Frequently Asked Questions

Natural Hazards

The USGS monitors and conducts research on a wide range of natural hazards to help decision-makers prepare for and respond to hazard events that threaten life and property.

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Geoid illustration
Contrast of the Geoid model with an Ellipsoid and cross-section of the Earth's surface. (Public domain.) A geoid is the irregular-shaped “ball” that scientists use to more accurately calculate depths of earthquakes, or any other deep object beneath the earth’s surface. Currently, we use the “WGS84” version (World Geodetic System of 1984). If...
A person looking across the valley using a laser scanning the entire Cleveland Corral landslide.
USGS landslide researchers have ongoing field projects in several areas of the United States, including parts of the Pacific coastal ranges, Rocky Mountains, and the Appalachians. USGS scientists also respond to major landslide events, including some that result in federally-declared disasters. In some cases, USGS scientists respond to landslides...
Image: Seismic station,  USGS Northern California Seismic Network
The earliest seismoscope was invented by the Chinese philosopher Chang Heng in A.D. 132. This was a large urn on the outside of which were eight dragon heads facing the eight principal directions of the compass. Below each dragon head was a toad with its mouth opened toward the dragon. When an earthquake occurred, one or more of the eight dragon-...
close-up of steel cylinder with cables and bright red and yellow caps coming out of it.
It is relatively easy to acquire the necessary materials and build your own seismometer. The links here are to various sources with information on how to build a seismometer. They range from very simple and inexpensive to sophisticated and pricey. Model Seismograph - Classroom Demonstration Build your own Seismograph Station Build Your Own...
Image: Seismographs at the U.S. Geological Survey
A seismometer is the internal part of the seismograph, which may be a pendulum or a mass mounted on a spring; however, it is often used synonymously with "seismograph". Seismographs are instruments used to record the motion of the ground during an earthquake. They are installed in the ground throughout the world and operated as part of a...
Crop of OK earthquake
An earthquake cannot physically occur at a depth of 0 km or -1km (above the surface of the earth). In order for an earthquake to occur, two blocks of crust must slip past one another, and it is impossible for this to happen at or above the surface of the earth. So why do we report that the earthquake occurred at a depth of 0 km or event as a...
Earthquakes greater than or equal to a magnitude 2.7 since 1980 in the five focus areas
Magnitude calculations are based on a logarithmic scale, so a ten-fold drop in amplitude decreases the magnitude by 1. If an amplitude of 20 millimetres as measured on a seismic signal corresponds to a magnitude 2 earthquake, then: 10 times less (2 millimetres) corresponds to a magnitude of 1; 100 times less (0.2 millimetres) corresponds to...
2014 Landslide in Washington State
Landslides can and do occur in every state and territory of the U.S.; however, the type, severity and frequency of landslide activity varies from place to place, depending on the terrain, geology, and climate. Major storms have caused major or widespread landslides in Washington state, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Hawaii, Virginia, Ohio,...
Population Exposed to Potentially Damaging Earthquake Groundshaking
The duration of an earthquake is related to its magnitude but not in a perfectly strict sense. There are two ways to think about the duration of an earthquake. The first is the length of time it takes for the fault to rupture and the second is the length of time shaking is felt at any given point (e.g. when someone says "I felt it shake for 10...
Photo of scientist sitting at a computer with seismograms on the wall behind him.
When an earthquake occurs, one of the first questions is "where was it?" The location may tell us what fault it was on and where damage (if any) most likely occurred. Unfortunately, Earth is not transparent and we can't just see or photograph the earthquake disturbance like meteorologists can photograph clouds. When an earthquake occurs, it...
Devastation of 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
For earthquakes that occurred between about 1890 (when modern seismographs came into use) and 1935 when Charles Richter developed the magnitude scale, people went back to the old records and compared the seismograms from those days with similar records for later earthquakes. For earthquakes prior to about 1890, magnitudes have been estimated by...
New Zealand Landslides
See the list of Catastrophic Landslides of the 20th Century - Worldwide. The five largest Worldwide Landslides are: 1911 - Tadzhik Republic - 2,000,000,000 cubic meters of material - 54 killed 1919 - Indonesia - 185 square kilometers of material - 5,110 killed 1920 - China - unknown volume - 100,000 killed  1921 - Kazakh Republic - unknown volume...