What Are Earthquake Hazards?


Earthquakes really pose little direct danger to a person. People can't be shaken to death by an earthquake. Some movies show scenes with the ground suddenly opening up and people falling into fiery pits, but this just doesn't happen in real life.

The Effect of Ground Shaking

The first main earthquake hazard (danger) is the effect of ground shaking. Buildings can be damaged by the shaking itself or by the ground beneath them settling to a different level than it was before the earthquake (subsidence).

Men running from a collapsed building.
These men barely escaped when the front of the Anchorage J. C. Penney's collapsed during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
Destruction on a street that dropped.
One side of this Anchorage street dropped drastically during the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.
Rows of buildings with various tipping angles.
These buildings in Japan toppled when the soil underwent liquefaction.

Buildings can even sink into the ground if soil liquefaction occurs. Liquefaction is the destabilization of sand or soil when groundwater (water underground) is forced out from between grains during the shaking of a moderate or strong earthquake. If liquefaction occurs under a building, it may start to lean, tip over, or sink several feet. The ground firms up again after the shaking has stopped. Liquefaction is a hazard in areas that have groundwater near the surface and sandy soil.

Buildings can also be damaged by strong surface waves making the ground heave and lurch. Any buildings in the path of these surface waves can lean or tip over from all the movement. The ground shaking may also cause landslides, mudslides, and avalanches on steeper hills or mountains, all of which can damage buildings and hurt people.

Road showing cut and movement to the right.
This road, which crosses the San Andreas fault, was cut in half by the 1906 earthquake. One end of the road slid 20 feet (6.5 meters) past the other during the earthquake.

Ground Displacement

The second main earthquake hazard is ground displacement (ground movement) along a fault. If a structure (a building, road, etc.) is built across a fault, the ground displacement during an earthquake could seriously damage or rip apart that structure.

From the figure on the left you can tell that the San Andreas Fault is a right-lateral transverse (strike-slip) fault because the other side of the road (on the opposite side of the fault) has moved to the right, relative to the photographer's position.


The third main hazard is flooding. An earthquake can rupture (break) dams or levees along a river. The water from the river or the reservoir would then flood the area, damaging buildings and maybe sweeping away or drowning people.

Tsunamis and seiches can also cause a great deal of damage. A tsunami is what most people call a tidal wave, but it has nothing to do with the tides on the ocean. It is a huge wave caused by an earthquake under the ocean. Tsunamis can be tens of feet high when they hit the shore and can do enormous damage to the coastline. Seiches are like small tsunamis. They occur on lakes that are shaken by the earthquake and are usually only a few feet high, but they can still flood or knock down houses, and tip over trees.


The fourth main earthquake hazard is fire. These fires can be started by broken gas lines and power lines, or tipped over wood or coal stoves. They can be a serious problem, especially if the water lines that feed the fire hydrants are broken, too. For example, after the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the city burned for three days. Most of the city was destroyed and 250,000 people were left homeless.

Most of the hazards to people come from man-made structures themselves and the shaking they receive from the earthquake. The real dangers to people are being crushed in a collapsing building, drowning in a flood caused by a broken dam or levee, getting buried under a landslide, or being burned in a fire.

Chaotic scene in a railroad yard.
The Seward, Alaska railroad yard was a twisted mess after being hit by a tsunami in 1964. The tsunami was triggered by the Good Friday earthquake.
Street scene with people watching a fire.
San Francisco burning after the 1906 earthquake.

Earthquakes in the Midwestern and Eastern United States?!