Disasters: Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Terrorist Attacks & More

Earthquake Tsunami Natural Disaster Aftermath
Aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, the largest ever recorded in Japan. 

Find information about catastrophic natural and human-caused disasters. The following lists are not all-inclusive. Only disasters involving great loss of life and/or property, historical interest, or unusual circumstances are listed. For additional information and the latest disasters, see Current Events.

Natural Disasters

It's unfortunate, but many of the natural processes that keep the Earth moving can result in tragedy. The tectonic movement that protects us from solar radiation also causes earthquakes. The air pressure changes that bring rain and carry seeds also cause hurricanes. At their worst, these natural events can spell catastrophe for humans, and much of human history has been shaped by natural disasters. Read on to learn more about what these disasters are, why they happen, how we respond in afflicted areas, and some important historical examples.  

EarthquakesTsunamis & Volcanoes

An earthquake, the sudden and disruptive shaking of the earth, is a result of the Earth's tectonic plates moving (this is also what causes volcanic activity). Tsunamis are massive waves most often caused by earthquakes occurring out in the ocean. Earthquakes occur everywhere, but are most common (and most devastating) in coastal regions. 

Deadliest Earthquakes on Record

Frequency of Earthquakes Worldwide

Number of Earthquakes Worldwide, 1990–2009, and Mortality Figures

Tsunami Factfile

Ten Deadliest Tsunamis

2011: Japan Tsunami

The Deadliest Volcanic Eruptions


HurricanesTornadoes, & Major Storms

While these types of disasters generally occur within particular times of year, due to the prevailing climate, they are caused by very particular atmospheric conditions. These types of disasters are best looked at together, due to substantial overlap. Hurricanes specifically form over the ocean, and as such primarily affect coastal regions. Tornadoes also have a fairly limited range of areas where they regularly form. Thunderstorms occur much more broadly. 

Hurricanes: The Greatest Storms on Earth

Retired Hurricane Names

Hurricane Advisories and Warnings

International Cyclone Definitions

Fujita Tornado Intensity Scale

The 25 Deadliest Tornadoes

Thunderstorms, Lightning, and Tornadoes

Lightning Dangers

Lightning Deaths

Other Major Natural Disasters

In addition to the other major categories of natural disasters, there are some dangerous conditions that don't neatly fit. Floods and avalanches, for instance, can be set off by a wide range of causes. For that reason we've separated them out here. 

Floods, Avalanches, and Tidal Waves

Droughts and Heat Waves


In the United States

With such a wide and varied natural landscape, it comes as no surprise that the United States has seen its fair share of natural disasters. The U.S. is the world capital for tornadoes, several states and territories are in hurricane-prone regions, and the entire west coast lies along a tectonic plate boundary. And, as one of the world's most populous and industrialized countries, there are no shortage of man-made disasters either. Learn more about some of the defining disasters in U.S. history. 

Worst United States Disasters

The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

Hurricane Katrina

Superstorm Sandy: Record-Breaking Surges Along the Eastern Seaboard

Deadliest Hurricanes in the United States

Costliest Hurricanes in the United States

U.S. Tornadoes

Tornado Fatalities by State and Circumstances

Washington State Mudslide

Major U.S. Epidemics

Slideshow: Worst U.S. Man-Made Disasters

Worst United States Mining Accidents

Largest Oil Spills in the United States


Man-made Disasters

If natural disasters were not enough, humans have contributed their own share of catastrophic accidents. As new technology develops, unseen risks or improper precautions can result in tragedy. Even when every safety measure is taken, extreme weather can lead to disastrous consequences. Upon the invention of trains, we had train derailments. Upon splitting the atom, we had nuclear disasters. Learn about some of the most (and least) common man-made disasters, some historical examples, and how we try and prevent them.  

Industrial Accidents

Mines, factories, and other industrial centers have been at the heart of some of history's worst accidents. These places can contain volatile materials, or undergo immense structural stress due to the labor conducted there. In worst case scenarios, these sites can suffer from explosions or collapses, leading to loss of life and potential environmental damage.

Worst Industrial Accidents in History

Fires and Explosions

Oil Spills and Disasters Timeline

Oil Spill Glossary

2010 Gulf Oil Spill Timeline

Largest Oil Spills in the World

Nuclear & Chemical Disasters

Though they've been infrequent since the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s, there have been a few instances where attempts to harness nuclear power have gone horribly awry. These disasters can leave miles of land uninhabitable for decades, or even centuries. Leaks of dangerous chemicals can have a similar effect, though these are generally less severe. 

Nuclear and Chemical Accidents

Chernobyl: 25 Years Later

Nuclear Disaster Glossary

2011 Nuclear Crisis in Japan

Japan in 2012, One Year Later

Transportation Accidents

Anyone who's driven a car knows that getting from point A to point B can sometimes be dangerous. Errors in judgement, minor technical malfunctions, and even the interference of animals can cause serious problems. When these problems occur with mass transit vehicles like trains, those problems can be disastrous. 

Railroad Accidents


Aircraft Crashes

Space Accidents


Sports Disasters

Though substantially more niche than the other categories, sporting events can be unfortunately ripe for tragedy. With many people packed into tight areas, and huge amounts of movement and commotion, disaster has befallen a non-trivial number of races, games, and more. 



Acts of terror stick out from the rest of this page as they are the result of deliberate, politically-motivated aggression and violence. However, we've included them on this page as the worst terror attacks deserve no lesser word than "disaster." We have featured here some notable terrorist actions of the last decades. You can find more info on important terrorist acts under our Current Events.

The 2013 Boston Marathon Tragedy

Terrorist Attacks in the U.S.

September 11, 2001: Timeline of Terrorism

Terrorist Acts Suspected of or Inspired by al-Qaeda



In instances of disaster, you should always first check official advisories and protocols, and follow the directions put out by local emergency personnel. In addition, Infoplease is happy to offer some resources to help you learn what to expect in these unfortunate circumstances. 

Disaster Survival Guide

Top Ten Ways to Face Disaster

Lightning Advice