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Earthquakes: They're Actually Happening in MOST U.S. States; When is the Next Big One?

Earthquakes are one type of natural disaster that, unlike tornadoes, hurricanes, and flash floods, cannot be predicted. There is no pattern to let us know when and where an earthquake may occur, and they can happen any time of day, during any type of weather and in places where it's not expected.

Although they usually last less than a minute, the damage earthquakes cause can be tremendous.

Earthquake Damage

Earthquakes may last only seconds, but the damage they create can be immense.

What exactly causes an earthquake? In the 4th century B.C. the now-famous philosopher Aristotle said winds trapped in underground caves caused the tremors, but today we know that earthquakes are the result of geologic processes deep within the earth. When two sides of a fault push together and suddenly slip, the energy waves released travel through the earth's crust and cause the ground to shake.

Earthquakes are measured using the Richter magnitude scale. According to this scale, quakes with magnitudes of 2.0 or less are not typically felt by people, those with magnitudes of 4.5 or more are large enough to be felt and recorded, and those with magnitudes of 8.0 or higher are extremely strong, "great" earthquakes.

The World's Biggest Earthquakes

The largest earthquake in the world occurred in Chile in 1960. It was a magnitude of 9.5, and more than 2,000 people were killed, 3,000 injured and 2 million rendered homeless as a result. Other major earthquakes since 1900 include:


    Good news! The USGS says California won't break off into the ocean, even if the "Big One" hits.

  • Prince William Sound, Alaska (1964)
    • Magnitude 9.2
    • The quake killed 15 people but an ensuing tsunami killed 110 more. There was about $311 million in property loss.
  • Andreanof Islands, Alaska (1957)
    • Magnitude 9.1
    • The quake left a 4.5-meter crack in a road, caused Mount Vsevidof to erupt after being dormant for 200 years and generated two tsunamis. One of these traveled (and caused extensive damage) to Hawaii and then to Chile, Japan and other areas in the Pacific region.
  • Off the West Coast of Northern Sumatra (2004)
    • Magnitude 9.0
    • This earthquake and resulting tsunami tragedy that shocked the world last December killed more than 283,100 people. Over 14,000 people are still listed as missing, and over 1 million people were displaced in 10 countries in South Asia and East Africa.
  • The Kamchatka Peninsula (in the Russian Far East) (1952)
    • Magnitude 9.0
    • A tsunami generated by this earthquake struck the Hawaiian Islands, resulting in nearly 1 million in property damage.

Are Earthquakes Happening Close to Home?

Number of Earthquakes (1974-2003)
State #
Alaska 12,053
California 4,895
Hawaii 1,533
Nevada 778
Washington 424
Idaho 404
Wyoming 217
Montana 186
Utah 139
Oregon 73
New Mexico 38
Arkansas 34
Arizona 32
Colorado 24
Tennessee 22
Missouri 21
Texas 20
Illinois 17
Oklahoma 17
Maine 16
New York 16
Alabama 15
Kentucky 15
South Carolina 10
Virginia 10
Nebraska 8
Ohio 8
Georgia 7
Indiana 6
New Hampshire 6
Pennsylvania 6
Kansas 4
North Carolina 3
Massachusetts 2
Michigan 2
Minnesota 2
Mississippi 2
New Jersey 2
Louisiana 1
Rhode Island 1
West Virginia 1

In the United States, earthquakes occur across the nation--not just on the West Coast or in Alaska or Hawaii, as you may think. In fact, take a look at the table to the right to get an idea of where earthquakes have hit the States from 1974 to 2003, according to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Where, and When, Will the "Big One" Hit?

While it isn't possible to predict where and when an earthquake will hit, scientists can, using probabilities based on scientific data, calculate potential future earthquakes. For instance, according to the USGS, there is a 67 percent chance a major earthquake will occur in the San Francisco Bay area (and a 60 percent chance one will occur in Southern California) in the next three decades.

Find out When and Where Earthquakes Happen: Live!

The U.S. Geological Survey provides live information on earthquakes as they occur. You won't believe how many earthquakes have happened in the last week, last day--even the last hour!

You can find out the exact location, date, time and magnitude of any earthquake in the United States or world, as soon as it happens.

To find out if earthquakes are occurring in your hometown, visit the Recent Earthquake Activity Map Now!

Right now, scientists estimate where future earthquakes may occur by studying the history of previous large earthquakes along with the rate at which strain accumulates in rock. However, these methods may not be completely reliable, nor are they capable of predicting more short-term (even one- or two-year) predictions.

That said, scientists do "forecast" future earthquakes using the best methods currently available, and there's an area of the United States that's as high a hazard for earthquakes as California, yet is rarely though of as such: It's the New Madrid region located right in the Central United States--it stretches from just west of Memphis, Tennessee into southern Illinois.

According to the USGS and the Center for Earthquake Research and Information of the University of Memphis, it's estimated that in the next 50 years:

  • There's a 7 percent to 10 percent chance of a magnitude 7.5-8.0 earthquake occurring in this region.
  • There's a 25 percent to 40 percent chance of a magnitude 6.0 or larger earthquake occurring.

What to do During an Earthquake

If an earthquake hits, follow these tips from the USGS to stay safe:

  • Stay indoors if possible.

  • Get under a desk or table and hold onto it.

  • Stay away from windows, fireplaces and large furniture or appliances that could fall over.

  • Don't run downstairs or outside while a building is shaking.

  • If you're outside, move into the open (away from buildings, power lines or other objects that could fall on you).

  • If you're driving, move out of traffic and stop your car if possible (don't stop on a bridge or under an overpass).

  • Stay in your car, and when you resume driving watch out for breaks in pavement, fallen rocks, etc.

  • If you're in a mountainous area, be especially cautious of falling rocks, landslides, trees, etc. that may have been loosened by the quake.

Recommended Reading

Severe Weather: The Most to Least Fatal & the Key Steps to Save Your Life

H5N1 Kills 70% of Those Infected: Experts Say a Pandemic of this Lethal Flu Strain May be Coming


USGS Earthquake Hazards Program

Earthquake Hazard in the Heart of the Homeland

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