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Tsunamis and vanishing cities: Quakes that changed history

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Tuesday, April 28, 2015, 11:52 AM - Every so often, a major quake will occur that serves as a jolting reminder that our planet's crust is active and ever-shifting.

The timing and location of a quake can change modes of thinking, ruin entire nations and claim countless lives.

Nepal was the site of that periodic wake-up call this week. A Magnitude 7.8 tremor there has claimed thousands of lives, with the death toll still rising.

It's only one of countless quakes that have rocked our world since recorded time began. We're put together a few that, for one reason or another, made history and changed the world.

464 B.C. – Earthquake destroys Sparta, sparks a slave revolt, and helps lead to a generation-long war

Everybody knows the Spartans, thanks to ancient Greek histories and modern films like 300, as organized and skilled super-soldiers who stopped the advance of the invading Persian army.

Image: Staatliche Antikensammlungen/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Staatliche Antikensammlungen/Wikimedia Commons

Less well-known is the fact that their society was built on a huge underclass of semi-enslaved serfs, known as helots, made up of people conquered by the Spartan city-state.

The Spartans managed to keep a lid on the understandably seething helots – until a 7.2 Magnitude quake rocked the region in 464 B.C., all but levelling the city and killing possibly up to 20,000 people throughout Spartan territory.

Image: Κούμαρης Νικόλαος/Wikimedia Commons

Image: Κούμαρης Νικόλαος/Wikimedia Commons

The death toll may be exaggerated, but it was still extensive, prompting the helots to rise up against their masters in a revolt so widespread, the Spartans called in help from other Greek states to help put it down.

Among the reinforcements was a contingent from Athens, centre of ancient Greek democracy and philosophy – but relations between Sparta and Athens were so terrible at that point that the Spartans sent the newcomers home, for fear they’d actually help the helots.

The perceived insult has been pointed to by some historians as one of the last causes of the Peloponnesian War – a thirty-some-year epic struggle for supremacy between Sparta and Athens which left thousands of people dead, decades after the earth’s trembling ended.

365 A.D.: Tsunami wipes out towns all along the Mediterranean, leaves a cultural scar

Even in an age of low literacy and no mass media, the earthquake that jolted the island of Crete left cultural and psychological aftershocks that lasted long after the damage had been repaired.

The island of Crete, seen from space. Courtesty: NASA Earth Observatory

The island of Crete, seen from space. Courtesty: NASA Earth Observatory

Now estimated to have been a Magnitude 8.5 at least, the tectonic shift caused a huge tsunami. You can read a chilling account by the early historian Ammianus Marcellinus of the sea being at first sucked out, stranding ships and sea life, then roaring back to swamp the land.

Pretty much every major city on Crete was levelled, with a death toll of “many thousands.” The force of the earthquake on its own was enough to raise parts of the island up to nine metres.

And the effects of the quake reached way beyond the island. The two-metre tsunami rolled all the way south to populous Egypt, a major breadbasket for the Roman Empire, and wrecked Alexandra, Egypt’s largest city and one of the most important centres of the empire.

Boats at sea were driven onto rooftops, as much as 3 km inland.

This harbour complex in the city of Apollonia, in modern Libya, was much more extensive before the tsunami hit. PHOTO: Jona Lendering/Wikimedia commons.

This harbour complex in the city of Apollonia, in modern Libya, was much more extensive before the tsunami hit. PHOTO: Jona Lendering/Wikimedia commons.

An event that catastrophic has a way of sticking in the public consciousness, and it appears as a backdrop or influence in several sources at the time.

It’s hard to say how much of a factor it was in the eventual collapse of the Roman Empire in the west over the next century, but it can’t have helped matters much. Even worse, some experts say it could happen again.

1556: The deadliest earthquake of all time wrecks nine Chinese provinces

More than 830,000 people were killed when this Magnitude 8 earthquake struck the Chinese province of Shaanxi in 1556. That’s almost three times the number that were killed in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Far and away the deadliest earthquake in all of recorded history.

The Hua Shan mountains, Shaanxi, China. IMAGE: Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons

The Hua Shan mountains, Shaanxi, China. IMAGE: Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons

It struck close to China’s famous Hua Shan mountains, and rocked the earth hard enough to be felt 800 km away. 

The result reads like the play-by-play of a real-life apocalypse.

Huge tracts of landscape were uplifted, or collapsed. Liquefaction and landslides swallowed communities that had already had city walls and almost all of their structures razed to the ground. Some districts reported casualty rates of 50 per cent and more.

When the shaking finally stopped, millions were homeless, and fires were burning in the ruins. This source says law and order broke down almost completely in some districts, with banditry widespread.

Even worse, aftershocks occurred three or four times a month for half a year afterward. And even though they slowed down, they didn’t stop altogether until five years afterward.

1692: A storied pirate playground tumbles beneath the sea

Our readers who have a fancy for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films may be surprised to know the main town in the first movie, Port Royal, was actually a real place:

IMAGE: John Masefield/Wikimedia Commons/Project Gutenberg

IMAGE: John Masefield/Wikimedia Commons/Project Gutenberg

This was no colonial backwater. The largest and wealthiest city of British Jamaica, it was a thriving commercial port, and also a haven for Caribbean pirates, earning it the dual titles of “treasury of the West Indies” and “wickedest place on Earth.

For that reason, the massive earthquake that struck the region in 1692 seemed to many observers to have been an act of divine fury.

In a few short instants, two-thirds of the greatest British stronghold in the Caribbean was swallowed by the sea and the earth, much of now under around 8 m of water.

Two-thousand people were killed in the initial shock, and another 3,000 perished due to injury and disease. The city would survive as a shadow of itself for another couple of centuries, but would never recover its economic supremacy.

Incidentally, it’s one of the few earthquakes in pre-modern times where we know the exact time it happened, thanks to a pocket watch recovered from the sunken city in the 1950s. 

Its hands were stopped at 11:43 a.m., which we reckon must have been incredibly eerie for the person who found it.

1700: A monster tremor in B.C. and the Pacific Northwest sends a tsunami to Japan and enters into First Nations legend

IMAGE: NASA Earth Observatory

IMAGE: NASA Earth Observatory

When Pakistan was struck by a 7.7-Magnitude earthquake a couple of years ago, The Weather Network interviewed this expert in British Columbia on how the west coast would be affected if a tremor that size hit.

When he estimates the death toll in the thousands, and billions of dollars in damages, rest assured, he’s not exaggerating: At least one, even stronger quake, has rocked the west coast in the past.

A huge region of western North America possibly ranging from northern California to British Columbia trembled before a Magnitude 9 quake, a “megathrust” tremblor resulting from when a large section of plate in the off-shore Cascadia Subduction Zone slipped beneath another.

SOURCE: U.S. Geological Survey

SOURCE: U.S. Geological Survey

Oral histories by First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest provide first-hand accounts of what happened, speaking of a huge tsunami that swept villages from the land and claimed countless lives, and one nation even speaks of a whale that was driven ashore, ending a period of starvation and marking the beginning of the whale hunt.

Another account says the shaking loosened the soil so much that people sank into it, while in Canada the wave destroyed at least one village on western Vancouver Island, and destroyed several homes elsewhere.

We don’t get the precise date from First Nations histories, though. We get it from the Japanese, whose records note a wave more than a metre high swept in one night and affected several coastal villages – more than 7,500 km away from where the quake’s North American point of origin.

Until that “Orphan Tsunami” arrived, the Japanese had no idea there'd been a Magnitude 9 quake - they were too far away to actually feel it. 

1755: Quake and Tsunami deal a terrible blow to the capital of a global empire

According to this first-person account, it was a nice and sunny day in Portugal’s capital Lisbon when an estimated 8.7 Magnitude cracked the earth and sent a 10-metre high tsunami racing for the coast.



The shaking alone lasted 10 minutes even before the monster wave arrived, swamping the city and adding to a death toll that may have been as high as 50,000 in Portugal, Spain and Morocco (although other estimates put the total lower). 

In Portugal, a significant fraction of the city’s 250,000 or so inhabitants would have perished.

Then the fire started. It would have been sparked in part by cookfires in collapsed buildings, but the fact that it was All Saints Day made it worse; Everyone would have been in church, where candles would have been burning. It took days to put the worst of the flames out.

IMAGE: Art and history archives of Berlin/Jurema Oliveira

IMAGE: Art and history archives of Berlin/Jurema Oliveira

Lisbon wasn’t a minor village clinging to a lonely shore. It was a major European capital, the wealthy core of a trading empire stretching from Brazil to Africa to the Far East, still powerful even though the country’s golden age of exploration was past.

The empire continued, but the huge blow to its capital can’t have been healthy for its future prospects, even though the country’s prime minister took the opportunity to rebuild the city in splendour.

Like the Crete earthquake centuries before, the shock of the event reverberated all the way through Europe, which struggled to cope with how such massive destruction could come about.

One good result: The thinking at the time was a bit more scientific, with the Portuguese prime minister even polling churches throughout the land to send in their observations of exactly what happened when the quake hit, another step toward developing the science of seismology.

1960: The most powerful earthquake ever recorded rocks Chile and sends tsunamis as far as Hawaii

Magnitude 9.5. The largest and most powerful earthquake ever recorded. If ever there was a Big One, this was it.



The monster tremor struck in southern Chile, with a rupture zone 1,000 km long. It damaged houses beyond repair, raised up parts of the land and wrecked coastal communities.

The resulting tsunami travelled along the Pacific coast of the Americas, and roared across the Pacific. In Hawaii, vehicles and twenty-tonne rocks were driven inland. More than 61 people were killed.

Damage in Hawaii. IMAGE: U.S. Navy

Damage in Hawaii. IMAGE: U.S. Navy

Dozens more were reported dead or missing in the Philippines, and more than 130 deaths were reported in Japan.

Total damages were more than $1 billion in 1960s terms, ranging from Chile, all the way to Hawaii and up the U.S. West Coast.

In Chile alone, 2 million people were left homeless and shaken by the country’s most devastating natural disaster.

Valdivia, Chile. IMAGE: Pierre St. Amand/Wikimedia Commons

Valdivia, Chile. IMAGE: Pierre St. Amand/Wikimedia Commons

And the death toll, after all of this? Only 1,655 Pacific-wide, despite the terrifying size of the quake and tsunami.

How did so many escape death or injury? It helps that the Chileans know quite well that they live in an quake-prone country. Many houses had been built to be earthquake-resistent, it was the middle of the afternoon and everyone was on their guard, thanks to a long series of fore-shocks leading up to the quake.

2004: Fourteen nations felt the shock of the Boxing Day earthquake

It was a Sunday morning, the day after Christmas, 2004, when a 9.1 Magnitude quake changed the lives of millions of people in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Image: David Rydevik

Image: David Rydevik

This was the third largest Earthquake in the world, and at time the second deadliest-ever before being surpassed by Haiti. Aside from the shaking, the earthquake’s location, off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, made it worse. In every direction, countries along the shores of the much-travelled Indian Ocean lay in the path the resulting tsunami, with waves up to 30 m high.

With varying degrees of destruction, the monster wave ravaged the coasts of 14 countries in an arc from Indonesia to southeast Africa. 

Landslides were reported in many areas, and a mud volcano was raised two days later in India’s Andaman Islands. A 2,600-tonne ship was flung several kilometres inland in Indonesia’s restive Banda Aceh province, and is a burgeoning tourist attraction.

IMAGE: U.S. Navy

IMAGE: U.S. Navy

More than 220,000 people lost their lives, or were missing, presumed dead. Cities and towns were swamped and wrecked, and 1.7 million people were displaced.

2010: The poorest country in the western hemisphere is devastated

Officially, the 316,000 deaths in the wake of the Magnitude 7 tremblor that struck Haiti make it the deadliest quake of the 21st century so far, and the worst to hit that country in 200 years.

IMAGE: Marco Dormino/The United Nations

IMAGE: Marco Dormino/The United Nations

Other estimates put the death toll much lower, but it was still a massive disaster, and it happened to perhaps the country least able to cope with it.

Haiti has the lowest GDP per capita of any nation in the Americas, along with a long history of political troubles, including a coup as recently as 2004.

When the 2010 quake struck, not far from the capital Port-au-Prince, aside from the death toll mentioned above, another 300,000 people were injured and 1.3 million displaced. 

It levelled or badly damaged hundreds of thousands of buildings, including the presidential palace.

IMAGE: United Nations Development Program

IMAGE: United Nations Development Program

A major international humanitarian effort was soon launched, but matters were made worse by a cholera epidemic sparked by the terrible conditions following the quake.

2011: Japan suffers an earthquake, a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown

March 11, 2011 may very well have been the worst day in Japan’s post-war history.


It wasn’t just the death toll left by the Magnitude 9 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Although the 15,883 dead and 2,650 missing is a significant number, a 1923 earthquake in Japan killed almost 10 times that number.

It was the fact that the catastrophe led to the disaster at the nuclear plant at Fukushima. The incident was the first since Chernobyl in 1986, and the effects of the release of radioactive material will be felt for decades to come (More than two years later, there’s still radioactive water leaking into the ocean).

That was like adding insult to injury for the country, which was devastated by the quake. The economic impact is estimated at more than half-a-trillion dollars.

The tsunami was 37 m at its tallest, and it wrecked countless homes and structures, and rolled across the Pacific in all directions, even damaging boats and coastal structures as far as California and Chile. 



It even caused massive slabs of ice to fall from a glacier as far away as Antarctica. The quake itself was felt physically as far away as the Northern Mariana Islands.

On-shore, liquefaction damaged roads and other transport links, fires broke out and infrastructure was severely damaged. 

The cleanup costs will be tremendous, all at a time when the Japanese economy is already in rough shape after years of recession.

View of Sendai after the quake. IMAGE: U.S. Navy.

View of Sendai after the quake. IMAGE: U.S. Navy.

It will take a long time for Japan to recover, although the memory of the catastrophe will likely be permanently etched onto the national psyche.

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