The Deadliest Earthquake In History That Nobody Talks About

60% of the population wiped out!

Sumit Singh
3 min readSep 23, 2021

Earthquakes occur when the tectonic plates of the Earth’s outermost layer jostle around. There are several ways that regions prone to the devastating effects of these natural disasters prepare themselves for such events. For example, the engineering concept of "base isolation" is a means of separating the foundations of vulnerable buildings from the solid ground to reduce the impact of seismic shifts. The Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco boasts a foundation that is more than 50 feet deep and brilliantly designed to move with the power of an earthquake rather than against it. Regardless of humanity’s ingenious defenses though, some earthquakes just cannot be defended against.

In 1556, before many of these mechanical marvels were introduced, the earthquake with the highest death toll in human history struck the Chinese province of Shaanxi. This devastating event took place on January 23rd of that year. Although the region had reportedly suffered multiple powerful earthquakes before, this rather unknown yet tragic quake was unlike any that came before it or since. Between the Shaanxi and Shanxi provinces, the quake killed a shocking number of people. Around 830,000 people lost their lives, many of whom were crushed to death by building collapses as the massive tremors shook the region. The death toll was so high that approximately 60% of the population of the province and its neighboring region were killed. An area of around 521 miles, or 840 kilometers, was completely leveled. Much of the province’s population lived in artificial caves called yaodongs built into hills or the ground itself.

The prevalence of these structures may have made their residents more vulnerable to the devastating power of the quake. China is also the victim of the second-deadliest earthquake in human history. This quake occurred in its Ningxia Province in December 1920. Approximately 273,400 lives were lost on that tragic day in a natural disaster that is estimated to have measured a 7.8 magnitude on the Richter scale. Still, the Shaanxi quake was several times more formidable in terms of fatalities and
is estimated to have reached 8 on the Richter scale. The very landscape of the region rose and fell around it, and even the locations of rivers and mountains changed. Hills, gullies, and cracks were formed, changing the landscape. In the aftermath, survivors took to reconstructing
their homes with wooden materials to be less prone to any future devastation. However, aftershocks are said to have continued for months after the initial quake. The upheaval caused by the Shaanxi Earthquake was like nothing modern humans have seen. It caused fissures in the earth up to 66 feet deep and fires that burned for days. Every single building and home in the city of Huazhou was decimated.

In fact, the quake was so violent that it caused death and destruction as far as 310 miles out from the epicenter. The Shaanxi Earthquake was not the strongest earthquake to ever measure on the Richter scale, but it killed more people in recorded history than any other earthquake. The area was so populated because the northern parts of the Shaanxi province around the Wei River Valley are among the earliest settlements in China, spanning back to the Neolithic age, around 10,000 BCE. At the time of the devastating quake, the Chinese people were experiencing a rich cultural life under the Ming Dynasty. There were large-scale manufacturing industries in place that created porcelains and textiles, which in turn boosted the economy. This led to more people enjoying education and prosperity. Artists broke free from traditional methods of focusing on technical accomplishment to more expressive modes, for instance, painting landscapes. Woodblock printing meant books were widely produced. The people whose lives were upended by the Shaanxi earthquake were living in a sophisticated era.

Yet for all of their cultural sophistication, there was no way to predict or escape the planet’s tectonic plates from shifting. That problem still exists today. Regardless of our modern technological advances nearly 500 years later, scientists still cannot predict an earthquake. They can only calculate probabilities. But at least today, engineers plan for natural disasters when designing new buildings. "Design engineers need a scientific basis for producing buildings that are going to perform well during future earthquakes." The hope is that such a devastating loss of life due to an earthquake will never happen again.