Earthquake Hazards Program

FAQ

Have questions? The answer is probably here!

How do you determine the magnitude for an earthquake that occurred prior to the creation of the magnitude scale?

For earthquakes that occurred between about 1890 (when modern seismographs came into use) and 1935 when Charles Richter developed the magnitude scale, people went back to the old records and compared the seismograms from those days with similar records for later earthquakes. For earthquakes prior to about 1890, magnitudes have been estimated by...

How do seismologists locate an earthquake?

When an earthquake occurs, one of the first questions is "where was it?" The location may tell us what fault it was on and where damage (if any) most likely occurred. Unfortunately, Earth is not transparent and we can't just see or photograph the earthquake disturbance like meteorologists can photograph clouds. When an earthquake occurs, it...

What was the duration of the earthquake? Why don't you report the duration of each earthquake? How does the duration affect the magnitude?

The duration of an earthquake is related to its magnitude but not in a perfectly strict sense. There are two ways to think about the duration of an earthquake. The first is the length of time it takes for the fault to rupture and the second is the length of time shaking is felt at any given point (e.g. when someone says "I felt it shake for 10...

How can an earthquake have a negative magnitude?

Magnitude calculations are based on a logarithmic scale, so a ten-fold drop in amplitude decreases the magnitude by 1. If an amplitude of 20 millimetres as measured on a seismic signal corresponds to a magnitude 2 earthquake, then: 10 times less (2 millimetres) corresponds to a magnitude of 1; 100 times less (0.2 millimetres) corresponds to...

What does it mean that the earthquake occurred at a depth of 0 km? How can an earthquake have a negative depth; that would mean it’s in the air. What is the geoid, and what does it have to do with earthquake depth?

An earthquake cannot physically occur at a depth of 0 km or -1km (above the surface of the earth). In order for an earthquake to occur, two blocks of crust must slip past one another, and it is impossible for this to happen at or above the surface of the earth. So why do we report that the earthquake occurred at a depth of 0 km or event as a...

Seismometers, seismographs, seismograms - what's the difference? How do they work?

A seismometer is the internal part of the seismograph , which may be a pendulum or a mass mounted on a spring; however, it is often used synonymously with "seismograph". Seismographs are instruments used to record the motion of the ground during an earthquake. They are installed in the ground throughout the world and operated as part of a...

How can I make my own seismometer?

It is relatively easy to acquire the necessary materials and build your own seismometer. The links here are to various sources with information on how to build a seismometer. They range from very simple and inexpensive to sophisticated and pricey. Model Seismograph - Classroom Demonstration Build your own Seismograph Station Build Your Own...

What was the first instrument that actually recorded an earthquake?

The earliest seismoscope was invented by the Chinese philosopher Chang Heng in A.D. 132. This was a large urn on the outside of which were eight dragon heads facing the eight principal directions of the compass. Below each dragon head was a toad with its mouth opened toward the dragon. When an earthquake occurred, one or more of the eight dragon-...

What is a Geoid? Why do we use it and where does its shape come from?

Geoid illustration Contrast of the Geoid model with an Ellipsoid and cross-section of the Earth's surface. (Public domain.) A geoid is the irregular-shaped “ball” that scientists use to more accurately calculate depths of earthquakes, or any other deep object beneath the earth’s surface...

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...

What is the difference between earthquake early warning, earthquake forecasts, earthquake probabilities, and earthquake prediction?

The USGS uses these four terms to refer to four different things . Early warning is a notification that is issued after an earthquake starts. Probabilities and forecasts are comparable to climate probabilities and weather forecasts, while predictions are more like statements of when, where, and how large, which is not yet possible for earthquakes...

What is seismic hazard? What is a seismic hazard map? How are they made? How are they used? Why are there different maps, and which one should I use?

Seismic hazard is the hazard associated with potential earthquakes in a particular area, and a seismic hazard map shows the relative hazards in different areas. The maps are made by considering what we currently know about: Past faults and earthquakes The behavior of seismic waves as they travel through different parts of the U.S. crust The near-...

What are the earthquake hazards/risks where I live?

Determining your risk with regard to earthquakes, or more precisely shaking from earthquakes, isn't as simple as finding the nearest fault. The chances of experiencing shaking from an earthquake and/or having property damage is dependent on many different factors. The National Hazard Maps use all available data to estimate the chances of shaking (...

How will my house hold up in an earthquake? Can the USGS send someone out to evaluate my property?

Published maps will only provide generalized, uninterpreted information about specific areas. Every property consists of a unique combination of geologic and structural factors that must be considered to determine what might happen to a house during an earthquake. Therefore, an individual site study is necessary. Geologic factors include: type of...

How do I decide whether or not to get earthquake insurance?

You should consider the following factors when deciding whether or not to get earthquake insurance: proximity to active earthquake faults seismic history of the region (frequency of earthquakes) time since last earthquake building construction (type of building and foundation) architectural layout materials used quality of workmanship extent to...

How do earthquakes affect buildings?

Ground shaking is the primary cause of earthquake damage to man-made structures. Many factors influence the strength of earthquake shaking at a site including the earthquake's magnitude, the site's proximity to the fault, the local geology, and the soil type. More than 250 structures throughout the United States have been outfitted with seismic...

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...

What is the probability that an earthquake will occur in the Los Angeles Area? In the San Francisco Bay area?  

Los Angeles area: Within the next 30 years the probability is: 60% that an earthquake measuring magnitude 6.7 46% that an earthquake measuring magnitude 7 31% that an earthquake measuring magnitude 7.5 will occur in the Los Angeles region. San Francisco Bay area: Within the next 30 years the probability is: 72% that an earthquake measuring...

What is the probability that an earthquake is a foreshock to a larger earthquake?

Worldwide the probability that an earthquake will be followed within 3 days by a large earthquake nearby is somewhere just over 6%. In California, that probability is about 6%. This means that there is about a 94% chance that any earthquake will NOT be a foreshock. In California, about half of the biggest earthquakes were preceded by foreshocks;...

Can the National Seismic Hazard Maps be used as an earthquake forecast tool for the near future?

Not really. The USGS Seismic Hazard Maps website and the Unified Hazard Tool (for building custom maps) are designed to display the probability of different events that might occur in a several-year to several-decade period. The model bases all probability estimates on the average rate of earthquakes over long periods of time. As you shorten the...