What Was Behind The Deadliest Day in Human History?

What Was Behind The Deadliest Day in Human History?

There are many ways we humans have devastated each other – nuclear weapons, pollution, the spread of deadly pathogens, to name a few.Although it’s hard to say with certainty, in many cases the deadliest day in human history was actually the result of a natural disaster. On the morning of January 23, 1556, a massive earthquake struck China’s Shaanxi Province, then considered the ‘cradle of Chinese civilization.”

The quake lasted only a few seconds, but it’s estimated that it directly killed 100,000 people, while the ensuing cascade of landslides, sinkholes, fires, migration and famine killed an estimated 830,000 people in total.Of course, this isn’t nearly as high as the total death toll from major events such as World Wars I and II, or even pandemics, famines, or floods.

However, if we consider a single day of devastation, the Shaanxi earthquake – also known as the Jiajing earthquake because it occurred during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor of the Ming Dynasty – is widely considered the deadliest we know. It’s also listed as the deadliest recorded earthquake in history.

The event is believed to have had a magnitude of only 8.0 to 8.3. There were many stronger earthquakes both before and after it. But due to the geology and urban layout of the area at the time, it caused disproportionately massive destruction in the surrounding cities of Huaxian, Weinan, and Huayin. Local annals, which date back to 1177 B.C. according to History.com, describe the destruction caused by the quake in rare detail. A translated quote from the annals states that mountains and rivers changed places.

“In some places the ground rose suddenly and formed new hills, or it sank abruptly and became new valleys. In other areas, a river erupted in an instant, or the ground broke and new gullies appeared. Huts, official houses, temples and city walls collapsed all at once, It’s reported that cracks opened up in the ground that were more than 18 meters deep.

In Huaxian, every single building reportedly collapsed, and near the epicenter, about 60 percent of the population was killed. Despite its relatively low magnitude, the quake is rated XI (extreme) on the modified Mercalli intensity scale, which measures the intensity or shaking of an earthquake.

What made the earthquake so deadly?

The epicenter was in the Wei River valley, which is unique geologically because it runs across the Loess Plateau in north-central China. The plateau lies beneath the Gobi Desert and is composed of loess, a silt-like sediment formed by the accumulation of windblown dust eroded from the desert.

Map of China showing the location of the Loess Plateau. (Feng-Min & Rui-Ying, World Agriculture, 2014)

Today, the plateau is known for its regular, deadly landslides. However, at that time, many houses were built directly into the soft loess rocks, creating artificial caves known as yaodongs. When the earthquake occurred in the early morning hours, many of these yaodongs collapsed, burying people beneath them and triggering landslides that spread across the entire plateau.

(Till Niermann/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

It wasn’t only the yaodongs, but also many of the buildings in the cities, which were made of heavy stone at the time, that caused much destruction when they collapsed.

What was the cause of the earthquake?

Three major fault lines run through the area: the North Huashan Fault, the Piedmont Fault, and the Weihe Fault. A 1998 geological analysis of the 1556 earthquake concluded that the North Huashan fault played an important role in the event “because its magnitude and displacements are the largest in the study area”

“We need to consider the potential for active faults and prepare for another large earthquake in the region now that the faults are active,” Peking College researchers said.

According to History.com, the Shaanxi earthquake inspired the search for the causes of earthquakes and ways to minimize the damage caused by such disasters in the future: Stone buildings were replaced with softer, more earthquake-resistant materials such as bamboo and wood. As humanity moves ever closer to new ecological andman-made disasters, the thought that the deadliest day could be triggered not by us but by tremors deep inside our planet is somewhat humbling.

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