Where do earthquakes occur?

Earthquakes can strike any location at any time, but history shows they occur in the same general patterns year after year, principally in three large zones of the earth:

  • The world's greatest earthquake belt, the circum-Pacific seismic belt, is found along the rim of the Pacific Ocean, where about 81 percent of our planet's largest earthquakes occur. It has earned the nickname "Ring of Fire". Why do so many earthquakes originate in this region? The belt exists along boundaries of tectonic plates, where plates of mostly oceanic crust are sinking (or subducting) beneath another plate. Earthquakes in these subduction zones are caused by slip between plates and rupture within plates. Earthquakes in the curcum-Pacific seismic belt include the M9.5 Bio-Bio earthquake in Chile (1960) and the  M9.2 Great Alaska Earthquake (1964).
  • The Alpide earthquake belt extends from Java to Sumatra through the Himalayas, the Mediterranean, and out into the Atlantic. This belt accounts for about 17 percent of the world's largest earthquakes, including some of the most destructive, such as the 2005 M7.6 shock in Pakistan that killed over 80,000 and the 2004 M9.1 Indonesia earthquake, which generated a tsunami that killed over 230,000 people. 
  • The third prominent belt follows the submerged mid-Atlantic Ridge. The ridge marks where two tectonic plates are spreading apart (a divergent plate boundary). Most of the mid-Atlantic Ridge is deep underwater and far from human development, but Iceland, which sits directly over the mid-Atlantic Ridge, has experienced earthquakes as large as at least M6.9.

The remaining shocks are scattered in various areas of the world. Earthquakes in these prominent seismic zones are taken for granted, but damaging shocks can occur outside these zones. Examples in the United States include New Madrid, Missouri (1811-1812) and Charleston, South Carolina (1886). However, many years usually elapse between such shocks.

Learn more:

Related Content

Filter Total Items: 8

Where can I search an earthquake catalog for past events?

You may be able to find what you’re looking for using our collection of Earthquake Lists , so check that first. If that doesn’t work, you can use one of these Earthquake Catalog Search webpages: Search the World-wide Earthquakes Catalog (M4.5+ worldwide, M2.5+ U.S.) Search the ANSS (Advanced National Seismic System) Composite Catalog (M4.5+ world-...

Which country has the most earthquakes?

The answer to this question is not as straightforward as it may seem. In order to most accurately answer it, we will rephrase the question four different ways: For which country do we locate the most earthquakes? Japan. The whole country is in a very active seismic area, and they have the densest seismic network in the world, so they are able to...

Which state has the most damaging earthquakes? The most natural (non-manmade) earthquakes?

California has the most damaging earthquakes, and Alaska and California have the most natural (non-manmade) earthquakes. Find information about earthquakes in each state on our Earthquake Information by Region website (scroll down).

Where can I find a list of the largest earthquakes in the United States? In the World?

The USGS Earthquake Lists, Maps, and Statistics website has statistics about earthquakes in the United States and the world, including a list of the world's 20 largest recorded earthquakes.

Where can I find a list of the largest earthquakes near my town?

Use our online earthquake catalog to search for past earthquakes in your region. Define your search area by drawing a rectangle on a map or by inputting data for a rectangle or circle. Go to our Earthquake Information by Region website and scroll down to find information about earthquakes in each state.

Where can I find a list of yearly estimated deaths from earthquakes around the world?

Our Earthquake Statistics website has annual totals for worldwide earthquakes and U.S. earthquakes from 1990 to the near-present. Estimated deaths from those earthquakes are listed at the bottom of the charts. The website also has M3+ earthquake counts by state beginning in 2010.

Which states have the smallest number of earthquakes? Is there any place in the world that doesn't have earthquakes?

Florida and North Dakota are the states with the fewest earthquakes. Antarctica has the least earthquakes of any continent, but small earthquakes can occur anywhere in the World. Our Earthquake Statistics website has M3+ earthquake counts for each state beginning in 2010. Learn more: Earthquake Information by Region (scroll down for information by...

What is the "Ring of Fire"?

Most earthquakes and volcanic eruptions do not strike randomly but occur in specific areas, such as along plate boundaries. One such area is the circum-Pacific Ring of Fire , where the Pacific Plate meets many surrounding plates. The Ring of Fire is the most seismically and volcanically active zone in the world.
Filter Total Items: 4
Date published: March 14, 2011

USGS Updates Magnitude of Japan’s 2011 Tohoku Earthquake to 9.0

The USGS has updated the magnitude of the March 11, 2011, Tohoku earthquake in northern Honshu, Japan, to 9.0 from the previous estimate of 8.9. Independently, Japanese seismologists have also updated their estimate of the earthquake’s magnitude to 9.0.

Date published: January 8, 2010

Earthquakes Cause over 1700 Deaths in 2009

At least 1783 deaths worldwide resulted from earthquake activity in 2009.

The deadliest earthquake of the year was a magnitude 7.5 event that killed approximately 1117 people in southern Sumatra, Indonesia on Sept. 30, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and confirmed by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

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: October 6, 1995

SUMATRA, INDONESIA EARTHQUAKE

A magnitude 7.0 earthquake occurred on southern Sumatra, Indonesia, at 2:09 p.m. EDT (local time on Sumatra 1:09 a.m., Oct. 7). The epicenter was about 105 miles southeast of Panang or 290 miles southwest of Singapore.

Filter Total Items: 9
Building in Mexico City after Sept. 19, 2017 earthquake
October 3, 2017

Building in Mexico City after Sept. 19, 2017 earthquake

Building in Mexico City after Sept. 19, 2017 earthquake 

Damage to Monuments in Nepal
April 27, 2016

Damage to Monuments in Nepal

Major damage was more likely to monuments in Kathmandu, Nepal than more modern structures.

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

1964 Alaskan Earthquake Damage

Damage from the 1964 Alaskan Earthquake. Credit: USGS

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.

...
Pacific Plate boundaries and relative motion

Pacific Plate boundaries and relative motion

Map of the Pacific Plate boundaries and relative motion, from This Dynamic Planet: World Map of Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Impact Craters, and Plate Tectonics. Third Edition (Published 2006)

By Tom Simkin,1 Robert I. Tilling,2 Peter R. Vogt3,1 Stephen H. Kirby,2 Paul Kimberly,1 and David B.

...
Villagers in Kerauja, Nepal standing below a large rock slide

Villagers in Kerauja, Nepal standing below a large rock slide

Villagers in Kerauja, Nepal standing below a large rock slide that resulted in one fatality.

Attribution: Landslide Hazards
Comparison maps of South America showing 100-year earthquake shaking projections.

Comparison maps of South America showing 100-year earthquake shaking p

Comparison maps of South America showing 100-year earthquake shaking projections.

Eastern earthquakes

Eastern Earthquakes

This map shows earthquakes above magnitude 4.0 in the eastern United States since 1973, the first year with a complete catalog. There are 184 earthquakes recorded. An earthquake of magnitude 4.0 or greater can cause minor or more significant damage. The circle sizes correspond to earthquake magnitude, ranging from 4.0 to 5.9 (the largest was in the Gulf of Mexico).

Attribution: Natural Hazards