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Natural Hazards

The USGS monitors and conducts research on a wide range of natural hazards to help decision-makers prepare for and respond to hazard events that threaten life and property.

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How are earthquakes recorded? How are earthquakes measured? How is the magnitude of an earthquake determined?

Earthquakes are recorded by a seismographic network. Each seismic station in the network measures the movement of the ground at that site. The slip of one block of rock over another in an earthquake releases energy that makes the ground vibrate. That vibration pushes the adjoining piece of ground and causes it to vibrate, and thus the energy travels out from the earthquake hypocenter in a wave...

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How are earthquakes recorded? How are earthquakes measured? How is the magnitude of an earthquake determined?

Earthquakes are recorded by a seismographic network. Each seismic station in the network measures the movement of the ground at that site. The slip of one block of rock over another in an earthquake releases energy that makes the ground vibrate. That vibration pushes the adjoining piece of ground and causes it to vibrate, and thus the energy travels out from the earthquake hypocenter in a wave...

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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 looking at the physical effects (such as amount of...

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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 looking at the physical effects (such as amount of...

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Moment magnitude, Richter scale - what are the different magnitude scales, and why are there so many?

Earthquake size, as measured by the Richter Scale is a well known, but not well understood, concept. The idea of a logarithmic earthquake magnitude scale was first developed by Charles Richter in the 1930's for measuring the size of earthquakes occurring in southern California using relatively high-frequency data from nearby seismograph stations. This magnitude scale was referred to as ML, with...

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Moment magnitude, Richter scale - what are the different magnitude scales, and why are there so many?

Earthquake size, as measured by the Richter Scale is a well known, but not well understood, concept. The idea of a logarithmic earthquake magnitude scale was first developed by Charles Richter in the 1930's for measuring the size of earthquakes occurring in southern California using relatively high-frequency data from nearby seismograph stations. This magnitude scale was referred to as ML, with...

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What is the difference between earthquake magnitude and earthquake intensity? What is the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale?

Magnitude scales, like the moment magnitude, measure the size of the earthquake at its source. An earthquake has one magnitude. The magnitude does not depend on where the measurement is made. Often, several slightly different magnitudes are reported for an earthquake. This happens because the relation between the seismic measurements and the magnitude is complex and different procedures will often...

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What is the difference between earthquake magnitude and earthquake intensity? What is the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale?

Magnitude scales, like the moment magnitude, measure the size of the earthquake at its source. An earthquake has one magnitude. The magnitude does not depend on where the measurement is made. Often, several slightly different magnitudes are reported for an earthquake. This happens because the relation between the seismic measurements and the magnitude is complex and different procedures will often...

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What should I know about wildfires and debris flows?

Wildland fires are inevitable in the western United States. Expansion of human development into forested areas has created a situation where wildfires can adversely affect lives and property, as can the flooding and landslides that occur in the aftermath of the fires. There is a need to develop tools and methods to identify and quantify the potential hazards posed by landslides produced from...

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What should I know about wildfires and debris flows?

Wildland fires are inevitable in the western United States. Expansion of human development into forested areas has created a situation where wildfires can adversely affect lives and property, as can the flooding and landslides that occur in the aftermath of the fires. There is a need to develop tools and methods to identify and quantify the potential hazards posed by landslides produced from...

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How do landslides cause tsunamis?

Tsunamis are large, potentially deadly and destructive sea waves, most of which are formed as a result of submarine earthquakes. They can also result from the eruption or collapse of island or coastal volcanoes and from giant landslides on marine margins. These landslides, in turn, are often triggered by earthquakes. Tsunamis can be generated on impact as a rapidly moving landslide mass enters the...

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How do landslides cause tsunamis?

Tsunamis are large, potentially deadly and destructive sea waves, most of which are formed as a result of submarine earthquakes. They can also result from the eruption or collapse of island or coastal volcanoes and from giant landslides on marine margins. These landslides, in turn, are often triggered by earthquakes. Tsunamis can be generated on impact as a rapidly moving landslide mass enters the...

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Under what circumstances do U.S. Geological Survey landslide personnel conduct field work in landslide-prone areas?

USGS landslide researchers have ongoing field projects in several areas of the United States, including parts of the Pacific coastal ranges, Rocky Mountains, and the Appalachians. USGS scientists also respond to major landslide events, including some that result in federally-declared disasters. In some cases, USGS scientists respond to landslides in foreign countries that request assistance...

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Under what circumstances do U.S. Geological Survey landslide personnel conduct field work in landslide-prone areas?

USGS landslide researchers have ongoing field projects in several areas of the United States, including parts of the Pacific coastal ranges, Rocky Mountains, and the Appalachians. USGS scientists also respond to major landslide events, including some that result in federally-declared disasters. In some cases, USGS scientists respond to landslides in foreign countries that request assistance...

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Can major landslides and debris flows happen in all areas of the U.S.?

Landslides can and do occur in every state and territory of the U.S.; however, the type, severity, and frequency of landslide activity varies from place to place, depending on the terrain, geology, and climate.Major storms have caused major or widespread landslides in Washington state, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Hawaii, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina, Puerto Rico...

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Can major landslides and debris flows happen in all areas of the U.S.?

Landslides can and do occur in every state and territory of the U.S.; however, the type, severity, and frequency of landslide activity varies from place to place, depending on the terrain, geology, and climate.Major storms have caused major or widespread landslides in Washington state, Oregon, California, Colorado, Idaho, Hawaii, Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, North Carolina, Puerto Rico...

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What was the largest landslide in the United States? In the world?

The largest subaerial (on land) landslide in Earth's recorded history was connected with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington state, USA. That landslide had a volume of 2.8 cubic kilometers (0.67 cubic miles) of material and the landslide traveled about 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) down the North Fork Toutle River. Average landside depth was 46 meters (150 feet) with a maximum...

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What was the largest landslide in the United States? In the world?

The largest subaerial (on land) landslide in Earth's recorded history was connected with the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington state, USA. That landslide had a volume of 2.8 cubic kilometers (0.67 cubic miles) of material and the landslide traveled about 22.5 kilometers (14 miles) down the North Fork Toutle River. Average landside depth was 46 meters (150 feet) with a maximum...

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What is a supervolcano? What is a supereruption?

The term "supervolcano" implies a volcanic center that has had an eruption of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), meaning that at one point in time it erupted more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material. In the early 2000s, the term “supereruption” began being used as a catchy way to describe VEI 8 eruptions. Explosive events of this size erupt so much magma that...

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What is a supervolcano? What is a supereruption?

The term "supervolcano" implies a volcanic center that has had an eruption of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), meaning that at one point in time it erupted more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material. In the early 2000s, the term “supereruption” began being used as a catchy way to describe VEI 8 eruptions. Explosive events of this size erupt so much magma that...

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How far would ash travel if Yellowstone had a large explosive eruption?

Knowledge about past eruptions of Yellowstone combined with mathematical models of volcanic ash dispersion help scientists determine where and how much ashfall will occur in possible future eruptions. During the three caldera-forming eruptions that occurred between 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago, tiny particles of volcanic ash covered much of the western half of North America. That ash was...

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How far would ash travel if Yellowstone had a large explosive eruption?

Knowledge about past eruptions of Yellowstone combined with mathematical models of volcanic ash dispersion help scientists determine where and how much ashfall will occur in possible future eruptions. During the three caldera-forming eruptions that occurred between 2.1 million and 640,000 years ago, tiny particles of volcanic ash covered much of the western half of North America. That ash was...

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What would happen if a "supervolcano" eruption occurred again at Yellowstone?

If another large, caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Such a giant eruption would have regional effects such as falling ash and short-term (years to decades) changes to global climate. Those parts of the surrounding states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that are closest to Yellowstone would be affected by pyroclastic flows, while other places in...

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What would happen if a "supervolcano" eruption occurred again at Yellowstone?

If another large, caldera-forming eruption were to occur at Yellowstone, its effects would be worldwide. Such a giant eruption would have regional effects such as falling ash and short-term (years to decades) changes to global climate. Those parts of the surrounding states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that are closest to Yellowstone would be affected by pyroclastic flows, while other places in...

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