What does an earthquake feel like?

The way an earthquake feels depends on where you are, where the earthquake is, and how big the earthquake is:

  • A large earthquake nearby will feel like a sudden large jolt followed quickly by more strong shaking that may last a few seconds or up to a couple of minutes if it's a rare great event. The shaking will feel violent and it will be difficult to stand up. The contents of your house will be a mess.

  • A large earthquake far away will feel like a gentle bump followed several seconds later by stronger rolling shaking that may feel like sharp shaking for a little while.

  • A small earthquake nearby will feel like a small sharp jolt followed by a few stronger sharp shakes that pass quickly.

  • A small earthquake far away will probably not be felt at all, but if you do feel it, it will be a subtle gentle shake or two that is easier to feel if you're still and sitting down.

The type of crustal material the seismic waves travel through on their way to you, and the type of shallow crustal structure that is directly below you will also influence the shaking you feel. Soft thick sediments will amplify the shaking and hard rock will not. If the energy happens to bounce around and get focused on where you are, that will also amplify the shaking. Low-level vibrations that last for more than a few seconds is not indicative of an earthquake, but is more likely a man-made environmental source.

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How does the USGS tell the difference between an earthquake and a sonic boom?

Steps to identification of a sonic boom: The USGS sees either nothing on our seismic records or a fairly short high-frequency signal that doesn't look like an earthquake. On rare occasions, we see the event on multiple stations, and the time difference between stations matches the speed of sound in air, which is slower than the speed of seismic...

What are earthquake lights?

Phenomena such as sheet lightning, balls of light, streamers, and steady glows, reported in association with earthquakes are called earthquake lights (EQL). Geophysicists differ on the extent to which they think that individual reports of unusual lighting near the time and epicenter of an earthquake actually represent EQL: some doubt that any of...

Can you feel an earthquake if you're in a cave? Is it safer to be in a cave during an earthquake?

There is nothing different about a cave that would make it immune to the shaking from an earthquake. Just as there are safer and less safer places to be on the surface of the earth during an earthquake, there are also various characteristics inside caves that make some cave locations safer or less safe than others. First of all, whether or not you...

What is liquefaction?

Liquefaction takes place when loosely packed, water-logged sediments at or near the ground surface lose their strength in response to strong ground shaking. Liquefaction occurring beneath buildings and other structures can cause major damage during earthquakes. For example, the 1964 Niigata earthquake caused widespread liquefaction in Niigata,...

Where can I find photographs of earthquake damage?

Two sources for photographs that show earthquake damage are: Earthquake Hazards Program - Earthquake Photo Collections U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library (see 'earthquakes' in the categories left column)

Why do earthquakes in other countries seem to cause more damage and casualties than earthquakes in the U.S.?

There is more damage and more deaths from earthquakes in other parts of the world primarily because of buildings which are poorly designed and constructed for earthquake regions, and population density.

How can an earthquake affect groundwater or changes in wells?

Groundwater levels in wells may oscillate up and down while seismic waves pass, and in some cases, the water level may remain higher or lower for a period of time after the seismic wavetrain has ended.

What are those booms I sometimes hear before or during an earthquake?

"Booms" have been reported for a long time, and they tend to occur more in the Northeastern US and along the East Coast. Of course, most "booms" that people hear or experience are actually some type of cultural noise, such as some type of explosion, a large vehicle going by, or sometimes a sonic boom, but there have been many reports of "booms"...

At what magnitude does damage begin to occur in an earthquake?

It isn't that simple. There is not one magnitude above which damage will occur. It also depends on other variables, such as the the distance from the earthquake, what type of soil you are on, etc. That being said, damage does not usually occur until the earthquake magnitude reaches somewhere above 4 or 5.
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Date published: April 24, 2018

East vs West Coast Earthquakes

Why was an earthquake in Virginia felt at more than twice the distance than a similar-sized earthquake in California? The answer is one that many people may not realize. Earthquakes east of the Rocky Mountains can cause noticeable ground shaking at much farther distances than comparably-sized earthquakes in the West.

Date published: March 28, 2016

Induced Earthquakes Raise Chances of Damaging Shaking in 2016

For the first time, new USGS maps identify the potential for ground shaking from both human-induced and natural earthquakes in 2016.

Date published: March 1, 2013

"Living in Earthquake Country: Los Angeles and the Big One" - Dr. Lucy Jones presentation at LA Natural History Museum

"Living in Earthquake Country: Los Angeles and the Big One" - Dr. Lucy Jones presentation at LA Natural History Museum

Date published: October 17, 2010

Haiti Earthquake Shaking Amplified by Local Landforms

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The severe damage and loss-of-life caused by the devastating January 2010 M7.0 earthquake in Haiti was exacerbated by amplification of shaking due to local geological conditions and landforms in Port-au-Prince, according to a study published online today in Nature Geoscience.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Date published: May 18, 2005

New Map of Daily Probability of Earthquake Shaking in California

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced today the release of new public web pages that show the probability of earthquake shaking in the next 24 hours in California. These maps graphically illustrate the change in earthquake probability during aftershock and possible foreshock sequences.

Date published: January 16, 2001

Earthquake Shaking - Find the 'Hotspots'

In conjunction with the seventh anniversary of the 1994, 6.7 Northridge earthquake, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), has produced a two-page fact sheet that explains how geologic conditions in the Los Angeles basin affect the amount of shaking experienced by various areas of the basin.

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January 25, 2018

PubTalk 1/2018 — ShakeAlert: Path to West Coast EQ Early Warning

Title: ShakeAlert: The Path to West Coast Earthquake Early Warning ... how a few seconds can save lives and property

  • The ShakeAlert earthquake early warning system will begin limited operations this year.
  • Alerts could save lives and properties but several challenges remain.
  • With millions at risk, why isn't full public alerting happening yet?
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Damage from South Napa Earthquake
February 13, 2017

Damage from South Napa Earthquake

Damaged unreinforced masonry building on Main Street in downtown Napa, California. Photograph credit: Erol Kalkan, USGS

2014 South Napa Earthquake in California
February 13, 2017

2014 South Napa Earthquake in California

Pavement buckling and tented sidewalk resulting from the South Napa Earthquake. Photograph credit: Thomas Holzer, USGS

May 20, 2016

Shaking of Frontier Building — Anchorage, Alaska, During Mw7.1 Earthquake, January 24, 2016

This video presents a visualization of shaking that was recorded in the Frontier Building in Anchorage, Alaska, during the Mw7.1 earthquake, January 24, 2016, Iniskin, Alaska. It exhibits how a tall building behaves and performs during strong earthquake shaking. Note that relative to the height of the building, the motions are magnified by a factor of 300 to show

...
March 30, 2016

Shaking in the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska

This video presents a visualization of how the Atwood Building in Anchorage, Alaska, shook during the M7.1 January 24, 2016, Iniskin, Alaska, earthquake. The building was instrumented by U.S. Geological Survey to obtain data to study its behavior and performance during strong shaking. Such data is useful to make decisions for improving the building's performance.

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September 25, 2014

PubTalk 8/2014 — Ground Shaking in '89 Loma Prieta Quake: 25 yrs later

by Brad Aagaard, USGS Research Geophysicist

 

  • What factors controlled the variability in ground shaking in the earthquake?
  • Will the ground shaking in future earthquakes display similar patterns?
  • Hear about the advances made in recording ground shaking over the past 25 years.
  • Learn how USGS uses this information
...
A map of ShakeOut scenario shaking in southern California
December 31, 2008

A map of ShakeOut scenario shaking in southern California

A map of ShakeOut scenario shaking in southern California.

Image shows a road split due to earthquake damage
November 30, 2000

1964 Alaskan Earthquake Damage

Damage from the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake. Credit: USGS