Earthquake Shaking and Damage

Dr. Eric M. D. Baer and Carla Whittington based on material originally published in Whittington and Baer (2006)
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This is a student homework exercise designed to familiarize students with earthquake shaking, acceleration, intensity and hazards, including the quantitative measurement of these properties. Students examine quantitative measurements of earthquake hazard from the U.S.G.S. then use these numbers to determine the damage to their homes (or another location) that could be inflicted by a quake with a 500-year recurrence interval (10% probability of exceedence in 50 years). By using students' own homes, they see the impacts of shaking, hazard, and intensity in a more personal, connected way.

This exercise can be used by any one in the United States, but is most apt for those places with high earthquake hazard. It uses the USGS's hazard mapping program's web site that allows anyone to look up earthquake hazard based on zip code, and is available for the entire United States. It also uses a conversion of acceleration to Mercalli intensity from Bolt (1993) and available on-line. Finally, it uses information from the Association of Bay Area Governments (2003) to describe typical damage to buildings of differing types (including different housing styles and ages) from different shaking intensities.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

Northridge Earthquake image After completing this exercise, students will be able to:
  • use the measurements of earthquake hazard, shaking, and intensity to evaluate potential damage from earthquakes;
  • learn the specific, quantitative measurement of earthquake hazard for their residence location;
  • relate ground accelerations to Mercalli intensities;
  • relate Mercalli intensities to damage in structures of varying construction;
  • synthesize the above information to analyze earthquake hazard for their home in written format with correct citations.

Context for Use

This is a homework for an introductory geohazards course, course but would be appropriate for any introductory level course.
I use this assignment to reinforce and take home (literally) the relationships between acceleration, intensity, and hazard. They should have already seen these terms and measurements of these terms.
It takes about an hour, and requires internet access.

Description and Teaching Materials

Homework on Earthquake Shaking and Damage (Microsoft Word 38kB Feb12 06) The MS word assignment is fully editable and has full student directions, as well as spaces for students to write their short answers. I have them also submit a summary of what they found on a separate sheet of paper.

Teaching Notes and Tips

This is typically usable as a self-directed homework. One thing that sometimes confuses students is that some sources give accelerations in a percentage of g and sometimes as a decimal, so I remind them in class to be careful of this. They will need to convert by multiplying or dividing by 100 (i.e. .05 g = 5% g). It is also mentioned in the instructions.


I grade the return worksheet followed up by test questions to examine if they appropriately link shaking and intensity. For instance, I often ask why, for a given amount of shaking, Mercalli intensities might vary. They should be able to discuss building construction and perhaps hazards other than ground movement.

References and Resources

Teaching earthquakes quantitatively (soon to be made live) contains information and assistance for teaching earthquakes quantitatively, as well as other ideas for class activities.

Web resources are used in this activity: