — only outdone by an earthquake from 1556 in Shaanxi, China, which is estimated to have killed 830,000 people.
A flood occurs when water overwhelms land that is usually dry. This can happen in a variety of ways: excessive rain, a broken dam or levee, rapidly melting snow, hurricanes or tsunamis.
Most floods take hours or days to develop, but sometimes there is little-to-no warning, which is where fatalities and catastrophes can occur. Flooding can cause more than $40 billion in damage annually, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Where Flooding Occurs Most
Flooding occurs predominantly in coastal areas, but it’s also possible for flooding to occur in areas with long periods of rainfall.
Bangladesh is the most flood-prone area in the world.
Deadliest Floods in History
Death tolls from flooding have increased to more than 100 people per year on average.
The deadliest flood in the world was the 1931 floods in China, known as the Yangtze-Huai River floods. These devastating floods killed approximately 4 million people.
Famine is a hyper-localized episode of extreme hunger that causes death due to starvation from hunger-induced diseases. A drought is a prolonged period of dry weather that lasts long enough to damage crops and cause water supply shortages.
Droughts can also be caused by overuse and overpopulation. Famine is often caused by drought, though not exclusively.
Where Famine/Drought Occurs Most
While famine tends to strike poorer countries, like those in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, drought can occur anywhere. According to the World Meteorological Organization, from 1970-2012, drought caused nearly 680,000 deaths, due to the severe African droughts of 1975, 1983 and 1984.
The most-destructive drought in the U.S. was the Dust Bowl period in the 1930s. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that at least 50,000,000 acres of U.S. land was affected.
Deadliest Famine/Droughts in History
Our World Data estimates that from the 1860s until 2016, 128 million people have died from famine around the world.
The single-largest famine in history, in terms of death, was the Great Leap Forward famine in China from 1959-61. It was more than double the death toll than any other famine. It is estimated that roughly 33 million people died from this famine.