Sudden shaking of the ground caused by a disturbance deeper within the crust of the Earth. Most earthquakes occur when masses of rock straining against one another along fault lines suddenly fracture and slip. The Earth's major earthquakes occur mainly in belts coinciding with the margins of tectonic plates. These include the Circum-Pacific Belt, which affects New Zealand, New Guinea, Japan, the Aleutian Islands, Alaska, and the western coasts of North and South America; the Alpide Belt, which passes through the Mediterranean region eastward through Asia; oceanic ridges in the Arctic, Atlantic, and western Indian oceans; and the rift valleys of East Africa. The “size,” or magnitude, of earthquakes is usually expressed in terms of the Richter scale, which assigns levels from 1.0 or lower to 8.0 or higher. The largest quake ever recorded (Richter magnitude 9.5) occurred off the coast of Chile in 1960. The “strength” of an earthquake is rated in intensity scales such as the Mercalli scale, which assigns qualitative measures of damage to terrain and structures that range from “not felt” to “damage nearly total.” The most destructive quake of modern times occurred in 1976, when the city of Tangshan, China, was leveled and more than 250,000 people killed. See also seismic wave; seismology.

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