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Visualizing the Power and Frequency of Earthquakes

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Earthquake Magnitude

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Visualizing the Power and Frequency of Earthquakes

The surface of our planet is in a constant state of creation and destruction as the plates of the Earth collide. It is this movement of the Earth’s crust that causes earthquakes, sending tremors throughout the world.

Today’s graphic is inspired by a classic USGS diagram that tracks the scale and frequency of earthquakes.

Shifting Foundations

Earthquakes occur because the crust of the Earth is made up of several plates. The boundaries of these plates create faults that can run into one another.

Earthquakes describe both the mechanism that causes a sudden stress release along plate boundaries and also the ensuing ground shaking.

They occur when stress builds up along a tectonic fault. This stress causes the two surfaces of the fault, which had previously been stuck together due to friction, to suddenly move, or slide, releasing energy in the form of seismic waves.

Measuring an Earthquake’s Impact

There are three factors to assess the impact of Earthquakes – magnitude, energy, and intensity.

Magnitude is a number most commonly associated with the Richter scale, describing the size of an Earthquake on a scale from 0 to 10 – the latter of which is the maximum motion recorded by a seismograph. Each increase by one on the scale represents a tenfold increase in the amplitude. There are over a million tremors around the planet each year, but it’s not until an earthquake reaches a magnitude of 4 that humans can typically feel it.

Another way to measure the size of an earthquake is by how much energy it releases. The amount of energy radiated by an earthquake is a measure of the potential for damage to man-made structures.

An earthquake releases energy at various frequencies, and in order to calculate accurately, you have to include all frequencies of shaking for the entire event. Some research suggests technology could harness this energy for power generation.

Intensity describes the severity of an earthquake with a qualitative evaluation of its effects on the Earth’s surface and on the built environment. An earthquake may have a high magnitude but if a city or landscape experiences little damage, it can be said that the intensity is low. The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale measures this intensity.

The World’s Largest Earthquakes by Magnitude

Prior to the development and use of seismographs, around 1900, scientists could only estimate magnitudes, based on historical reports of the extent and severity of damage.

DateLocationMagnitude
May 22, 1960Valdivia, Chile9.4-9.6
March 27, 1964Prince William Sound, Alaska9.2
Dec. 26, 2004Indian Ocean, Sumatra, Indonesia9.1
March 11, 2011Pacific Ocean, Tohoku Region, Japan9.1
July 8, 1730Valparaiso, Chile9.1-9.3 (est.)
Nov. 4, 1952Kamchatka, Russia9
Aug. 13, 1868Arica, Chile8.5-9.0 (est.)
January 26, 1700Pacific Coast, Modern Day British Columbia8.7-9.2 (est.)
April 2, 1762Chittagong, Bangladesh8.8 (est.)
Nov. 25, 1833Sumatra Indonesia8.8 (est.)

Earthquakes are a fact of life on Earth and mark distinct moments in history. One would think given our knowledge of earthquakes, that humans would avoid these locations – however, the very faults of the Earth also create its greatest advantages.

Living with Your Faults

It’s extremely common to find human settlements along the fault lines where earthquakes occur most frequently. Some could say that this is because these decisions were made before a complete understanding of science enabled us to know the potential risks involved.

However, a recent scientific study reveals that there may be more to the pattern than previously thought. Tectonically active plates may have produced greater biodiversity, more food, and water for our human predecessors.

Certain landscape features formed by tectonic processes such as cliffs, river gorges, and sedimentary valleys create environments that support access to drinking water, shelter, and an abundant food supply.

This inherent problem reveals that humans are more connected to their environments than previously thought. It comes down to a question of how well humans can adapt their lifestyle and built environments to a dynamic planet.

Now let’s worry about the asteroids

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Demographics

Visualizing Population Density Patterns in Six Countries

These maps show the population density of several countries, using 3D spikes to denote where more people live.

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beautifully rendered population density maps of six major countries

As of 2022, Earth has 8 billion humans. By 2050, the population is projected to grow to 10 billion.

In the last 100 years, the global population more than quadrupled. But none of this growth has been evenly spread out, including within countries.

This series of 3D maps from Terence Teo, an associate professor at Seton Hall University, renders the population density of six countries using open-source data from Kontur Population. He used popular programming language R and a path-tracing package, Rayshader, to create the maps.

France and Germany: Population Density Spikes and Troughs

Let’s take a look at how the population spreads out in different countries around the world. Click the images to explore higher-resolution versions.

This image shows a map of France and its population spread.

France is the world’s 7th largest economy and second-most-populous country in the EU with 65 million people. But a staggering one-fifth of the French population lives in Paris and its surrounding metro—the most populous urban area in Europe.

Many residents in the Paris metropolitan area are employed in the service sector, which makes up one-third of France’s $2.78 trillion gross domestic product.

This image shows a map of Germany and its population spread.

Unlike France, Germany has many dense cities and regions, with Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, and Cologne all having over a million residents. Berlin is the most populated at 3.5 million residents in the city proper, and 6 million in the wider urban area.

That said, the relatively recent reunification of West and East Germany in 1991 meant that post-WWII growth was mostly concentrated in West Germany (and West Berlin).

Italy and Chile: Coast to Coast

In Italy, another phenomenon affects population density and urban development—a sprawling coastline.

This image shows a map of Italy and its population spread.

Despite having a large population of 59 million and large metropolitan areas throughout, Italy’s population spikes are closer to the water.

The port cities of Genoa, Napoli, and Palermo all have large spikes relative to the rest of the country, as does the capital, Rome. Despite its city center located 15 miles inland from the sea, it extends to the shore through the district of Ostia, where the ancient port of Rome existed.

This image shows a map of Chile and its population spread.

Meanwhile in Chile, stuck between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, population spikes corroborate with its many port towns and cities.

However, the country is more concentrated than Italy, with 40% of its residents congregating around the capital of Santiago.

Turkey and Canada: Marred by Mountains and Climes

Though Chile has difficulties with terrain, it is relatively consistent. Other countries have to attempt to settle many different climes—regions defined by their climates.

This image shows a map of Türkiye and its population spread.

Mountains to the south and east, a large, semi-arid plateau, and even a small desert leave few centers of urban growth in Türkiye.

Predictably, further west, as the elevation comes down to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, population spikes begin to heighten. The largest of course is the economic and cultural hub of Istanbul, though the capital Ankara is also prominent with more than 5 million residents.

This image shows a map of Canada and its population spread.

In Canada, the Rocky Mountains to the west and freezing cold temperatures in the center and north account for the large country’s relative emptiness.

Though population spikes in Western Canada are growing rapidly, highly populous urban centers are noticeably concentrated along the St. Lawrence River, with the Greater Toronto Area accounting for more than one-sixth of the country’s 39 million people.

Increasing Urbanization

According to the World Bank, more than half of the world’s population currently lives in cities, and that trend is only growing.

By 2050, 7 out of 10 people are projected to live in cities. This congregation makes cities a beehive of productivity and innovation—with more than 80% of the world’s GDP being generated at these population centers.

It’s in this context that mapping and studying urban development becomes all the more important, particularly as policymakers try their hand at sustainable urban planning.

As Teo puts it:

“By showing where people are (and are not), they show us where political and economic power is concentrated, and perhaps where and who our governments represent.”

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