Analyze This: Where are U.S. earthquakes most likely?

A new map shows the probability of damaging earthquakes striking different places over the next 100 years

A photo of a car driving over a crack on a highway.

A crack formed across California State Route 178 after an earthquake in 2019. Thirty-seven states face the potential of earthquakes that could cause damage, including such rifts in roads. That’s based on the latest National Seismic Hazard Model.

Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

Some 230 million people in the United States face the risk of damaging earthquakes in the next 100 years. That’s according to the latest U.S. National Seismic Hazard Model, or NSHM. The NSHM estimates the risk of earthquakes based on historical data and seismic studies. The number of people expected to be at risk by the new NSHM is about 40 million more than NSHM had suggested in models from 2018 and earlier.

“This hazard model forecasts where we think the future earthquakes will occur,” says Mark Petersen. A geophysicist, he studies earthquakes at the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colo. The new work also reveals where there’s a chance of damage from a quake.

The NSHM draws from data on some 130,000 quakes. That includes recent ones and some that happened long ago. It also considers data from nearly 500 active faults. A fault is a split in Earth’s crust where rocks rub past each other. The NSHM also uses new methods that estimate ground shaking at specific places during a quake.

All this new data revealed that, on average, earthquake hazards have increased across the United States. Petersen and his colleagues shared their findings in February in Earthquake Spectra. Their new map will help people prepare for possible temblors.

A quake’s energy ripples out in ground-shaking vibrations called seismic waves. The updated model is better at estimating the shaking of sedimentary basins, Petersen says. Those places have deep soil that can amplify seismic waves. That can really boost certain waves from a quake, causing more damage to tall buildings and long bridges. Accounting for amplified waves increased the hazard forecast for cities such as Seattle, Wash., Los Angeles, Calif., and Portland, Ore.

But quake hazards aren’t limited to the U.S. west coast. Or even to the places where tectonic plates meet. In the middle of the country, in southeastern Missouri, quakes sometimes rumble along ancient rifts in Earth’s crust. And in 1886, a then-unknown fault near Charleston, S.C., caused a devastating temblor. It led to 60 deaths and damaged thousands of structures. The new map draws attention to the earthquake risks those more eastern states may face in the future as well.

Data Dive:

  1. Look at the figure’s legend. What does it mean when an area is dark red? What does it mean when an area is blue?
  2. What places in the United States have the highest risk of a damaging earthquake in the next 100 years?
  3. Which of these high-risk places have high population densities? Which have low population densities?
  4. Which areas of the United States have the lowest chance of a damaging earthquake in the next 100 years?
  5. What other information would be useful to those in places at high risk of damaging earthquakes?

Carolyn Wilke is a former staff writer at Science News Explores. She has a Ph.D. in environmental engineering. Carolyn enjoys writing about chemistry, microbes and the environment. She also loves playing with her cat.

Nikk Ogasa is a staff writer who focuses on the physical sciences for Science News. He has a master's degree in geology from McGill University, and a master's degree in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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