Reading: Magnitude versus Intensity

Magnitude and Intensity measure different characteristics of earthquakes. Magnitude measures the energy released at the source of the earthquake. Magnitude is determined from measurements on seismographs. Intensity measures the strength of shaking produced by the earthquake at a certain location. Intensity is determined from effects on people, human structures, and the natural environment.

Calculating Earthquake Magnitude

The magnitude of an earthquake is a number that allows earthquakes to be compared with each other in terms of their relative power. For several decades, earthquake magnitudes were calculated based on a method first developed by Charles Richter, a seismologist based in California. Richter used seismograms of earthquakes that occurred in the San Andreas fault zone to calibrate his magnitude scale.

Two measurements are factored together to determine the Richter magnitude of an earthquake: the amplitude of the largest waves recorded on a seismogram of the earthquake, and the distance to the epicenter of the earthquake. The maximum amplitude seismic wave – the height of the tallest one – is measured in mm on a seismogram. The distance to the epicenter must also be taken into account because the greater the distance from the earthquake, the smaller the waves get. The effect of distance is factored out of the calculation. There is no upper limit defined for the Richter scale, but after a century of seismograph measurements, it appears that rocks in the earth release their stress before building up enough energy to reach magnitude 10.

The Richter scale was found to not transfer very well from the San Andreas fault zone, a transform plate boundary, to the much more powerful earthquakes that occur at convergent plate boundaries, particularly subduction zone earthquakes. Therefore, the Richter scale has been replaced by the moment magnitude scale, symbolized as Mw.

The moment magnitude scale is broadly similar to the Richter scale, but it takes more factors into account, including the total area of the fault that moves during the earthquake, and how much it moves. This produces a magnitude number that is a better indicator of the total amount of energy released by the earthquake. Because the moment magnitude scale has replaced the Richter scale, we will assume from here on that we are referring to moment magnitude, not Richter magnitude, when we speak of earthquake magnitude.

The magnitude scale portrays energy logarithmically to approximately base 32. For example, a magnitude 6.0 earthquake releases about 32 times as much energy as a magnitude 5.0 earthquake. A magnitude 7.0 releases about 32 × 32 = 1024 times as much energy as a magnitude 5.0 earthquake. A magnitude 9.0 earthquake, which rarely occurs, releases over a million times as much energy as a magnitude 5.0 earthquake.

Ranking Earthquake Intensity

Earthquake intensity is very different from earthquake magnitude. Earthquake intensity is a ranking based on the observed effects of an earthquake in each particular place. Therefore, each earthquake produces a range of intensity values, ranging from highest in the epicenter area to zero at a distance from the epicenter. The most commonly used earthquake intensity scale is the Modified Mercalli earthquake intensity scale. Refer to the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale page on the US Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program website for an abbreviated version.

The table below shows approximately how many earthquakes occur each year in each magnitude range and what the intensity might be at the epicenter for each magnitude range.

Magnitude Average number per year Modified Mercalli Intensity Description
0 – 1.9 >1 million micro – not felt
2.0 – 2.9 >1 million I minor – rarely felt
3.0 – 3.9 about 100,000 II – III minor – noticed by a few people
4.0 – 4.9 about 10,000 IV – V light – felt by many people, minor damage possible
5.0 – 5.9 about 1,000 VI – VII moderate – felt by most people, possible broken plaster and chimneys
6.0 – 6.9 about 130 VII – IX strong – damage variable depending on building construction and substrate
7.0 – 7.9 about 15 IX – X major – extensive damage, some buildings destroyed
8.0 – 8.9 about 1 X – XII great – extensive damage over broad areas, many buildings destroyed
9.0 and above < 1 XI – XII great – extensive damage over broad areas, most buildings destroyed

Magnitude / Intensity Comparison

The following table gives intensities that are typically observed at locations near the epicenter of earthquakes of different magnitudes.

Magnitude Typical Maximum
Modified Mercalli Intensity
1.0 – 3.0 I
3.0 – 3.9 II – III
4.0 – 4.9 IV – V
5.0 – 5.9 VI – VII
6.0 – 6.9 VII – IX
7.0 and higher VIII or higher

Abbreviated Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale

  1. Not felt except by a very few under especially favorable conditions.
  2. Felt only by a few persons at rest, especially on upper floors of buildings.
  3. Felt quite noticeably by persons indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings. Many people do not recognize it as an earthquake. Standing motor cars may rock slightly. Vibrations similar to the passing of a truck. Duration estimated.
  4. Felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. At night, some awakened. Dishes, windows, doors disturbed; walls make cracking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building. Standing motor cars rocked noticeably.
  5. Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop.
  6. Felt by all, many frightened. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster. Damage slight.
  7. Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction; slight to moderate in well-built ordinary structures; considerable damage in poorly built or badly designed structures; some chimneys broken.
  8. Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable damage in ordinary substantial buildings with partial collapse. Damage great in poorly built structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned.
  9. Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb. Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations.
  10. Some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations. Rails bent.
  11. Few, if any (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Rails bent greatly.
  12. Damage total. Lines of sight and level are distorted. Objects thrown into the air.


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