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Every time there's news of a major earthquake, one of the first facts we look for--or find splashed all over the news--is the Richter scale rating of the particular earthquake. However, do we really understand what that means?
The Richter (magnitude) scale is a tool used for identifying the power of earthquakes. Conceptualized and developed in 1935 by Charles F. Richter at the California Institute of Technology, it was created to be a mathematical device that would enable comparisons between the sizes of earthquakes. It is a logarithmic scale in which the magnitude is a base-10 logarithmic scale that can be calculated by obtaining the logarithm of the amplitude of waves measured by a seismograph.
How It Works
When an earthquake strikes, seismic waves--or vibrations from the earthquake--travel through the Earth and are quickly recorded by instruments called seismographs. They record a zig-zag trace showcasing the varying amplitudes of the ground's oscillations and finally, the mathematical Richter scale is brought into play. It takes all this wave data and determines the magnitude of the earthquake.
This magnitude is always expressed in whole numbers and decimal fractions and judging by these numbers, one can estimate how strong the earthquake was. For example, while a 5.0 magnitude might imply a moderate tremor, an earthquake with a Richter scale value of 7.4 would be extremely strong! Due to the logarithmic basis of the scale, each whole number represents a tenfold increase in this measured amplitude or 31 times more energy release than the amount associated with the whole number value. So a 7 on the Richter scale implies an earthquake 100 times stronger than one that's rated at a 5!
The biggest earthquake to ever be recorded by this scale in history occurred in 1960, in Chile. It killed 1900 people, caused $4 billion worth of damage, and recorded a whopping 9.5 on the Richter Scale! Though earthquakes have not yet gone beyond this intensity, this scale has no upper limit.
Currently, there are several other--and far more elaborate--scales being devised to give a more detailed understanding of earthquakes' magnitudes. And since the Richter Scale doesn't express damage, it's not exactly 100 percent accurate. Still, it's the simplest--and most commonly used--mathematical tool for earthquake magnitude measurement.
-Pictures courtesy Thinkstock-
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