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.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.