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What Do Earthquake "Magnitude" and "Intensity" Mean?

Magnitude is a measure of the size of an earthquake. The Richter Scale, named after Charles F. Richter of the California Institute of Technology, is the best known scale for the measuring of magnitude (M) of earthquakes. The scale is logarithmic; a recording of 7, for example, signifies a disturbance with ground motion 10 times as large as a recording of 6. The energy released by an earthquake of M 7, however, is approximately 30 times that released by an earthquake of M 6; an earthquake of M 8 releases 900 times (30x30) the energy of an earthquake of M 6. An earthquake of magnitude 2 is the smallest earthquake normally felt by humans. Earthquakes with a Richter value of 5 or higher are potentially damaging. Some of the world's largest recorded earthquakes--on January 31, 1906, off the coast of Colombia and Ecuador, and on March 2, 1933, off the east coast of Honshu, Japan--had magnitudes of 8.9 on this scale, which is open ended.

As the Richter scale does not adequately differentiate between the largest earthquakes, a new "moment magnitude" scale is being used by seismologists to provide a better measure. On the moment magnitude scale, the San Francisco earthquake is estimated at magnitude 7.7 compared to an estimated Richter magnitude of 8.3.

Scientist using Strainmeter

Strainmeter in a San Francisco tunnel monitors the nearby San Andreas fault.
Full size image - 36k.

Intensity is a measure of the strength of shaking experienced in an earthquake. The Modified Mercalli Scale represents the local effect or damage caused by an earthquake; the "intensity" reported at different points generally decreases away from the earthquake epicenter. The intensity range, from I - XII, is expressed in Roman numerals. For example, an earthquake of intensity II barely would be felt by people favorably situated, while intensity X would produce heavy damage, especially to unreinforced masonry. Local geologic conditions strongly influence the intensity of an earthquake. Commonly, sites on soft ground or alluvium have intensities 2 to 3 units higher than sites on bedrock.

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