There are two main ways to measure earthquakes. The first of these is an estimate of the energy released, and the value is referred to as magnitude. This is the number that is typically used by the press when a big earthquake happens. It is often referred to as “Richter magnitude,” but that is a misnomer, and it should be just “magnitude.” There are many ways to measure magnitude — including Charles Richter’s method developed in 1935 — but they are all ways to estimate the same number: the amount of energy released.

The other way of assessing the impact of an earthquake is to assess what people felt and how much damage was done. This is known as intensity. Intensity values are assigned to locations, rather than to the earthquake itself, and therefore intensity can vary widely, depending on the proximity to the earthquake and the types of materials and conditions of the subsurface.

# Earthquake Magnitude

Before we look more closely at magnitude we need to review what we know about body waves, and look at surface waves. Body waves are of two types, P-waves, or primary or compression waves (like the compression of the coils of a spring), and S-waves, or secondary or shear waves (like the flick of a rope). An example of P and S seismic wave records is shown in Figure 11.13. The critical parameters for the measurement of Richter magnitude are labelled, including the time interval between the arrival of the P- and S-waves — which is used to determine the distance from the earthquake to the seismic station, and the amplitude of the S waves — which is used to estimate the magnitude of the earthquake.

When body waves (P or S) reach Earth’s surface, some of their energy is transformed into surface waves, of which there are two main types, as illustrated in Figure 11.14. Rayleigh waves are characterized by vertical motion of the ground surface, like waves on water, while Love waves are characterized by horizontal motion. Both Rayleigh and Love waves are about 10% slower than S-waves (so they arrive later at a seismic station). Surface waves typically have greater amplitudes than body waves, and they do more damage.

Other important terms for describing earthquakes are hypocentre (or focus) and epicentre. The hypocentre is the actual location of an individual earthquake shock at depth in the ground, and the epicentre is the point on the land surface directly above the hypocentre (Figure).

A number of methods for estimating magnitude are listed in Table 11.1. Local magnitude (ML) was widely used until late in the 20th century, but moment magnitude (MW) is now more commonly used because it gives more accurate estimates (especially with larger earthquakes) and can be applied to earthquakes at any distance from a seismometer. Surface-wave magnitudes can also be applied to measure distant large earthquakes.

Because of the increasing size of cities in earthquake-prone areas (e.g., China, Japan, California) and the increasing sophistication of infrastructure, it is becoming important to have very rapid warnings and magnitude estimates of earthquakes that have already happened. This can be achieved by using P-wave data to determine magnitude because P-waves arrive first at seismic stations, in many cases several seconds ahead of the more damaging S-waves and surface waves. Operators of electrical grids, pipelines, trains, and other infrastructure can use the information to automatically shut down systems so that damage and casualties can be limited.

Table 11.1 A summary of some of the different methods for estimating earthquake magnitude. [SE]
Type M Range Dist. Range Comments
Local or Richter (ML) 2 to 6 0‑400 km The original magnitude relationship defined in 1935 by Richter and Gutenberg. It is based on the maximum amplitude of S-waves recorded on a Wood‑Anderson torsion seismograph. ML values can be calculated using data from modern instruments. L stands for local because it only applies to earthquakes relatively close to the seismic station.
Moment (MW) > 3.5 All Based on the seismic moment of the earthquake, which is equal to the average amount of displacement on the fault times the fault area that slipped. It can also be estimated from seismic data if the seismometer is tuned to detect long-period body waves.
Surface wave (MS) 5 to 8 20 to 180° A magnitude for distant earthquakes based on the amplitude of surface waves measured at a period near 20 s.
P-wave 2 to 8 Local Based on the amplitude of P-waves. This technique is being increasingly used to provide very rapid magnitude estimates so that early warnings can be sent to utility and transportation operators to shut down equipment before the larger (but slower) S-waves and surface waves arrive.