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Which are the deadliest earthquakes of the 21st century?

A woman cries over the graves of her son and daughter, killed during the earthquake of February 2023, at Sehir cemetery in Malatya, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023
A woman cries over the graves of her son and daughter, killed during the earthquake of February 2023, at Sehir cemetery in Malatya, Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023 Copyright Francisco Seco/AP
Copyright Francisco Seco/AP
By Marie Jamet
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The earthquake that devastated Morocco on Friday is one of the twenty deadliest of the 21st century.

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2,500 dead. This is the initial death toll from the 6.8 magnitude earthquake that shook Morocco on 9 September. It is likely to rise much further. 

The country's last major earthquake occurred in 2004, killing 628 people. Yet its deadliest quake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, claimed more than 13,000 lives in 1960. 

The 9 September earthquake that hit Morocco is the 15th most fatal of the 21st century. 

One of the most severe quakes in recent times hit Turkey and Syria on 6 February 2023, which claimed 56,697 victims at the last official count - the equivalent of the population of a town like Dartford or Canterbury in England.

This catastrophic toll puts the February earthquake in 50th place among all the deadliest earthquakes since 500 BC recorded by the US agency that monitors geophysical events around the world (NCEI - Nation Centres for Environmental Information).

  1. Haiti, 12 January 2010: 316,000 dead
  2. Sumatra, 26 December 2004: 227,899 dead
  3. Sichuan Province in China, 15 May 2008: 87,652 dead
  4. Pakistan, 8 October 2005: 76,213 dead
  5. Turkey/Syria, 6 February 2023: 51,880 dead

An average of fifteen earthquakes of a magnitude greater than 7.0 occur around the world every year, say experts. That on 6 February was 7.8, making it one of the most severe.

According to Joanna Faure Walker, Director of the University College London Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, this earthquake released 250 times more energy than the 6.2 magnitude quake that struck central Italy and killed nearly 300 people in 2016.

However, seismologists have documented very little activity on the eastern Anatolian fault line during the 20th century.

"If we only look at the (large) earthquakes recorded by seismometers, it would seem almost empty", says Roger Musson, a researcher at the British Geological Survey. As per the US Geological Survey, only three earthquakes greater than 6 on the Richter scale have been recorded in the region since 1970.

The last tragedy in the region dates back to an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 in 1822. It killed around 20,000 people.

The deadliest earthquakes of the 20th and 21st centuries

The ten deadliest earthquakes in modern history all claimed more than 60,000 victims. Half of them claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010 remains the deadliest to date in the 20th and 21st centuries. In recorded history, it has only been surpassed by an earthquake in China in 1556, which is supposed to have killed 830,000 people.

Only seven earthquakes recorded by the NCEI reached a magnitude of 9 or more. The strongest earthquake occurred on 22 May 1960 in Peru. It killed 2,226 people.

The magnitude of an earthquake is not enough to explain the number of victims it can cause. Its depth, the type of movement and the occurrence of landslides or tsunamis in its wake can make the situation even worse. The type of buildings and the weather conditions at the time of the earthquake may also be a factor.

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