The World's Major Earthquake Zones

The Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program was a multi-year project sponsored by the United Nations that assembled the first consistent worldwide map of earthquake zones.

The project was designed to help nations prepare for future earthquakes and take steps to mitigate potential damage and reduce deaths. Scientists divided the globe into 20 regions of seismic activity, conducted research, and studied records of past quakes.

Seismic Hazard Map of the World

Global seismic hazard map of the world
GSHAP

The result was the most accurate map of global seismic activity to date. Although the project ended in 1999, the data it accumulated remains accessible, including maps of the world's most active earthquake zones.

North America

48 US states map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

There are several major earthquake zones in North America. One of the most notable is found on Alaska's central coast, extending north to Anchorage and Fairbanks. In 1964, one of the most powerful earthquakes in modern history, measuring 9.2 on the Richter scale, struck Alaska's Prince William Sound.

Another zone of activity stretches along the coast from British Columbia to the Baja California Peninsula, where the Pacific plate rubs against the North American plate. California's Central Valley, San Francisco Bay Area, and much of Southern California are crisscrossed with active fault lines that have spawned a number of notable quakes, including the magnitude 7.7 temblor that leveled San Francisco in 1906.

In Mexico, an active quake zone follows the western Sierras south from near Puerta Vallarta to the Pacific coast at the Guatemala border. In fact, most of the western coast of Central America is seismically active, as the Cocos plate rubs against the Caribbean plate. The eastern edge of North America is quiet by comparison, though there is a small zone of activity near the entry to the St. Lawrence River in Canada.

South America

South America map, north half
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

South America's most active earthquake zones stretch the length of the continent's Pacific border. A second notable seismic region runs along the Caribbean coast of Colombia and Venezuela. Activity here is due to a number of continental plates colliding with the South American plate. Four of the 10 strongest earthquakes ever recorded have occurred in South America.

In fact, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded took place in central Chile in May 1960, when a magnitude 9.5 quake hit near Saavedra. More than 2 million people were left homeless and almost 5,000 killed. A half century later, a magnitude 8.8 temblor struck near the city of Concepcion in 2010. About 500 people died and 800,000 were left homeless, and the nearby Chilean capital of Santiago sustained serious damage. Peru has also had its share of earthquake tragedies.

Asia

Central Asia map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

Asia is a hotbed of earthquake activity, particularly where the Australian plate wraps around the Indonesian archipelago, and also in Japan, which lies astride three continental plates. More earthquakes are recorded in Japan than in any other place on earth. The nations of Indonesia, Fiji, and Tonga also experience record numbers of earthquakes annually. When a 9.1 earthquake struck the western coast of Sumatra in 2014, it generated the largest tsunami in recorded history.

More than 200,000 people died in the resulting inundation. Other major historical quakes include a 9.0 quake on Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula in 1952 and an 8.6 magnitude quake that struck Tibet in 1950. Scientists as far away as Norway felt that quake.

Central Asia is another of the world's major earthquake zones. The greatest activity occurs along a swath of territory extending from the eastern shores of the Black Sea down through Iran and along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea.

Europe

Western Europe map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

Northern Europe is largely free of major earthquake zones, except for a region around western Iceland known also for its volcanic activity. The risk of seismic activity increases as you move southeast toward Turkey and along portions of the Mediterranean coast.

In both instances, the quakes are caused by the African continental plate pushing upward into the Eurasian plate beneath the Adriatic Sea. The Portuguese capital of Lisbon was practically leveled in 1755 by a magnitude 8.7 quake, one of the strongest ever recorded. Central Italy and western Turkey are also epicenters of quake activity.

Africa

Africa map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

Africa has far fewer earthquake zones than other continents, with little to no activity across much of the Sahara and central part of the continent. There are pockets of activity, however. The eastern Mediterranean coast, including Lebanon, is one noteworthy region. There, the Arabian plate collides with the Eurasian and African plates.

The region near the Horn of Africa is another active area. One of the most powerful African earthquakes in recorded history occurred in December 1910, when a 7.8 quake struck western Tanzania.

Australia and New Zealand

Australia map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

Australia and New Zealand are a study in seismic contrast. While the continent of Australia has a low to moderate risk of quakes overall, its smaller island neighbor is one of the world's earthquake hot spots. New Zealand's most powerful temblor stuck in 1855 and measured 8.2 on the Richter scale. According to historians, the Wairarapa quake caused some parts of the landscape to become 20 feet higher in elevation.

Antarctica

View toward the NNE from Rothera Research Station (on Adelaide Island) over Laubeuf Fjord. At the centre is Webb Island. On the left are some ice cliffs from the Wormald Ice Piedmont (also on Adelaide Island). The distant mountain behind the ice piedmont is probably the Mount St. Louis Massif (1280 m) on Arrowsmith Peninsula on the Antarctic mainland, 53 km from Rothera. The somewhat darker mountains on the right are on Wyatt Island in Laubeuf Fjord.
Vincent van Zeijst/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0

Compared to the other six continents, Antarctica is the least active in terms of earthquakes. This is because very little of its land mass lies on or near the intersection of continental plates. One exception is the region around Tierra del Fuego in South America, where the Antarctic plate meets the Scotia plate. Antarctica's biggest quake, a magnitude 8.1 event, occurred in 1998 in the Balleny Islands, which are south of New Zealand. In general, though, Antarctica is seismically quiet.