How Earthquakes Work

Richter Scale

Whenever a major earthquake is in the news, you'll probably hear about its Richter scale rating. You might also hear about its Mercalli Scale rating, though this isn't discussed as often. These two ratings describe the power of the earthquake from two different perspectives.

The most common standard of measurement for an earthquake is the Richter scale, developed in 1935 by Charles F. Richter of the California Institute of Technology. The Richter scale is used to rate the magnitude of an earthquake -- the amount of energy it released. This is calculated using information gathered by a seismograph.

The Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning that whole-number jumps indicate a tenfold increase. In this case, the increase is in wave amplitude. That is, the wave amplitude in a level 6 earthquake is 10 times greater than in a level 5 earthquake, and the amplitude increases 100 times between a level 7 earthquake and a level 9 earthquake. The amount of energy released increases 31.7 times between whole number values.

As we previously noted, most earthquakes are extremely small. A majority of quakes register less than 3 on the Richter scale; these tremors, called microquakes, aren't even felt by humans. Only a tiny portion -- 15 or so of the 1.4 million quakes that register above 2.0 -- register at 7 or above, which the threshold for a quake being considered major [source: USGS]. The biggest quake in recorded history was the 9.5 quake that struck Chile in 1960. It killed nearly 1,900 people and caused about \$4 billion in damage in 2010 dollars [source: USGS]. Generally, you won't see much damage from earthquakes that register below 4 on the Richter scale.

Richter ratings only give you a rough idea of the actual impact of an earthquake, though. As we've seen, an earthquake's destructive power varies depending on the composition of the ground in an area and the design and placement of man-made structures. The extent of damage is rated on the Mercalli scale. Mercalli ratings, which are given as Roman numerals, are based on largely subjective interpretations. A low intensity earthquake, one in which only some people feel the vibration and there is no significant property damage, is rated as a II. The highest rating, a XII, is applied to earthquakes in which structures are destroyed, the ground is cracked and other natural disasters, such as landslides or tsunamis, are initiated.

Richter scale ratings are determined soon after an earthquake, once scientists can compare the data from different seismograph stations. Mercalli ratings, on the other hand, can't be determined until investigators have had time to talk to many eyewitnesses to find out what occurred during the earthquake. Once they have a good idea of the range of damage, they use the Mercalli criteria to decide on an appropriate rating.