What is the likelihood of a large earthquake at location X?  Is it safe to go to X since they've been having a lot of earthquakes lately?

The National Seismic Hazards Mapping project provides an online Web tool for determining the probability of a large earthquake within 50 kilometers (~31 miles) of a specific location in the United States over a certain time period.  The calculation is based on the latest available information from seismic hazard data.

However, asking if it's safe to travel somewhere because of recent earthquakes is almost the same question as "Can you predict earthquakes?" A particular area can be "having a lot of earthquakes" for many different reasons, and we usually cannot tell why. Sometimes there are many earthquakes because they are part of an aftershock sequence following a large earthquake. Depending on the magnitude and type of earthquake, these aftershocks can continue for days, weeks, or months.

Some areas are prone to swarms of earthquakes, particularly geothermal areas. Other times, an area has several small earthquakes and nothing more happens. Rarely, several earthquakes precede a larger earthquake, but they don't look any different from any other earthquake, so we don't know they're foreshocks until they actually become foreshocks. So, to answer the question “Is it safe...”, we don't know. You will have to make the decision based on whether or not you feel comfortable with your plans.

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What is a seismic zone, or seismic hazard zone?

Although you may hear the terms “seismic zone” and “seismic hazard zone” used interchangeably, they really describe two slightly different things. A seismic zone is used to describe an area where earthquakes tend to focus; for example, the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the Central United States. A seismic hazard zone describes an area with a...