Mapping The World’s Major Earthquakes from 1956‒2022
Major earthquakes have occurred since time immemorial, but their observation and impact have not been evenly distributed around the globe.
On February 6, two earthquakes struck in Türkiye near the Syrian border. Both registered above a 7 on the Richter scale and have a combined death toll rapidly rising past 20,000 people.
And looking at the history of recent and ancient earthquakes, the location of these is no surprise. Using data from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), creator PythonMaps mapped earthquake epicenters between 1956 and 2022 that registered a 4.5 or higher on the Richter scale.
Tectonic Plate Movement and Earthquakes
Looking at the map, it’s easy to spot the concentration of earthquakes along the boundaries of Earth’s tectonic plates.
These massive moving slabs of rock fit together almost like puzzle pieces, making up the lithosphere or the upper crust. But as the edges of tectonic plates collide, slide against, and move away from each other, the crust cracks and folds and causes earthquakes.
Most of the earthquakes visualized on this map follow the boundaries of the seven major tectonic plates, along with the Philippine Plate (south of Japan) and the Nazca Plate (west of South America).
Here’s a list of the most earthquake-prone areas on the planet, according to the USGS.
|Earthquake Zones||Tectonic Plates||Locations|
|Ring of Fire||Pacific, North American, Philippine, Juan de Fuca, Cocos, Nazca||Rim of the Pacific Ocean.|
|Alpide Belt||Eurasian, African, Arabian, Indian||Java to Sumatra, through the Himalayas, west to the Mediterranean, and out into the Atlantic.|
|Mid-Atlantic Ridge||North American, Eurasian, South American, African||Deep underwater in the Atlantic, and directly underneath Iceland.|
According to academics, the recent earthquakes in Türkiye (part of the Alpide Belt) happened on multiple faults. The Arabian Plate likely moved northwards into the Eurasian Plate, pushing the Anatolian Plate (which Türkiye sits on) westward.
The Worst Earthquakes in History
Though earthquakes are spread around the world, major earthquakes seem even more tightly confined to specific regions.
These major earthquakes register highly on magnitude scales, such as the Richter scale (ML) and the newer and more commonly-used moment magnitude scale (Mw). These scales are logarithmic and ramp up quickly, so for the Richter scale, each whole number increase roughly corresponds to a 31.6-fold increase in energy released.
The map above sees a concentration of these bigger magnitude earthquakes congregating heavily around both sides of the Pacific Ocean. This border is also known colloquially as the “Ring of Fire” for its persistent volcanic activity, also caused by tectonic plate movement.
But the red points representing major earthquakes registering 9+ on the Richter scale are far and few between. Here’s a list of the 20 worst earthquakes in history, based on magnitude.
|1||Valdivia Earthquake||9.5||Bio-Bio, Chile||1960-05-22|
|2||Good Friday Earthquake||9.2||Alaska, U.S.||1964-03-28|
|3||2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake||9.1||Sumatra, Indonesia||2004-12-26|
|4||Tohoku Earthquake||9.1||Honshu, Japan||2011-03-11|
|5||1952 Severo-Kurilsk Earthquake||9.0||Kamchatka, Russia||1952-11-04|
|6||Maule Earthquake||8.8||Bio-Bio, Chile||2010-02-27|
|7||1906 Ecuador–Colombia Earthquake||8.8||Ecuador||1906-01-31|
|8||Rat Islands Earthquake||8.7||Alaska, U.S.||1965-02-04|
|9||Assam-Tibet Earthquake||8.6||Assam, Tibet||1950-08-15|
|10||2012 Indian Ocean Earthquake||8.6||Sumatra, Indonesia||2012-04-11|
|11||Nias Earthquake||8.6||Sumatra, Indonesia||2005-03-28|
|12||1957 Andreanof Islands Earthquake||8.6||Alaska, U.S.||1957-03-09|
|13||Unimak Island Earthquake, Alaska||8.6||Alaska, U.S.||1946-04-01|
|14||1938 Banda Sea Earthquake||8.5||Banda Sea||1938-02-01|
|15||1922 Vallenar Earthquake||8.5||Chile-Argentina Border||1922-11-11|
|16||1963 Kuril Islands Earthquake||8.5||Kuril Islands, Russia||1963-10-13|
|17||1923 Kamchatka Earthquake||8.4||Kamchatka, Russia||1923-02-03|
|18||September 2007 Sumatra Earthquakes||8.4||Sumatra, Indonesia||2007-09-12|
|19||Peru Earthquake||8.4||Southern Peru||2001-06-23|
|20||1933 Sanriku Earthquake||8.4||Honshu, Japan||1933-03-02|
Areas near Indonesia, Russia, and Chile — all on tectonic plate boundaries — have seen half of the largest earthquakes recorded in history.
That said, there could have been earlier and larger earthquakes not recorded. Earlier civilizations lacked precise instruments to measure and document them and preserved written observations only, with some of the earliest records dating back nearly three millennia.
Can We Predict Major Earthquakes?
Despite the ability to measure both location and intensity of earthquakes (using a seismograph), scientists still cannot precisely predict exactly where, when, or at what magnitude an earthquake will occur.
However, they can measure the probability of an earthquake occurring, especially around fault zones. A famous example is “the big one” around the Cascadia subduction zone in North America which occurs every 200 to 800 years.
In areas that sit on fault lines between plates, earthquake preparedness can play a big role in mitigating risk.
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History
We visualize Earth’s history through the geological timeline to reveal the planet’s many epochs, including the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene: A New Epoch in the Earth’s History
Over the course of Earth’s history, there have been dramatic shifts in the landscape, climate, and biodiversity of the planet. And it is all archived underground.
Layers of the planet’s crust carry evidence of pivotal moments that changed the face of the Earth, such as the ice age and asteroid hits. And scientists have recently defined the next major epoch using this geological time scale—the Anthropocene.
In this infographic we dig deep into the Earth’s geological timeline to reveal the planet’s shift from one epoch to another, and the specific events that separate them.
Understanding the Geological Timeline
The Earth’s geological history is divided into many distinct units, from eons to ages. The time span of each varies, since they’re dependent on major events like new species introduction, as well as how they fit into their parent units.
|Geochronologic unit||Time span||Example|
|Eon||Several hundred million years to two billion years||Phanerozoic|
|Era||Tens to hundreds of millions of years||Cenozoic|
|Period||Millions of years to tens of millions of years||Quaternary|
|Epoch||Hundreds of thousands of years to tens of millions of years||Holocene|
|Age||Thousands of years to millions of years||Meghalayan|
Note: Subepochs (between epochs and ages) have also been ratified for use in 2022, but are not yet clearly defined.
If we were to cut a mountain in half, we could notice layers representing these changing spans of time, marked by differences in chemical composition and accumulated sediment.
Some boundaries are so distinct and so widespread in the geologic record that they are known as “golden spikes.” Golden spikes can be climatic, magnetic, biological, or isotopic (chemical).
Earth’s Geological Timeline Leading Up to the Anthropocene
The Earth has gone through many epochs leading up to the modern Anthropocene.
These include epochs like the Early Devonian, which saw the dawn of the first early shell organisms 400 million years ago, and the three Jurassic epochs, which saw dinosaurs become the dominant terrestrial vertebrates.
Over the last 11,700 years, we have been living in the Holocene epoch, a relatively stable period that enabled human civilization to flourish. But after millennia of human activity, this epoch is quickly making way for the Anthropocene.
|Epoch||Its start (MYA = Million Years Ago)|
|Anthropocene||70 Years Ago|
The Anthropocene is distinguished by a myriad of imprints on the Earth including the proliferation of plastic particles and a noticeable increase in carbon dioxide levels in sediments.
A New Chapter in Earth’s History
The clearest identified marker of this geological time shift, and the chosen golden spike for the Anthropocene, is radioactive plutonium from nuclear testing in the 1950s.
The best example has been found in the sediment of Crawford Lake in Ontario, Canada. The lake has two distinct layers of water that never intermix, causing falling sediments to settle in distinct layers at its bed over time.
While the International Commission on Stratigraphy announced the naming of the new epoch in July 2023, Crawford Lake is still in the process of getting approved as the site that marks the new epoch. If selected, our planet will officially enter the Crawfordian Age of the Anthropocene.
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