I just saw a trailer for the movie San Andreas. It looks preposterous but I love geology disaster movies, so I’ll probably see it. In the film, a series of earthquakes destroy California, culminating with a giant magnitude 9.5 quake. Fortunately the Rock is on scene to help save the day.
The largest earthquake ever recorded in real life struck central Chile on May 22, 1960. With a magnitude of 9.6 (some estimates say 9.5) this was a truly massive quake, more than twice as powerful as the next largest (Alaska 1964), and 500 times more powerful than the April 2015 Nepal quake. The seismic energy released by the 1960 Chile quake was equal to about 20,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Thousands were killed. It also triggered a tsumami that traveled 17,000 km across the Pacific Ocean and killed hundreds in Japan.
But I think the most striking thing about this quake is that it accounts for about 30% of the total seismic energy released on earth during the last 100 years. To illustrate this, I calculated the seismic moment (a measure of the energy released by an earthquake) of all earthquakes greater than magnitude 6 and plotted the global cumulative seismic moment over the last 100 years.
This plot clearly shows how the 1960 Chile quake (and to a lesser extent the 1964 Alaska event) dominates the last 100 years in terms of total energy released. This is not always obvious as the earthquake magnitude scale is logarithmic. So a magnitude 9.6 releases twice as much energy as a 9.4 and 250 times as much as an 8.0.
Technical notes: To make this plot I downloaded from the USGS archive data on all the earthquakes greater than magnitude 6 from 1915-2015. There are about 10,500 of them.
I calculated the seismic moment for each quake relative to a magnitude 6 (the smallest in the database) using
Where m1 is the magnitude of each quake and m2 = 6.
So a mag 9.6 is about 250,000 times more powerful than a mag 6.0. (Note that this refers to energy released, not necessarily ground shaking, which is influenced by many factors, such as earthquake depth).
Then I summed all the relative moments, normalized to 1, and plotted the cumulative seismic moment over the time period.
A few caveats. First, the quality of the magnitude measurements has improved over time, so that the data from the earlier part of the 20th century is not as reliable as the more current data.
Second, this analysis only looks at earthquakes larger than magnitude 6.0. Of course there are many, many smaller earthquakes. However, the cumulative amount of seismic energy released by these smaller quakes is very small compared to the larger ones (again, remember the logarithmic scale).
Third, the magnitudes listed in the USGS archive are calculated in different ways. The majority are moment magnitude or weighted moment magnitude. The equation above is meant for these types of magnitude. Other magnitude measurements, such as surface wave magnitude, have slightly different ways of calculating total energy release. This may introduce some inaccuracies, However, they will be small compared relative to total energy release.
If any seismologists would like to weigh in, I would be most grateful.
R code here. Graph made with Plot.ly.