The trauma of Lisbon's 1755 earthquake had dramatic implications. Image in the public domain
The trauma of Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake had dramatic implications. This engraving, titled The Ruins of Lisbon depicts looters and other criminals being hanged. Image courtesy of the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering (NISEE).

Modern Parallels: Lisbon and Superstorm Sandy

Throughout human history, natural disasters, whether predicted or not, have inspired people to ask questions, and caused great shifts in popular thinking. Most recently, the exceptional strength of Superstorm Sandy in late October 2012, along with the fact that it struck the heart of New York City so strong and hard, has provided much food for thought.

It’s too soon to be clear about what impact Sandy may have had upon society. However, in her 2013 editorial for Weather, Climate and Society, “The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and Superstorm Sandy: The Need to Understand Long-Term Impacts,” Roberta Balstad argues that there’s evidence that “there is now more widespread concern in the United States about the consequences of climate change than there was prior to 29 October 2012.” It will surely have added fuel to the discussion about whether global warming will lead to increased catastrophic weather events as well.

Balstad notes that “the Lisbon earthquake had very long-term intellectual, philosophical and even theological consequences for Europe and, by extension, North America.” But it had scientific consequences too, leading us towards a greater understanding (if no closer to prediction) of earthquakes – and to the beginnings of earthquake engineering and mitigation.


Balstad, R. The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 and Superstorm Sandy: The Need to Understand Long-Term Impacts. (Jan, 2013). Weather, Climate and Society.

Chester, D.K. The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. (2001). Progress In Physical Geography. Accessed June 20, 2013.

Hamblyn, R. Terra: Tales of the Earth. (2009). Picador.

United States Geological Survey. Historic Eart3hquakes Lisbon, Portugal. Accessed 20 June 2013.

Yeats, R. Active Faults of the World. (2012). Cambridge University Press.

  • Francis Beswick

    While Voltaire and friends were claiming that the destruction of the cathedral was evidence that God did not control the world, others were pointing out that the cathedral was not a holy church, but one erected and furnished on the proceeds of the Portugese slave trade. They pointed out that the fact that a street full of brothels survived, while the cathedral did not, indicated that God sees brothels as less objectionable than slavery is. They saw the destruction as God’s judgment on slavery. Decide for yourselves which side, if either, you believe