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Reading: Earthquake Intensity


People have always tried to quantify the size of and damage done by earthquakes. Since early in the 20th century, there have been three methods. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?

  • Mercalli Intensity Scale. Earthquakes are described in terms of what nearby residents felt and the damage that was done to nearby structures.
  • Richter magnitude scale. Developed in 1935 by Charles Richter, this scale uses a seismometer to measure the magnitude of the largest jolt of energy released by an earthquake.
  • Moment magnitude scale. Measures the total energy released by an earthquake. Moment magnitude is calculated from the area of the fault that is ruptured and the distance the ground moved along the fault.

The Richter scale and the moment magnitude scale are logarithmic.

  • The amplitude of the largest wave increases ten times from one integer to the next.
  • An increase in one integer means that thirty times more energy was released.
  • These two scales often give very similar measurements.

How does the amplitude of the largest seismic wave of a magnitude 5 earthquake compare with the largest wave of a magnitude 4 earthquake? How does it compare with a magnitude 3 quake? The amplitude of the largest seismic wave of a magnitude 5 quake is 10 times that of a magnitude 4 quake and 100 times that of a magnitude 3 quake.

How does an increase in two integers on the moment magnitude scale compare in terms of the amount of energy released? Two integers equals a 900-fold increase in released energy.

Which scale do you think is best? With the Richter scale, a single sharp jolt measures higher than a very long intense earthquake that releases more energy. The moment magnitude scale more accurately reflects the energy released and the damage caused. Most seismologists now use the moment magnitude scale.

The way scientists measure earthquake intensity and the two most common scales, Richter and moment magnitude, are described along with a discussion of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in Measuring Earthquakes video:


In a single year, on average, more than 900,000 earthquakes are recorded and 150,000 of them are strong enough to be felt. Each year about 18 earthquakes are major with a Richter magnitude of 7.0 to 7.9, and on average one earthquake has a magnitude of 8 to 8.9.

Magnitude 9 earthquakes are rare. The United States Geological Survey lists five since 1900 (see figure 1 and table 1). All but the Great Indian Ocean Earthquake of 2004 occurred somewhere around the Pacific Ocean basin.

Figure 1. The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake centered in Prince William Sound, Alaska released the second most amount of energy of any earthquake in recorded history.

Table 1. Earthquakes of magnitude 9 or greater
Location Year Magnitude
Valdivia, Chile 1960 9.5
Prince William Sound, Alaska 1964 9.2
Great Indian Ocean Earthquake 2004 9.1
Kamchatka, Alaska 1952 9.0
Tōhoku, Japan 2011 9.0


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