What's The Most Powerful Natural Disaster That The World Has Ever Experienced?

Chile's Cabulco volcano erupting in April 2015. FRANCISCO NEGRONI/AFP/Getty Images

The world is full of powerful natural phenomena, and when they cause devastation, destruction, and death, they are referred to as natural disasters. Working out which one is the most “powerful”, though, is fraught with difficulty.

Essentially, natural disasters can be measured in two basic ways – in terms of the energy they release, and in terms of the amount of life they kill off. For now, let’s look at the former, and see how the most extraordinary natural occurrences on our beautiful, dangerous world stack up.

Hurricanes

Unfortunately, estimating the power of prehistoric hurricanes using the geological record is too imprecise at present, so instead let’s look at the most powerful hurricane (or “typhoon” or “tropical cyclone”) in human history.

One candidate is considered to be Typhoon Haiyan, which made landfall in the Philippines in 2013 with winds of up to 314 kilometers per hour (195 miles per hour). In the Western Hemisphere, the most powerful is often thought to be Hurricane Patricia, which slammed into western Mexico in 2015 with winds peaking at 325 kilometers per hour (202 miles per hour).

Although Patricia wins this round, Weather Underground points out that Super Typhoon Nancy in 1961, with 346 kilometers per hour (215 miles per hour) peak wind speeds, still holds the all-time record – but how does this translate to power? One estimate by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) calculates that the average unleashes 600 trillion joules per second in energy in cloud/rain formation alone, with an additional 1.5 trillion being released as kinetic energy in its powerful winds.

These three hurricanes, therefore, had powers at least equivalent to several hundreds of trillion joules per second, which is a heck of a lot. In fact, the average hurricane produces energy equivalent to perhaps thousands of trillions of lightning strikes per second.

Typhoon Maysak, as seen from the International Space Station. ESA/NASA

Earthquakes

What about what lies beneath? Earthquakes are terrifying forces of nature, and nowadays their power is measured by scientists on the moment magnitude (Mw) scale. It is not a linear scale – a M2 rating is equivalent to a tremor roughly 30 times as energetic as a M1 quake.

Earthquakes prior to human documentation are difficult to energetically quantify, so only recorded ones can be compared. Just in terms of total energy released, the most powerful recorded earthquake is thought to be the May 22, 1960 event that struck southern Chile. Measured as a M9.5, it would have unleashed 8.3 quintillion joules of energy in mere seconds.

So how does this compare to hurricanes? Well, say you have an average hurricane lasting for 24 hours. That means in a single day (86,400 seconds), it will unleash around 52 quintillion joules of energy. So the world’s most powerful earthquake doesn’t even come close to the most standard of hurricanes.

Volcanic Eruptions

Volcanic eruptions produce fiery columns of ash and lava, huge lava flows, massive amounts of kinetic energy through ballistics and bombs, huge quantities of sound energy, and more. Make no mistake, they are powerful. Although effusive ones producing lava flows emit more energy overall, explosive eruptions – such as the famous May 1980 event at Mount St. Helens – produce more energy per second by far, and are considered the most conventionally “powerful”.

The most powerful eruption in the last 500 million years is thought to be the one that formed La Garita Caldera, an extinct supervolcano located in Colorado. This unleashed in a matter of hours or days 5,000 cubic kilometers (1,200 cubic miles) of lava and ash, via huge eruption columns and pyroclastic flows, enough to bury the entire state of California under 12 meters (40 feet) of volcanic debris.

As a point of comparison, the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, the Tsar Bomba, released 0.2 quintillion joules of energy. This 28-million-year-old eruption involved over 1,050 quintillion joules of energy – 5,000 times more powerful than humanity’s feeble efforts. So far, this is the world’s most powerful natural disaster.

More and more volcanoes nowadays exist among densely populated settlements, and become more hazardous year on year as their nearby populations grow. Anton Jonkovoy/Shutterstock

Asteroid Impacts

When comets or asteroids crash into the world, they create global firestorms, massive tsunamis, massive global temperature fluctuations, and – most importantly – they can blanket the sky with soot and shut off photosynthesis, thereby killing off entire food chains.

The kinetic energy alone, however, is enough to make your head spin. The 10-kilometer-wide (6-mile) asteroid that finished off the already ailing non-avian dinosaurs released as much as 543,000 quintillion joules of energy. That’s 1000 times more than a day’s worth of hurricane, so already, asteroid impacts are ahead of the pack.

The most powerful impact event in Earth’s history involved a Mars-sized protoplanet named Theia crashing into it right at the start of the planet’s fiery birth – one ginormous enough to strip material off Earth that went on to form the Moon. This powerful impact released a mind-blowing 1 x 1030 joules of energy, equivalent to 1.84 million dinosaur-killing asteroid impacts. In terms of energy release, this event cannot be matched.

Mass Extinctions: Life’s Bottlenecks

So what about casualties? It’s worth highlighting that modern humans have only been around for 200,000 years of Earth’s 4.6 billion years of history. Even the most murderous natural disaster in human times will not even begin to match up to the most deadly, powerful events in the world’s ancient past – events called “mass extinctions”.

Mass extinctions are defined as prolonged periods of time wherein the global speciation rate remains far below the extinction rate. Although they are not really defined as “natural disasters”, they are complex beasts with always more than one cause, with each antagonizing force varyingly responsible. In many cases, scientists cannot agree which conspirator was the most culpable, so it’s worth taking them into account as mysterious smorgasbords of zoological destruction.

The five most clearly defined ones occurred between 443 and 66 million years ago with climate change, ocean chemistry fluctuations, trace element disappearances, massive volcanism, and asteroid impacts all to blame at various points.

Out of these, you might think that the famous asteroid impact that wiped out the non-avian dinosaurs (and almost all mammals and marine life) 66 million years ago would be the most “destructive”, and you’d almost be right. After all, it did wipe out as much as 75 percent of all life on Earth.

However, there’s a reason the end-Permian mass extinction 252 million years ago is referred to as the “Great Dying” – around 96 percent of all the world’s species were annihilated after prolonged, continental-scale volcanism from modern-day Siberia devastated the world’s climate. All living creatures we know today descended from the remaining 4 percent.

What of the other three mass extinctions? Well, most scientists agree that we are in the sixth right now, with species all across the world dying out thanks to our own species’ detrimental effects on the planet. The other two are fairly ambiguous.

Medium-sized asteroid impacts are enough to darken the sky and freeze the world. Mopic/Shutterstock

The first took place around 600-542 million years ago, when complex life on Earth suddenly diversified and appeared in the fossil record.

Known as the Cambrian Explosion, it is commonly thought to be the time period wherein complex life began to take over the world. Scientists have recently become aware that an even more ancient zoological band of enigmatic lifeforms, the “Ediacaran biota”, also existed prior to this date, and they disappeared from the fossil record when the Cambrian Explosion took place.

Although limited fossil evidence makes it hard to know for sure, it appears that this biological switchover wiped out the Ediacarans simply because the new kids on the block outcompeted them. Overall, scientists think that this mass extinction event was more deadly than the end-Cretaceous, but not quite as bad as the Great Dying.

The hypothetical eighth mass extinction may be the worst of all, though. When primitive photosynthetic algae converted the world’s ancient atmosphere into an oxygen-rich one 2.4 billion years ago, they thrived. However, the world was covered in microorganisms that didn’t need oxygen at the time – in fact, to them, it was a poison.

So although this is known as the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) – something ultimately giving life to everything we can see living around us today – it is also referred to as the Oxygen Catastrophe, as it wiped out almost all other life on Earth at the same time. Although we will likely never be able to quantify how much life it killed off, it’s likely that it was the greatest mass extinction of them all.

The Times They Are A-Changing

If you had to absolutely pin down a natural disaster cause to a mass extinction effect, the volcanic activity that killed off life during the Great Dying has the claim to being the “most powerful” natural disaster. By depositing so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the world’s climate changed so fast that almost all life on Earth died. However, you could also feasibly say that the GOE’s life-induced climate change was likely to be the most death-inducing of all.

In any case, it appears that climate change is the greatest harbinger of death, no matter what triggers it – a lesson that our own greenhouse gas-emitting species should certainly heed well today.

The world is warming, and it's definitely our fault. Neil Lockhart

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