Tsunamis are some of nature’s most devastating phenomenons. According to the National Ocean Service, these geographic events are defined as a series of waves that occur as the result of undersea earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. As these waves travel from the open ocean toward coastal land, they grow taller and taller. This results in massive walls of water that have the potential to wipe out structures along the coast and even kill people and animals unfortunate enough to reside within reach of these powerful waves.
Unsurprisingly, many of the countries that have been most affected by tsunamis are islands, which have more vulnerable coastlines than landlocked countries. The presence of volcanos near a coast also increases the risk of tsunamis, as was the case with the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which devastated parts of Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. Those countries are located in the “Ring of Fire”—a part of the Pacific Ocean that experiences a high number of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Other countries at risk for tsunamis may be surprising. Alaska was the site of one of the worst tsunamis on record, while the United Kingdom also faces significant risk, according to scientists. Discoveries of events that occurred before recorded history illuminate the risks and challenges many modern communities face in anticipating tsunamis. Those events underscore the need for systems to protect citizens, particularly along the coasts. Such warning systems can include text alerts, media coverage, and warning sirens, but even the most robust systems cannot accurately measure them because many tsunamis strike land mere minutes after the earthquakes that trigger them.
To uncover the countries most affected by tsunamis, Stacker consulted the NOAA's Global Historical Tsunami Database and ranked each country by the total number of tsunamis in recorded history, with data up to date as of December 2019. Click through for a look at the countries most impacted by tsunamis.
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- Recorded tsunamis: 19
The most recent tsunami in Tonga occurred in 2009 in the Samoa Islands and was so powerful that it reached American Samoa. A highly unusual earthquake occurred more than 62 meters from the nearest tectonic plate, triggering gigantic waves that ultimately killed 192 people.
[Pictured: Aerial photo taken of Niuatoputapu, Hihifo, Tongo, after a tsunami generated by an earthquake in nearby Samoa.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 19
The 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean was the most devastating in recorded history, killing over 230,000 people. The cause was one of the most seismic earthquakes ever recorded—a staggering 9.1 on the Richter scale. The resulting 100-foot waves made landfall in Indonesia within minutes, before continuing on to cause destruction in Thailand and other nearby countries.
[Pictured: A fishing ship lies on a road near Nagapattinam, India after a tsunami hit the region.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 22
Although the United Kingdom doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for tsunamis, its geographic location makes it far more susceptible than many of its citizens recognize, scientists warn. Two recent discoveries of tsunamis that happened several thousand years ago have put geologists and the public on edge that devastating waves might not be as unlikely as previously thought.
[Pictured: Waves crash over Newhaven Lighthouse on the south coast of England on Oct. 21, 2017 as Storm Brian hits the country. ]
- Recorded tsunamis: 23
Earthquakes and landslides have been responsible the most devastating tsunamis in the United States Territories. In 1918, a tsunami killed over 100 people on the island of Puerto Rico, causing millions of dollars of damage, and sweeping away many homes.
[Pictured: Winds lash the coastal city of Fajardo, Puerto Rico.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 25
Experts are warning that Taiwan is likely to experience a massive tsunami in the next 100 years. The nearby Manila Trench is entering a new earthquake cycle, which scientists say could lead to increased seismic activity.
[Pictured: A flag warning about rough seas is pictured next to a beach in Suao, Yilan County, as Typhoon Lekima approaches off the shores of eastern Taiwan on Aug. 8, 2019.]
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- Recorded tsunamis: 26
One of Canada’s most devastating tsunamis was man-made. In 1917, the French munitions ship Mont Blanc exploded in Halifax harbor, triggering a tsunami. The explosion and resulting wave killed 1,900 people and wounded 9,000.
[Pictured: A view across the devastation of Halifax two days after the explosion.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 27
Venezuela’s propensity for tsunamis is partly due to frequent earthquakes near its coast. An earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 struck the country in 2018, triggering a tsunami alert for all coastal areas in the country within a 300-km radius of the quake’s epicenter.
[Pictured: People cross a highway in Caracas flooded due to a strong rain caused by a tropical storm in the Venezuelan capital.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 27
One reason Norway is at increased risk for tsunamis is because of landslides from deteriorating mountains. In 1934, a crack in a mountain above the village of Tafjord unleashed a tsunami that killed 23 people.
[Pictured: A giant wave over the Atlantic Road in Averøy, Norway as the storm "Berit" struck the Norwegian coast.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 34
One of the most devastating tsunamis in history occurred in Portugal in 1755. The tsunami originated from a massive earthquake in the Atlantic Ocean, 120 miles from the Portuguese coast. Fifteen-foot cracks tore through the center of Lisbon, reducing many of the city’s enormous cathedrals—packed with people at prayer—to rubble.
[Pictured: Waves pound the coastline at Praia do Norte, Nazaré, Portugal.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 36
The earthquake-prone South Pacific is responsible for some of Vanuatu’s tsunamis. In late 2017, two quakes hit near the island in a month, triggering small tsunami waves along the coast.
[Pictured: A young boy plays with a ball as his mother searches through the ruins of their family home on March 16, 2015 in Port Vila, Vanuatu.]
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- Recorded tsunamis: 36
A recent study by Chinese scientists shows that a tsunami that occurred 1,000 years ago almost destroyed all of Southern China, which is now one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The scientists added that current tsunami risks are exacerbated, not only by geology but also by nuclear power plants in the country.
[Pictured: Waves caused by Typhoon Maria batter the coast near Wenling, east China's Zhejiang province on July 11, 2018.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 46
Officials in the Solomon Islands have said that they expect to be hit by tsunamis every three years. One scientist said that the area has some of the fastest moving plates in the world, which result in tsunami-generating earthquakes.
[Pictured: Young women clean clothes among the debris in Gizo, April 7, 2007, as local communities attempt to rebuild houses after a tsunami that week.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 61
Earthquakes near the Turkish coast have been responsible for some of the country’s more recent tsunamis. In 2017, a nighttime earthquake threw Turkish coastal residents out of bed and triggered tsunamis in Turkey and nearby Greece.
[Pictured: A ferry passes the Bosphorus as waves hit the shore during stormy weather in Istanbul.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 62
Scientists warn that future tsunamis in Mexico are likely. In 1932, a devastating tsunami in Cututlyan killed 30 people, reducing many buildings to rubble and washing sharks up on the beach. That event sparked fears that Mexico was simply not prepared to protect and warn its citizens in the event of another tsunami.
[Pictured: View of the beach before Tropical Storm Nate, in Cancun, Quintana Roo state, Mexico.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 73
Many tsunami warnings in Peru are due to earthquakes. In 2018, the country was put on watch after a 7.3 magnitude earthquake occurred off the coast, sparking a forecast of hazardous waves.
[Pictured: People flee the "Costa Verde" bay after a tsunami alert in Lima on April 1, 2014.]
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- Recorded tsunamis: 76
In 1998, a devastating tsunami hit Papua New Guinea, destroying many villages and killing 1,600 people in three successive waves. Residents fled inland and tried to gain elevation, but for many the waves proved too strong and fast to escape successfully.
[Pictured: Locals stand next to a collapsed section of a freeway following a heavy storm in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea on March 13, 2012.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 80
Experts in New Zealand are concerned sufficient procedures are not in place to warn residents of approaching tsunamis in time. Emergency Mobile Alerts, sirens, and media alerts may not be deployed in time for residents to seek shelter on higher ground, these experts say.
[Pictured: A tsunami warning alert is seen on a notice board in Wellington following an earthquake in 2014 centered north of New Zealand.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 92
Underwater earthquakes are responsible for some of the Philippines’ tsunamis. The Philippines are located in the so-called Ring of Fire, which derives its name from the many volcanos in the area, which can trigger earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis.
[Pictured: A general view of the flooded Municipality of Kabacan, North Cotabato on Dec. 23, 2017, after Tropical Storm Tembin dumped torrential rains across the island.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 96
Tsunamis frequently occur along Russia’s eastern coast, which borders China and South Korea. But not all the events in the country are natural. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced that the country was developing a massive nuclear weapon that could cause a devastating wave. The weapon is called Poseidon and can supposedly cause a 300-foot tsunami.
[Pictured: A woman stands on a pier under an umbrella during a storm in a Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on March 24, 2013.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 155
One of the most powerful tsunamis ever to hit Europe occurred in Italy in 1908. It hit the “boot” of Italy’s southern coast hardest, with a 7.5 magnitude earthquake triggering 40-foot waves and killing 80,000 people.
[Pictured: Destroyed yachts and boats lie in the harbour of Rapallo, Italy on Oct. 30, 2018, after a storm hit the region and destroyed a part of the dam the night before.]
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- Recorded tsunamis: 166
Coastal earthquakes have been responsible for some of the most devastating earthquakes in Chilean history. One such quake occurred in 1960 when an earthquake with a magnitude of 8.5 struck the coast. Residents tried to flee in small boats, but the tsunami hit just 10 minutes after the quake, leaving many without time to escape.
[Pictured: A fishing boat that was ran aground by the sea while moored in the port of Coquimbo, Chile during the earthquake on Sept. 17, 2015.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 170
Its proximity to water, volcanos, islands, and a broken and shallow seafloor make Greece a prime candidate for tsunamis. Greece is also susceptible due to frequently occurring quakes in North Africa—a 2004 Algerian earthquake reached the southern coast of Greece and the island of Crete.
[Pictured: A man looks at cars under rubble on the Kos island in Greece on July 22, 2017, following an earthquake which struck the region.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 249
A devastating tsunami from a massive earthquake in 2004 caused catastrophic losses in Indonesia. Over 200,000 people died, and material losses reached $10 billion.
[Pictured: A boy stands in front of a stranded ship after a deadly tsunami struck the area on Oct. 2, 2018 in Donggala, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 264
The exposed coastlines on the American West Coast are the most tsunami-prone region in the United States. The states of California, Oregon, and Washington have suffered the consequences of tsunamis that originated as far away as Russia and South America. Meanwhile, Alaska is located among some of the most dangerous seismic zones in the world, and is the site of the largest tsunami in recorded history, with waves topping 1,722 feet.
[Pictured: A group of people pull a Boston Whaler boat out of the water after it tipped over from a tsunami surge in a harbor on March 11, 2011 in Santa Cruz, California.]
- Recorded tsunamis: 357
Japan’s 2011 tsunami was so seismic that its effects were felt as far away as Norway and caused debris to wash up on North American coasts years after the devastating event. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake was responsible for that tsunami, which killed over 15,000 people.
[Pictured: A 2011 tsunami breeching an embankment and flowing into the city of Miyako in Iwate prefecture shortly after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit the region of northern Japan. ]
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