Discover the Major Earthquake Zones of the 7 Continents

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 deaths. Scientists divided the globe into 20 regions of seismic activity, conducted fresh research and studied records of past quakes.

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Seismic Hazard Map of the World

Global seismic hazard map of the world

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. Discover the most active earthquake zones on each of the seven continents with this guide.

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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 can be 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 Prince William Sound in Alaska.  

Another zone of activity stretches along the coast from British Columbia to Baja Mexico 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 helped level 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.

Other areas of lesser earthquake activity include the New Madrid fault region where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers converge near Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois. Another region forms an arc from Jamaica to southeastern Cuba and across Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

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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. This activity is due to a number of continental plates colliding with the South American plate. Four of the 10 strongest earthquakes 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 nearby in 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 in some areas. Peru has also had its share of earthquake tragedy.

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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 again in Japan, which lies astride three continental plates. More earthquakes are recorded in Japan than 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 its border with Pakistan and along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea. 

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Western Europe map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

Northern Europe is largely free of major earthquake zones, except for a region centered 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 where it jabs 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.

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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, particularly Lebanon, is one noteworthy region. There, the Arabian plate collides with the Eur-Asian 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.

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Australia and New Zealand

Australia map
Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program

Australia and New Zealand are a study in seismic contrast. While the continental of Australia has a low to moderate risk of quakes overall, its smaller island neighbor is another 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 thrust some parts of the landscape 20 feet higher in elevation.

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What About 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 with the other six continents, Antarctica is the least active in terms of earthquakes. Part of 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. But in general, Antarctica is seismically quiet.