Where Do Most Earthquakes Occur in the US?

Earthquakes may just be one of the scariest natural disasters out there. That’s not to say that hurricanes, wildfires, floods, and volcanoes aren’t terrifying. They definitely are. But those disasters are often (though not always) predictable. Not so with earthquakes.

“Neither the USGS nor any other scientists have ever predicted a major earthquake,” the U.S. Geological Survey explains on its website. “We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future.”

One thing scientists do know: There will definitely be an earthquake today. Thousands of earthquakes happen every day. The only question is where those quakes will occur, how big they will be, and, for those living nearby, whether they will cause any damage. Though most quakes are so small that no one feels them, big temblors that can cause significant destruction are a real risk, especially if you live in certain parts of the country.

Where do earthquakes occur?

san francisco earthquake damage
A view of damaged buildings in San Francisco following the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. | Otto Greule Jr /Getty Images

You might think that earthquakes only happen in certain seismic hot spots around the globe, like the famous “Ring of Fire.” But that’s not the case. Earthquakes can happen anywhere. However, they are more frequent in certain areas, notes the USGS.

One is the aforementioned “Ring of Fire,” which extends from Chile along the coast of the Americas to Alaska, and then down through Japan and the Philippines to New Zealand. The other two major earthquake zones are the Alpide, which runs from Java through the Himalayas and Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean, and the mid-Atlantic ridge, an underwater mountain range in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

California and Alaska have the most earthquakes in the U.S.  

  • California has the most damaging quakes in the U.S., according to the USGS

Few will be surprised to hear that California is the earthquake capital of the U.S. Serious quakes have occurred in recent memory in the state, including the 1989 Loma Prieta quake near San Francisco, which caused 63 deaths. That quake is also famous for being broadcast on live TV, since it occurred while a World Series game was being played at Candlestick Park. In 1995, an earthquake in Northridge near Los Angeles killed 60 and caused major damage.

But those earthquakes were minor compared to “The Big One,” which experts say the Golden State is due for. There hasn’t been a magnitude 7 or greater quake on the San Andreas fault system since the infamous 1906 quake in San Francisco. In Southern California, the “earthquake drought” has lasted even longer. When a major temblor inevitably occurs, it could kill hundreds and leave thousands homeless.

Alaska is also particularly earthquake-prone, though because many occur in regions with few people, these quakes tend to get less attention.

The top 10 states for earthquakes

Earthquake damage
A crack in a roadway caused by seismic activity. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

In 2006, scientists at the University of Nevada ranked the top 10 states for seismic activity. They are:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Nevada
  • Hawaii
  • Washington
  • Wyoming
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • Utah
  • Oregon

Just because your state isn’t on this list doesn’t mean you’re standing on solid ground, though. Some of the biggest earthquakes in U.S. history happened in the New Madrid Seismic Zone in 1811 and 1812. This area, which includes parts of southern Illinois, southeastern Missouri, northeastern Arkansas, and western Kentucky and Tennessee, could also experience a major quake in the future. Memphis and St. Louis are among the major cities at risk.

Earthquakes also happen on the East Coast, and unlike their Western counterparts, their effects might be felt much further away. Not only that, but the older buildings in the east are more vulnerable to earthquake damage. A 2011 earthquake in Virginia damaged buildings in Washington, D.C., for example. Other quakes have recently struck Delaware, North Carolina, and Maine, though they have been fairly minor.

In 1886 a magnitude 7.6 earthquake occurred near Charleston, South Carolina, and killed 100 people. Experts even say that New York City could be at risk for a serious quake.

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