The Worst Landslides in History

Even though we can't always feel it, the earth is always in motion. The theory of plate tectonics paints the Earth's surface as a series of floating plates that move slowly across a molten shell, changing the planet's landmasses over millions of years. While plate tectonics is a slow process, landslides are natural disasters in which huge chunks of earth suddenly break apart and cascade down to the ground. They are assisted by the force of gravity and are usually connected to some sort of trigger event, like an earthquake. Some of the deadliest landslides in history were completely unexpected events that killed thousands and took civilians by complete surprise. 

Most landslides occur on sloping surfaces as they need gravity to pick up steam and slide to the ground. These events can be extremely deadly. Unfortunately, landslide deaths are common in many areas of the world, especially places found around mountains, hills, and volcanoes. The worst landslides in history had the power to take thousands of lives in an instant, and millions of people still live in places that are vulnerable to landslides. This list covers the most devastating landslides of all time, as well as the destruction left behind in their aftermath. 

  • 1920 Haiyuan Earthquake/Landslides
    Photo: xuejc1988 / Wikimedia Commons

    1920 Haiyuan Earthquake/Landslides

    Date: December 16, 1920
    Location: Haiyuan, China
    Deaths: More than 200,000

    The 1920 Haiyuan earthquake triggered an astonishing 675 major landslides scattered throughout the Gansu Province. The landslides occurred during the violent Chinese Civil War, which greatly overshadowed the natural disaster. It is unclear how many people were killed by the landslides as opposed to the earthquake itself, but roughly 200,000 people lost their lives due to the disaster.

  • 1999 Vargas Tragedy

    Date: December 15, 1999
    Location: Vargas, Venezuela
    Deaths: Approximately 30,000

    In the Venezuelan state of Vargas, a torrential rainstorm laid the groundwork for one of the worst landslides in recorded history. Rain pounded the slopes of Sierra de Avila, precipitating thousands of landslides that wreaked havoc on nearby towns. Confirming the number of fatalities proved challenging to authorities, as many bodies were buried beyond the point of recovery or washed out to sea by localized floods. While only about 1,000 bodies were recovered, an estimated 30,000 people lost their lives. 

    This region of the country is notorious for its landslides, which are relatively common. The extensive carnage of the Vargas tragedy puts this particular landslide above all others. 

  • 1949 Khait Rock Slide

    Date: July 10, 1949
    Location: Tajikistan (in the former Soviet Union)
    Deaths: 28,000

    A monumental statue of a grieving woman marks the spot where thousands were killed in one of history's worst landslides. Precipitated by an earthquake, the landslide originated in the mountains above the city of Khait in the Yarhich Valley. The entire city, as well as neighboring towns and villages, were swallowed by a gigantic mass of moving earth. Estimates as to the loss of life are varied, in part due to the secrecy of the Soviet government, but residents put the total of dead around 28,000. 

  • 1970 Yungay Landslide
    Photo: Roba7400 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    1970 Yungay Landslide

    Date: May 31, 1970
    Location: Yungay, Peru
    Deaths: 25,000

    The Yungay landslide is really a combination of three different natural disasters. The Huascarán earthquake was the deadliest in Peru's history, and it set off a number of seismic events that would leave the region in chaos. Perhaps no town suffered more than Yungay, a rural community with a population of 25,000. The earthquake had shattered a glacier on the slope of Mount Huascarán, right above Yungay.

    A huge mass of rock and ice came tumbling down, qualifying the event as both a landslide and an avalanche. The entirety of Yungay was buried, with only about 350 people surviving. Of those 350, an astounding 300 were children saved by a benevolent clown. The clown had likely been performing for the children when the quake struck, and he led them all to a circus tent that was situated on high ground. Today, the town of Yungay exists only as a mass graveyard, and the area is pockmarked with makeshift tombstones for the victims of this terrible tragedy. 

  • 1985 Armero Tragedy

    Date: November 13, 1985
    Location: Armero, Colombia
    Deaths: 23,000

    The Armero tragedy is the name given to consequences of the Nevado del Ruiz stratovolcano eruption in Tolima, Colombia. The eruption melted several glaciers located at the mountain's peak, which formed a natural phenomenon known as a lahar. Lahars are a type of mudflow landslide consisting of various rocks and volcanic material, and they can move at speeds up to 20 feet per second. This swift landslide caught local villages off guard, particularly the town of Armero. Roughly 20,000 of the town's 29,000 residents were killed, and several thousand more were killed in nearby towns.

    One young woman, 13 year-old Omayra Sanchez, would come to symbolize the grief of the tragedy after rescue workers failed to free her from her wrecked house. She was trapped for three days, her legs pinned underwater, before succumbing to her wounds. During that time, she agreed to be interviewed, enjoyed snacks and drinks brought to her by rescue workers, and even sang to those who worked to save her. 

  • 1933 Diexi Landslides

    Date: August 25, 1933
    Location: Diexi, China
    Deaths: 9,000

    The Diexi landslides were a result of a massive earthquake that was recorded as a 7.8 on the Richter scale. The entire town of Diexi was obliterated by the landslides, killing some 9,000 people. Many other villages were heavily damaged, and debris from the slide led to the damming of local rivers. Diexi was completely submerged in water. Today, there is a massive landslide-made lake where the town once stood.