The Richter scale is a logarithmic scale, meaning that the numbers on the scale measure factors of 10. See more pictures of natural disasters.

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How does a seismograph work? What is the Richter scale?

A seismograph is the device that scientists use to measure earthquakes. The goal of a seismograph is to accurately record the motion of the ground during a quake. If you live in a city, you may have noticed that buildings sometimes shake when a big truck or a subway train rolls by. Good seismographs are therefore isolated and connected to bedrock to prevent this sort of "data pollution."

The main problem that must be solved in creating a seismograph is that when the ground shakes, so does the instrument. Therefore, most seismographs involve a large mass of some sort. You could make a very simple seismograph by hanging a large weight from a rope over a table. By attaching a pen to the weight and taping a piece of paper to the table so that the pen can draw on the paper, you could record tremors in the Earth's crust (earthquakes). If you used a roll of paper and a motor that slowly pulled the paper across the table, you would be able to record tremors over time. However, it would take a pretty large tremor for you to see anything. In a real seismograph, levers or electronics are used to magnify the signal so that very small tremors are detectable. A big mechanical seismograph may have a weight attached that weighs 1,000 pounds (450 kg) or more, and it drives a set of levers that significantly magnify the pen's motion.

The Richter scale is a standard scale used to compare earthquakes. It is a logarithmic scale, meaning that the numbers on the scale measure factors of 10. So, for example, an earthquake that measures 4.0 on the Richter scale is 10 times larger than one that measures 3.0. On the Richter scale, anything below 2.0 is undetectable to a normal person and is called a microquake. Microquakes occur constantly. Moderate earthquakes measure less than 6.0 or so on the Richter scale. Earthquakes measuring more than 6.0 can cause significant damage. The biggest quake in the world since 1900 scored a 9.5 on the Richter scale. It rocked Chile on May 22, 1960.

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  • U.S. Geological Survey. "FAQ - Historic Earthquakes and Earthquake Statistics." 2008. (Aug. 28, 2008)