Tag Archives: tsunami risk

Harnessing Your Personal Seismometer to Measure the Size of An Earthquake

It’s not difficult to turn yourself into a personal seismometer to calculate the approximate magnitude of an earthquake that you experience. I have employed this technique myself when feeling the all too common earthquakes in Tokyo for example.

In fact, by this means scientists have been able to deduce the size of some earthquakes long before the earliest earthquake recordings. One key measure of the size of the November 1, 1755 Great Lisbon earthquake, for example, is based on what was reported by the “personal seismometers” of Lisbon.

Lisbon seen from the east during the earthquake. Exaggerated fires and damage effects. People fleeing in the foreground. (Copper engraving, Netherlands, 1756) – Image and caption from the National Information Service for Earthquake Engineering image library via UC Berkeley Seismology Laboratory

So How Do You Become a Seismometer?

As soon as you feel that unsettling earthquake vibration, your most important action to become a seismometer is immediately to note the time. When the vibrations have finally calmed down, check how much time has elapsed. Did the vibrations last for ten seconds, or maybe two minutes?

Now to calculate the size of the earthquake

The duration of the vibrations helps to estimate the fault length. Fault ruptures that generate earthquake vibrations typically break at a speed of about two kilometers per second. So, a 100km long fault that starts to break at one end will take 50 seconds to rupture. If the rupture spreads symmetrically from the middle of the fault, it could all be over in half that time.

The fastest body wave (push-pull) vibrations radiate away from the fault at about 5km/sec, while the slowest up and down and side to side surface waves travel at around 2km/second. We call the procession of vibrations radiating away from the fault the “wave-train.” The wave train comprises vibrations traveling at different speeds, like a crowd of people some of whom start off running while others are dawdling. As a result the wave-train of vibrations takes longer to pass the further you are from the fault—by around 30 seconds per 100km.

If you are very close to the fault, the direction of fault rupture can also be important for how long the vibrations last. Yet these subtleties are not so significant because there are such big differences in how the length of fault rupture varies with magnitude.


Fault Length Shaking duration

Mw 5


2-3 seconds

Mw 6


6-10 seconds

Mw 7


20-40 seconds

Mw 8


1-2 minutes

Mw 9 500km

3-5 minutes

Shaking intensity tells you the distance from the fault rupture

As you note the duration of the vibrations, also pay attention to the strength of the shaking.  For earthquakes above magnitude 6, this will tell you approximately how far you are away from the fault. If the most poorly constructed buildings are starting to disintegrate, then you are probably within 20-50km of the fault rupture; if the shaking feels like a long slow motion, you are at least 200km away.

Tsunami height confirms the magnitude of the earthquake

Tsunami height is also a good measure of the size of the earthquake. The tsunami is generated by the sudden change in the elevation of the sea floor that accompanies the fault rupture. And the overall volume of the displaced water will typically be a function of the area of the fault that ruptures and the displacement. There is even a “tsunami magnitude” based on the amplitude of the tsunami relative to distance from the fault source.

Estimating The Magnitude Of Lisbon 

We know from the level of damage in Lisbon caused by the 1755 earthquake that the city was probably less than 100km from the fault rupture. We also have consistent reports that the shaking in the city lasted six minutes, which means the actual duration of fault rupture was probably about four minutes long. This puts the earthquake into the “close to Mw9” range—the largest earthquake in Europe for the last 500 years.

The earthquake’s accompanying tsunami reached heights of 20 meters in the western Algarve, confirming the earthquake was in the Mw9 range.

Safety Comes First

Next time you feel an earthquake remember self-preservation should always come first. “Drop” (beneath a table or bed), “cover and hold” is good advice if you are in a well-constructed building.  If you are at the coast and feel an earthquake lasting more than a minute, you should immediately move to higher ground. Also, tsunamis can travel beyond where the earthquake is felt. If you ever see the sea slowly recede, then a tsunami is coming.

Let us know your experiences of earthquakes.

The Ever-present Threat of Tsunami: Are We Prepared?

Last week’s Mw8.3 earthquake offshore the Coquimbo region of central Chile served as a reminder that many coastal regions are exposed to earthquake and subsequent tsunami hazard.

While the extent of damage and loss of life from the recent Chile earthquake and tsunami continues to emerge and is tragic in itself, it is safe to say that things could have been much worse. After all, this is the same subduction zone that produced the 1960 Valdivia earthquake (or “Great Chilean earthquake”) 320 miles further to the south—the most powerful earthquake in recorded history.

The 1960 Valdivia earthquake had a magnitude of Mw9.6 and triggered a localized tsunami that battered the Chilean coast with waves in excess of 20 meters as well as far-field tsunami around the Pacific Ocean. Many events of M8.5+ produce tsunami that are truly global in nature and waves of several meters height can even reach coast lines more than 10,000 kilometers away from the event source, highlighting the need for international tsunami warning systems and awareness of population, city planners, and engineers in coastal areas.

 Coastlines At Risk of Tsunami

Tsunami and their deadly consequences have been with us since the beginning of mankind. What’s new, however, is the increasing awareness of the economic and insured losses that tsunami can cause. There are several mega cities in developed and emerging nations that are in the path of a future mega-tsunami, as reported by Dr. Robert Muir-Wood in his report Coastlines at Risk of Giant Earthquakes & Their Mega-Tsunami.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami off the Pacific coast of Tohoku, Japan acted as a wake-up call to the insurance industry moving tsunami out of its quasi-niche status. With more than 15,000 lives lost, more than USD 300 billion in economic losses, and roughly USD 40 billion in insured losses, clients wanted to know where other similar high magnitude earthquakes and subsequent tsunami could occur, and what they would look like.

In response, RMS studied a multitude of high magnitude (Mw8.9-Mw9.6) event sources around the world and modeled the potential resulting tsunami scenarios. The scenarios are included in the RMS® Global Tsunami Scenario Catalog and include both historical and potential high-magnitude tsunami events that can be used to identify loss accumulations and guide underwriting decisions.

For example, below is an example output, showing the potential impact of a recurrence of the 1877 Chile Mw9.1 Earthquake (Fig 1a) and the impact of a potential future M9 scenario (Fig 1b) stemming from the Nankai Trough on the coast of Toyohashi, Japan.

Fig 1a: Re-simulation of the 1877 Chile Mw9.1 Earthquake. Coquimbo area shown. The inundation from this event would impact the entire Chilean coastline and exceed 9 meters inundation depth (further to the North). Fig 1b: M9 scenario originating on the Nankai Trough south of Japan, impacting the city of Toyohashi (population ~376 thousand), with inundation going far inland and exceeding 6 meters in height.

With rapid advances in science and engineering enabling a deeper understanding of tsunami risk, the insurance industry, city planners and local communities can better prepare for devastating tsunami, implementing appropriate risk mitigation strategies to reduce fatalities and the financial shocks that could be triggered by the next “big one.”

“San Andreas” – The Scientific Reality

San Andreas—a Hollywood action-adventure film set in California amid not one, but two magnitude 9+ earthquakes in quick succession and the destruction that follows—was released worldwide today. As the movie trailers made clear, this spectacle is meant to be a blockbuster: death-defying heroics, eye-popping explosions, and a sentimental father-daughter relationship. What the movie doesn’t have is a basis in scientific reality.

Are magnitude 9+ earthquakes possible on the San Andreas Fault?

Thanks to the recent publication of the third Uniform California Earthquake Rupture Forecast (UCERF3), which represents the latest model from the Working Group on California Earthquake Probabilities, an answer is readily available: no. The consensus among earth scientists is that the largest magnitude events expected on the San Andreas Fault system are around M8.3, forecast in UCERF3 to occur less frequently than about once every 1 million years. To put this in context, an asteroid with a diameter of 1,000 meters is expected to strike the Earth about once every 440,000 years. Magnitude 9+ earthquakes on the San Andreas are essentially impossible because the crustal fault zone isn’t long or deep enough to accumulate and release such enormous levels of energy.

My colleague Delphine Fitzenz, an earthquake scientist, in her work exploring UCERF3, has found that, ironically, the largest loss-causing event in California isn’t even on the San Andreas Fault, which passes about 50 km east of Los Angeles. Instead, the largest loss-causing event in California is one that spans the Elsinore Fault and runs up one of the blind thrusts, like the Compton or Puente Hills faults, that cuts directly below Los Angeles. But the title Elsinore + Puente Hills doesn’t evoke fear to the same degree as San Andreas.

Will skyscrapers disintegrate and topple over from very strong shaking?

Source: San Andreas Official Trailer 2

Short answer: No.

In a major California earthquake, some older buildings, such as those made of non-ductile reinforced concrete, that weren’t designed to modern building codes and that haven’t been retrofitted might collapse and many buildings (even newer ones) would be significantly damaged. But buildings would not disintegrate and topple over in the dramatic and sensational fashion seen in the movie trailers. California has one of the world’s strictest seismic building codes, with the first version published in the early part of the 20th century following the 1925 Santa Barbara Earthquake. The trailers’ collapse scenes are good examples of what happens when Hollywood drinks too much coffee.

A character played by Paul Giamatti says that people will feel shaking on the East Coast of the U.S. Is this possible?

First off, why is the movie’s scientist played by a goofy Paul Giamatti while the search-and-rescue character is played by the muscle-ridden actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson? I know earth scientists. A whole pack of them sit not far from my desk, and I promise you that besides big brains, these people have panache.

As to the question: even if we pretend that a M9+ earthquake were to occur in California, the shaking would not be felt on the East Coast, more than 4000 km away. California’s geologic features are such that they attenuate earthquake shaking over short distances. For example, the 1906 M7.8 San Francisco Earthquake, which ruptured 477 km of the San Andreas Fault, was only felt as far east as central Nevada.

Do earthquakes cause enormous cracks in the earth’s surface? 

Source: San Andreas Official Trailer 2

I think my colleague Emel Seyhan, a geotechnical engineer who specializes in engineering seismology, summed it up well when she described this crater from a trailer as “too long, too wide, and too deep” to be caused by an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault and like nothing she had ever seen in nature. San Andreas is a strike-slip fault; so shearing forces cause slip during an earthquake. One side of the fault grinds horizontally past the other side. But in this photo, the two sides have pulled apart, as if the Earth’s crust were in a tug-of-war and one side had just lost. This type of ground failure, where the cracks open at the surface, has been observed in earthquakes but is shallow and often due to the complexity of the fault system underneath. The magnitude of the ground failure in real instances, while impressive, is much less dramatic and typically less than a few meters wide. Tamer images would not have been so good for ticket sales.

Will a San Andreas earthquake cause a tsunami to strike San Francisco?

Source: San Andreas Official Trailer 2

San Andreas is a strike-slip fault, and the horizontal motion of these fault systems does not produce large tsunami. Instead, most destructive tsunami are generated by offshore subduction zones that displace huge amounts of water as a result of deformation of the sea floor when they rupture. That said, tsunami have been observed along California’s coast, triggered mostly by distant earthquakes and limited to a few meters or less. For example, the 2011 M9 Tohoku, Japan, earthquake was strong enough to generate tsunami waves that caused one death and more than $100 million in damages to 27 harbors statewide.

One of the largest tsunami threats to California’s northern coastline is from the Cascadia Subduction Zone, stretching from Cape Mendocino in northern California to Vancouver Island in British Colombia. In 1700, a massive Cascadia quake likely caused a 50-foot tsunami in parts of northern California, and scientists believe that the fault has produced 19 earthquakes in the 8.7-9.2 magnitude range over the past 10,000 years. Because Cascadia is just offshore California, many residents would have little warning time to evacuate.

I hope San Andreas prompts some viewers in earthquake-prone regions to take steps to prepare themselves, their families, and their communities for disasters. It wouldn’t be the first time that cinema has spurred social action. But any positive impact will likely be tempered because the movie’s producers played so fast and loose with reality. Viewers will figure this out. I wonder how much more powerful the movie would have been had it been based on a more realistic earthquake scenario, like the M7.8 rupture along the southernmost section of the San Andreas Fault developed for the Great Southern California ShakeOut. Were such an earthquake to occur, RMS estimates that it would cause close to 2,000 fatalities and some $150 billion in direct damage, as well as significant disruption due to fault offsets and secondary perils, including fire following, liquefaction, and landslide impacts. Now that’s truly frightening and should motivate Californians to prepare.