The most severe earthquakes worldwide

Earthquakes are not a new problem of our time, but occur naturally in the lithosphere, the outer rock layers of the earth. Like volcanoes and tsunamis, they occur mainly at the edges of tectonic plates. In Europe and on the coasts of the Atlantic, we are mostly spared them. Other countries, such as the countries bordering the Pacific, are much more affected.

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Tropical storms

The strongest earthquakes in the last 2 weeks

05/25/2023ColombiaPanama-Colombia border6.6
05/18/2023Guatemala2 km southeast of Canillá6.4
05/21/2023Solomon Islands55 km west-northwest of Kirakira6.1
05/26/2023JapanNear the east coast of Honshu6.1
05/27/2023Tonga127 km west of Neiafu6.0
05/14/2023Japan152 km south-southeast of Shimoda5.8
05/21/2023Tonga109 km southeast of Neiafu5.8
05/19/2023SomaliaGulf of Aden5.7
05/14/2023Japan144 km south-southeast of Shimoda5.6
05/14/2023Japan148 km south-southeast of Shimoda5.5

How earthquakes occur

Tectonic plate boundaries The Earth is not a solid sphere of stone, but consists of different layers with different densities and temperatures. The outermost layer is the Earth's crust and consists of brittle rock masses that float on the Earth's mantle below. Both layers together form the lithosphere. The heat in the Earth's mantle causes a slow but steady movement in which hot and therefore viscous and malleable rock masses slowly rise from the Earth's interior, cool down again and sink once more. These movements are transferred to the continental plates that make up the Earth's outer crust. In the course of many millions of years, our continents drift further and further apart.

If two tectonic plates move towards each other, they fold up at the edges and whole mountain ranges are formed over a long period of time. However, most of these plate boundaries do not run on land, but under water in the oceans. Such huge continental plates do not move at a constant speed. Unlike the deeper layers of the Earth, they are much cooler and therefore firmer. This creates great stresses, which at some point become so great that massive layers of rock break. The resulting jerky discharge of stress generates seismic waves over many kilometers. This is known as earthquakes at the surface.

While the Earth's crust is between 8 and 70 kilometers thick, most earthquakes occur at a depth of 20 to 50 kilometers. That is, where the rock plates are no longer hot enough to deform. The place where the Earth's crust first breaks open is called the hypocenter. The travel time of the seismic waves to different measuring stations often makes it possible to determine this very precisely. The term epicenter describes the location on the Earth's surface above the hypocenter.

The map on the right (source: NASA, DTAM project team) shows the most frequent epicenters of earthquakes, regardless of their magnitude, and thus illustrates the boundaries of the continental plates. In particular, earthquakes occur with striking frequency along the U.S. West Coast and along the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The most severe earthquakes since 1950

Chile, Alaska (USA) and Indonesia appear several times in the list of the most severe earthquakes over the last 60 years. The total damage column includes destroyed homes and financial losses. It does not include victims and damage from tsunamis possibly triggered by the quakes.

Date CountryRegionMagnitudeDeathsTotal damage
05/22/1960: Puerto Montt, Valdivia
Puerto Montt, Valdivia9.52,000
03/28/1964United States
03/28/1964: Alaska
03/11/2011: Honshu
12/26/2004: Sumatra (Aceh: Off West Coast)
Sumatra (Aceh: Off West Coast)9.11,001
11/04/1952: Kamchatka Peninsula
Kamchatka Peninsula9.00
02/27/2010: Maule, Concepcion, Talcahuano
Maule, Concepcion, Talcahuano8.8402
02/04/1965United States
02/04/1965: Aleutian Islands (Rat Islands)
Aleutian Islands (Rat Islands)8.70
03/28/2005: Sumatera (Sw)
Sumatera (Sw)8.61,303
08/15/1950: India-China
04/11/2012: N Sumatra (Off West Coast)
N Sumatra (Off West Coast)8.610
03/09/1957United States
03/09/1957: Alaska
10/13/1963: Kuril Islands
Kuril Islands8.50
06/23/2001: Arequipa, Moquegua, Tacna, Ayacucho
Arequipa, Moquegua, Tacna, Ayacucho8.477
09/12/2007: Sumatra
09/16/2015: Central
10/04/1994: Kuril Islands; Japan (Hokkaido)
Kuril Islands; Japan (Hokkaido)8.311
09/25/2003: Hokkaido
11/06/1958: Kuril Islands
Kuril Islands8.30
11/04/1963: Banda Sea
Banda Sea8.30
11/15/2006: Kuril Islands
Kuril Islands8.30

Tropical cyclones worldwideThe largest tropical cyclones in the worldFormation of tropical storms and list of the most affected countries
Active volcanoes and eruptionsThe strongest volcanic eruptions worldwideFormation of volcanoes and list of the world's most violent eruptions
Current tsunamis worldwideTsunamis and their devastating effectsFormation of tsunamis and list of the most serious tsunamis of the last 2000 years