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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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"...

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...
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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: November 15, 2016

Assessing Critical Infrastructure Damage After Earthquakes

Early on the morning of August 24, 2014, Loren Turner was awoken by clattering window blinds, a moving bed, and the sound of water splashing out of his backyard pool. He experienced what is now named the “South Napa Earthquake.” 

Date published: February 10, 2005

2004 Deadliest in Nearly 500 Years for Earthquakes

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 2004 was the deadliest year for earthquakes since the Renaissance Age, making it the second most fatal in recorded history, with more than 275,950 deaths reported from the magnitude 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26. 

Date published: November 16, 2002

Science, Location and Luck Minimized Alaska's Earthquake Damage

Sunday’s magnitude (M) 7.9 central Alaska earthquake was one of the largest recorded earthquakes in our Nation’s history. The epicenter of the Nov. 3 temblor was located approximately 75 miles (135 km) south of Fairbanks and 176 miles (283 km) north of Anchorage.

Date published: May 28, 1998

Map of Western Hemisphere Indicates Location of Potential Earthquake Damage

BOSTON -- A new ground shaking hazard map of the Western Hemisphere will show regions of potential earthquake damage, providing a useful global seismic hazard tool for government, industry and the general public.

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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?
...
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

Potential earthquake map shaking
April 14, 2016

Potential earthquake map shaking

USGS map showing (1) the locations of major populations and (2) the intensity of potential earthquake ground shaking that has a 2% chance of occurring in 50 years.

December 10, 2015

The April 25, 2015, Gorkha, Nepal, Earthquake: An Expected Event that Defied Expectations

Scientists have long known that large earthquakes will inevitably occur along the Himalaya front.

Experts had long feared that large earthquakes would take a devastating toll on Nepal.

The 2015 Gorkha earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people, but the toll was not as catastrophic as had been feared.

Analysis of available data is helping scientists

...
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
...
Image: Northridge, CA Earthquake Damage
January 1, 1994

Northridge, CA Earthquake Damage

Collection of USGS still images taken after the January 17, 1994 Northridge earthquake highlighting the damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Image: Northridge, CA Earthquake Damage
January 1, 1994

Northridge, CA Earthquake Damage

Collection of USGS still images taken after the January 17, 1994 Northridge earthquake highlighting the damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Ground view of collapsed building and burned area, Beach and Divisadero Sts., Marina District.
December 31, 1989

Marina District, San Francisco, after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake

Ground view of collapsed building and burned area at Beach and Divisadero Streets, Marina District, San Francisco, following the October 17, 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. At 5:04:15 p.m. (PDT), the magnitude 6.9 (moment magnitude; surface-wave magnitude, 7.1) earthquake severely shook the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions. The epicenter was located at 37.04° N.

...
Wrecked buildings and washed-up boat far from water after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011.

Extensive damage in Japan after massive earthquake and tsunami

Extensive damage to buildings and roads, and large boats washed far ashore, provide valuable information to tsunami researchers. Here, in Natori, Japan, south of Sendai, the height of damage indicates that the water flow from the tsunami wave was about 10 meters (33 feet).