In terms of sheer death toll and property destroyed, the tsunami that tore through the Indian Ocean in December 2004 is the worst ever recorded, with 295,600 deaths blamed directly and indirectly on the disaster. Surprisingly, you have to go back nearly 250 years to find the next most-destructive tsunami, which was the one caused by the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal and which wiped out 100,000 people in the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa and the British Isles. A close runner-up is the 1908 quake in Messina, Sicily, which also dispatched nearly 100,000, or the tidal wave unleashed by the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, a volcano in Indonesia, which killed 36,000. These disasters may not, strictly speaking, be the “most powerful” in terms of size or kinetic energy–they’re just the deadliest. Whether a tsunami is destructive depends largely on exactly where it hits. The 2004 event was so bad because it happened in relatively shallow water and happened to strike coastal areas in the most densely-populated places on Earth. A tsunami of similar size and power that happened, say, in Alaska (which itself suffered a deadly tsumani event in 1964) would probably not have killed a fiftieth of the number of people. Also keep in mind that, as with any natural phenomenon, tsunamis have been going on since the beginning of time. It’s entirely possible that events of staggering power and death toll may have happened in the distant past, but were not reported or documented to the same degree as a similar event would be today.
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