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Earthquake Zones

Most earthquakes happen at plate boundaries; there are many earthquakes of different sizes each year.

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Earthquake Zones

What caused the earthquake in Northridge, CA in 1994?

Northridge, California experienced a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in 1994. Roads, bridges and elevated highways, like this one, were damaged and 72 people died. Northridge lies on a blind thrust fault that was only discovered as a result of the quake. The fault is part of the San Andreas Fault system, which is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (and ground shaking).

Annual Earthquakes

In a single year, on average, more than 900,000 earthquakes are recorded and 150,000 of them are strong enough to be felt. Each year about 18 earthquakes are major, with a Richter magnitude of 7.0 to 7.9, and on average one earthquake has a magnitude of 8 to 8.9.

Magnitude 9 earthquakes are rare. The United States Geological Survey lists five since 1900 (see Figure below and Table below). All but the Great Indian Ocean Earthquake of 2004 occurred somewhere around the Pacific Ocean basin.

The 1964 Good Friday Earthquake centered in Prince William Sound, Alaska released the second most amount of energy of any earthquake in recorded history.

Earthquakes of magnitude 9 or greater
Location Year Magnitude
Valdivia, Chile 1960 9.5
Prince William Sound, Alaska 1964 9.2
Great Indian Ocean Earthquake 2004 9.1
Kamchatka, Alaska 1952 9.0
Tōhoku, Japan 2011 9.0

Earthquake Zones

Nearly 95% of all earthquakes take place along one of the three types of plate boundaries.

  • About 80% of all earthquakes strike around the Pacific Ocean basin because it is lined with convergent and transform boundaries (Figure below).
  • About 15% take place in the Mediterranean-Asiatic Belt, where convergence is causing the Indian Plate to run into the Eurasian Plate.
  • The remaining 5% are scattered around other plate boundaries or are intraplate earthquakes.

Earthquake epicenters for magnitude 8.0 and greater events since 1900. The earthquake depth shows that most large quakes are shallow focus, but some subducted plates cause deep focus quakes.


  • Pacific Ring of FireAn extensive zone of volcanic and seismic activity that coincides roughly with the borders of the Pacific Ocean.


  • Small earthquakes are extremely common, but the largest earthquakes are extremely rare.
  • The vast majority of earthquakes happen at plate boundaries.
  • The Pacific Ocean basin has the most earthquakes due to the plate boundaries that line it; the Himalaya region has the second most due to the convergence of India and Asia.


Use this resource to answer the questions that follow.

1. What was the magnitude of the Chilean earthquake?

2. What two plates are converging near Chile that caused the earthquake?

3. What is the ring of fire? What occurs along this ring of fire?

4. What was the strongest earthquake every recorded? When did it occur?

5. Why are scientists urging Memphis to adopt building codes similar to Chile's?


1. Diagram the western United States with different types of plate boundaries.

2. Why are most earthquakes at plate boundaries?

3. Why are some earthquakes away from plate boundaries?

4. What two types of plate motions occur along the Pacific Rim? Where would you find each type along western North America?

5. What type of plate motions cause the Mediterranean-Asiatic quakes?

6. Why do earthquakes occur away from plate boundaries?

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