Natural catastrophic events such as hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts releases vast amount of energy.

What is the most powerful single event of such nature ever recorded in human history on the planet Earth? And as a measure of energy release, how many atomic bombs or megatons of TNT is that equivalent to? What kind of event releases most energy?

How would the most powerful events compare with modern day natural disasters, to give some sense of perspective.

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    $\begingroup$ perhaps energy would be a better measurement ? My feeling is that it would be Kanamori, 1977 which was 9.5 and the largest recorded earthquake. I don't think volcanic eruptions (pending some super volcanoes) can match the massive movement of earth. $\endgroup$
    – Neo
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 2:31
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    $\begingroup$ Tonnes of TNT is a measure of energy, not power. Natural disasters are usually considered so because of their impact on human, or human society, or at the very least, on life. No one would call the massive volcanic activity on Mars (in the past) or on Jupiter's moons a "natural disaster" - it's just a spectacle or something. $\endgroup$
    – naught101
    Commented Apr 25, 2014 at 2:52
  • $\begingroup$ Question is edited and hopefully easier to answer. There is a lot of questions about magnitude, intensity and energy in the context of recent events and this could be a good place to clarify the physics. $\endgroup$
    – user2821
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ I think the question is reasonable as long as the process is (i) intrinsic to earth, e.g., not a impact event, and (ii) is catastrophic, i.e., occurs over a relatively short span (secs to hours). Under such assumptions the M9.5 Chilean earthquake would be the most catastrophic on record and equals 2.7 Gigatons of TNT or 180 Gigatons of TNT equiv. $\endgroup$
    – stali
    Commented May 5, 2015 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ Does the Late Heavy Bombardment count as one event? $\endgroup$
    – mtb-za
    Commented May 6, 2015 at 20:48

1 Answer 1


hard to impossible to tell. In recorded history it was for sure one of those massive volcanic eruptions from Krakatoa, Yellowstone or Tambora. But in earth's history there were some impacts from meteorites or commets that must have been a lot more powerfull in terms of released energy than any volcanic erruption. My guess is the Vredefort crater in South Africa (largest verified impact crater on Earth with a diameter of 300 km) or the Chicxulub crater in Mexico that is said to have triggered the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.

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    $\begingroup$ Why impossible to tell? I imagine that people have made calculations of the energy involved in most of these events (though I still reckon the impact that split the moon from the earth is likely to win!) $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2015 at 13:54

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