Monday, September 17, 2012

Felt Intensity – What You Feel is What You Get!

How do we size an earthquake?

A few earthquakes over the last few months have got me thinking about how we talk about earthquake size. In the western world we are quite focused on magnitude, but that only gives a starting point. I have already bored you enough about earthquake magnitude in a few previous blogs (see What’s the Magnitude?; Deep Earthquakes and Magnitudes; and Deep Earthquakes and Magnitude – Again!) – but to recap, an earthquake magnitude is an estimate of the true size of an earthquake independent of the observer (or where the observer is). The magnitude is only the start of the story if you want to understand the likely impacts of an earthquake. Not all earthquakes are created equal; some are more energetic than others even if they have the same magnitude. Some direct shaking energy towards where people live, and where you are compared to the earthquake source is very important. All this leads to the idea of shaking intensity – a mapping of the levels of shaking caused by an earthquake rather than a single number like magnitude.

Modified Mercalli Shaking Intensity
If you want to characterise how you feel an earthquake, then felt intensity is what you are after. This is a measure of the shaking where you are, and is given (at least in New Zealand) by the Modified Mercalli (MM) scale which covers the range from not felt (MM 1: Imperceptible) to complete destruction (MM 12: Completely devastating). Obviously an earthquake’s impact and the level of damage it causes are related to the intensity. The MM value at a particular place depends on the distance from the earthquake, its size and depth, the kind of rocks between you and the source and material you or the building you are in rests on.

ShakeMap (or where did the map go?)

On the old GeoNet website we had a display on the front page based on the shaking at each recording station (Figure 1). Although this gave a good indication of the where maximum shaking levels were being recorded by our instruments (and I know some of you want it back!), it could be biased by instrument issues and was often misinterpreted. So it was good for a quick look, but not really very useful for characterising the potential damage in detail.
Figure 1: The "ShakeNZ" plot for the Christchurch  Earthquake  of 22 February 2011. This map shows the shaking  levels as squares around the sensor sites which change colour and get larger as the shaking level increases.
We are working towards having a ShakeMap (as developed by the United States Geological Survey, see the USGS Shakemap site) available for larger earthquakes which will indicate the distribution of shaking (see Figure 2 for an example). This map will be produced within a few minutes of an earthquake occurring and be based on data from the sensor sites and a knowledge of how the earthquake waves travel through the Earth (tailored for New Zealand conditions). The map will show MM intensity but we will also be able to provide information in forms that are suitable for use by engineers interested in the level of shaking experienced by buildings or other structures in the region. This can include shaking accelerations at different periods of oscillation – different size structures are more susceptible to different shaking oscillations caused by earthquakes.

Current planning should see ShakeMap on the new GeoNet website within the next few months.

Figure 2: An example ShakeMap for the Christchurch Earthquake of 22 February 2011. This is  an example of what the ShakeMap on the new GeoNet website may look like.
So what about shaking duration?

This is a hard one as the perceived duration will depend both on the size of the earthquake and where you are (a bit like intensity) but is also very dependent on the near surface structure under your feet. For example, if you live in a valley the shaking waves will “bounce around” in the valley and the shaking will go on for much longer than if you were on a hard rock site. We can estimate how long the fault takes to rupture (by studying the earthquake waves recorded on our instruments), but how long the Earth shakes depends on the size and distance, and how many ways the earthquake waves reach you (some waves “bounce” around in the Earth so the shaking goes on much longer than the fault break time). For these reasons we do not usually use duration as a measure of earthquake size.

To put this in terms of recent experience the fault-break of the Christchurch Earthquake (22 February 2011) was over in just a few seconds, but the shaking went on longer because of the near-surface structure under the city. But the total duration in areas of maximum damage was only around 10 - 15 seconds. Compare that to a possible Alpine Fault earthquake much further away from Christchurch where the shaking intensity would be much less in the city (in fact even much less than the Darfield Earthquake of 4 September 2010) but the shaking would go on for minutes. Duration is not a good indication of likely earthquake impacts. 


  1. What happened to the map that showed where the shake is in relation to historical quakes. The one that also had the depth data?

    1. Christopher, that map is no longer on the new site but we will be adding more maps as time goes on. Making such a large change so we could bring fast earthquake locations to the website resulted in some compromises (at least in the short term). Did you find that map useful?

    2. I found the maps interesting (I'm just an interested amateur) and I hope that you can bring them back in some form.

  2. The map I would like to see back, as an amateur, is the map that showed the circled outline of where the shake was felt.(could we interpret it as the 'range' of the quake?)