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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 circum-Pacific seismic belt include the M9.5 Chilean Earthquake [Valdivia Earthquake] (1960) and the M9.2 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 the prominent seismic zones described above 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.

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