Enjoying EarthSky? Subscribe.

125,767 subscribers and counting ...

By in
| Earth on May 24, 2012

What does a jump in earthquake magnitude really mean?

Each earthquake magnitude is 33 times more powerful than the one before. So each jump in magnitude means a lot! This animation can help you picture it.

Earthquakes are one of most powerful, and sometimes most devastating, forces in nature. Scientists have devised a magnitude system to describe how the power of an earthquake increases. The great Tohuku earthquake in Japan in March 2011, for example, was a magnitude 9. The earthquake that rattled Washington D.C. and the U.S. east coast in August 2011 was a magnitude 5.8. What’s the difference? What does the earthquake magnitude system really mean? The animation below – from oceanographer Nathan Becker at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center – can help you understand it.

Each earthquake magnitude is 33 times more powerful than the one before. So each jump in magnitude means a lot!

A magnitude-8.0 earthquake is 33 times stronger than a magnitude-7.0 earthquake.

A magnitude-9.0 earthquake is 1,089 (33 x 33) times more powerful than a 7.0.

Bottom line: Each jump in earthquake magnitude represents 33 times more energy release than the magnitude before. So each jump in magnitude means a lot! This animation oceanographer Nathan Becker at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center can help you picture it.

Will Japan’s big quake in 2011 lead to more earthquake predictability?