Are there more earthquakes than ever before?

In short: No.

But…but… Haiti! Chile! Mexico! China! 2012! We’re doomed!

Not exactly. Over the last 20 years, there has not been a significant change in either the total number of earthquakes, or the number of greater magnitude earthquakes (such as those 6 and above that have been recently publicized).

Even the mighty Boobquake was unable to upset the average.

So why does it seem like there are more lately than ever before? Well, in addition to technological factors (such as better seismographs, improved global communication technology, etc.) and changing population density, there’s the good ol’ human brain.

Earthquakes can happen in clusters (just like there can be periods of rest with few to no earthquakes) because there are just so darn many of them – statistically, this is just sometimes bound to happen at random. Also, an active fault can produce several earthquakes within a short span of time. Perceived patterns combined with strategic news reporting and populated affected areas might get people thinking “Huh? What’s with all the earthquakes?” More imaginative individuals might also be asking “Why is the Earth trying to kill us?”

There are several reasons for why the public may have become more conscious of worldwide earthquakes, but those reasons aren’t necessarily related to an actual increase. According to the US Geological Survey (where I obtained the above graph), there is an average 15 earthquakes per year between magnitude 7 – 7.9 and one magnitude 8 or above. Tallying the 4 biggest earthquakes in recent memory that seemed to get the most news coverage gives:

  • Haiti 7.0
  • Chile 8.8
  • Baha California/Mexico 7.2
  • Yushu, China 6.9

These (and the several other earthquakes so far this year) are well within the USGS averages. It’s possible that as the year progresses, we may see more of these earthquakes that will skew the numbers, but it’s simply too early to tell whether 2010 demonstrates an odd year for earthquakes. It’s just as possible that the biggest earthquakes happened in a statistical cluster early in the year, especially when the numbers are taken in context with previous years.

So, worry not. Until earthquakes are put into the public consciousness by tragedy and/or a slow news week, most people don’t think about them too much and don’t need to other than to perhaps send a few bucks to Red Cross.

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  • Kim Hebert

    Kim Hébert is an occupational therapist. She is interested in the promotion of science and reason, particularly regarding therapeutic health interventions. She blogs occasionally about occupational therapy and other health topics at Science-Based Therapy. Her hobbies are art and astronomy. **All views expressed by Kim are her personal views alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of current or former employers, associations, or other affiliations. All information is provided for discussion purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for consultation with a licensed and accredited health professional.