The Most Devastating Natural Disasters In History

Published August 26, 2011
Updated January 9, 2018

Great Floods In China, 1887 & 1931

Great Floods of China

The arguably most devastating natural disasters ever occurred in China in 1887 and again in 1931, when The Yellow River (Huang He) flooded. Surrounded by flat land, the river is prone to flooding, despite the dikes placed by farmers to control water levels.

However, in 1887 and 1931, the flooding reached unfathomable proportions, wiping out land and killing millions. In 1887, heavy rain and the rising seabed broke through the dikes, and the water spread throughout northern China, covering an estimated 50,000 square miles. The flood killed 900,000 – 2,000,000 people, and left 2 million others homeless.

1887 Great China Floods

China Flood 1931 Natural Disasters

The 1887 flood was later followed by worse flooding in the winter, spring and summer of 1931. Due to heavy snowfall, three major rivers draining into the area flooded Northern China again, this time killing 3.7 – 4 million people through drowning and starvation, and leaving thousands homeless.

The Most Devastating Natural Disasters History

Great Flood Of China In 1931

Cyclone Bhola, Bangladesh, 1970

Cyclone Bhola

On November 8, 1970, a storm formed in the Bay of Bengal, raging over the ocean before traveling north towards land. The Category 3 cyclone that emerged had wind speeds of up to 172 miles an hour, which tore through the coastal region, wiping out crops and killing 500,000 people (both during the storm and subsequent famine).

Up to 85 percent of homes were destroyed, and the cyclone was a catalyst that led to the formation of Bangladesh, the small coastal country that separated itself from East Pakistan after the ensuing civil war.

Cyclone Bhola

Devastating Natural Disasters: Valdivia Earthquake, Chile, 1960

Valdivia Earthquake Rubble

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded at a massive 9.5 magnitude struck near Valdivia, Chile on May 22, 1960. The death toll, though, remained relatively low despite the strength of the quake, with about 6,000 people killed.

This was in part thanks to Chile’s preparedness for potential earthquakes. Nevertheless, the quake left widespread destruction in its wake, demolishing 40 percent of houses completely, and ripping apart a nearby volcano, causing it to erupt.

Valdivia Earthquake Devastating Natural Disasters

1960 Chile Earthquake Picture


If you enjoyed learning about history’s most devastating natural disasters, check out the worst natural disasters of the 21st century and the world’s most devastating pandemics. Then, see how photographer Kevin Carter took one iconic image that changed the world and ultimately helps explain why he took his own life.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out the stories to illuminate the past, present, and future.