What are Natural Disasters? - Definition & Types

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  • 1:14 Hurricanes, Typhoons &…
  • 1:55 Tsunamis & Floods
  • 2:35 Mudslides & Avalanches
  • 3:19 Hailstorms & Blizzards
  • 4:07 Volcanic Eruptions & Wildfires
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

Watch this video to learn about the various kinds of natural disasters that can occur in the world. Each can be quite powerful and cause severe damage to the environment and the people who live there.

Hurricane, Typhoons & Cyclones

By definition, a natural disaster is an event that is caused by the natural forces of the earth and results in great damage and possibly loss of life. Each year, the earth experiences natural disasters. When natural disasters occur in heavily populated areas, a lot of people may lose their lives. A recent example is the Italian earthquake of 2016, where over 200 people died. The deadliest of all earthquakes happened in 1556 in China, where approximately 830,000 people lost their lives.

Let's now take a look at the different types of natural disasters that can happen.


We'll begin with earthquakes. An earthquake occurs when the earth releases pent-up energy and causes the ground to shake. Earth's ground is made up of several very large pieces of land called tectonic plates. Most earthquakes occur when these plates rub against each other in some way. These same plates also create mountains when they push against each other. As the mountains are formed, earthquakes may be felt. Sometimes, people cause earthquakes when they do mine blasts or nuclear tests.

Hurricanes, Typhoons, and Cyclones

Hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones refer to the same weather phenomenon, where a really large storm swirls in circles. You'll see the cloud of the storm turning in a spiral, touch down on the ground, and then reach toward the sky. When a storm reaches a wind speed of over 74 miles per hour, it gets classified as a hurricane, typhoon, or cyclone depending on where the storm is located. The storm is called a hurricane if it happens in the Atlantic and northern Pacific. If the storm occurs in the northwestern part of the Pacific, then it is called a typhoon. In the southwestern Pacific and the Indian Ocean, the same type of storm is called a cyclone.


A tsunami consists of huge waves caused by either an underwater earthquake or volcanic eruption. In Japanese, the word means 'harbor wave.' These waves can get as high as 100 feet and aren't the gentle waves that you surf on. No, these are destructive waves that can knock down buildings, trees, and anything else in their path.


A flood is an overflow of water that covers the earth. This overflow can damage buildings and cars in its path. In a severe flood, the water can seep into houses and completely cover them, ruining everything. And, if people get caught up in the flood, they can be washed away with the flood and drown.


Mudslides occur when the ground gets so wet that whatever dirt is on the ground turns into a liquid mass and flows, like a flood, rapidly down a steep slope. When people or animals get caught up in the mudslide, it becomes very difficult to get out, as the mud drags them down. If not rescued, they may die.


An avalanche is when you have a bunch of snow, ice, or rocks falling rapidly down a slope, usually a mountainside. You might have seen movies where someone is standing next to a mountain with a bunch of snow on top. He or she yells out something and then you see all the snow tumble down the slope toward him or her. That's an avalanche. Avalanches can bury people and animals alive.

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Additional Activities

Natural Disaster Research

Students are typically very interested in natural disasters, and the more extreme the more the engagement. In this research activity, students will be researching some of the worst natural disasters in history. Students will choose the type, but will be required to investigate the events that happened, how people were affected and how the community recovered.

Some examples of natural disasters students might research include the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, or even a historical disaster like the 1889 Johnstown Flood. Students can have a choice about their research product, such as a digital presentation, a poster, or an essay.


Natural disasters can have long lasting consequences for a community. In this research activity, you'll be researching a deadly natural disaster of your choosing. For the disaster you pick, you should research how the events happened, how people in the community were affected and how the community recovered. Your final product can be a choice of a digital presentation, such as Google slides, a poster, or an essay.

To get started, consider some search terms that would be useful. Searching for full questions won't get you the most scientific sources, so brainstorm some keyword combinations, such as "deadly floods" or "extreme hurricanes" to get what you're looking for. When choosing sources to research, make sure you are using credible websites that come from the government, scientists or a news outlet. Examples of credible sources include USA today, the History Channel, NOAA, NHC, Smithsonian Institute, USGS, NASA, or National Geographic.

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