7 Biggest Earthquakes in California History—Napa's Not Even Close

The state has been home to many of the highest magnitude shake-ups in the contiguous United States.

A California winemaker assesses damage to wine stocks following an earthquake in storied Napa Valley on Sunday, Aug. 24, 2014.


The earthquake that rattled Napa Valley wine country early Sunday morning clocked in at a magnitude 6.0. That was big enough to be felt across the Bay Area and to damage buildings, spark fires, and cause injuries in this populated region.

But it was far from the biggest in a state that was home to five of the ten biggest quakes on record in the lower 48 U.S. states. (Related: "What Caused California's Napa Valley Earthquake? Faults Explained.")

Sunday's shake-up was one of the largest to strike northern California since the magnitude 6.9 Loma Prieta quake in 1989. But quakes of magnitude 6.0 and greater are not uncommon historically along California's network of faults, notably the San Andreas.

The buildup and periodic release of seismic pressure along the northern San Andreas fault in the 1800s produced a series of magnitude 6.0 or greater earthquakes, leading up to the famous 1906 San Francisco magnitude 7.8 earthquake, says John Rundle, a geophysicist at the University of California, Davis. And that pressure is building again, seismologists think. "History will not necessarily repeat itself, but we might see something similar," he added.

As for the biggest quakes in recorded history, size estimates vary. Over the past century, the ways that earthquake magnitude and intensity are recorded have changed with improving seismic measurements. The well-known Richter scale was devised in the 1930s to describe the relative sizes of earthquakes in southern California. In the 1970s, the moment magnitude scale was introduced to describe the physical size of an earthquake, and is preferred for very large earthquakes.

Here are the biggest earthquakes in California's recorded history, according to magnitude estimates from the U.S Geological Survey.

1. Fort Tejon; January 9, 1857
Magnitude 7.9

Often compared to the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Fort Tejon quake actually caused larger average ground movements than the more famous 1906 quake. Horizontal displacement along the fault was as much as 29.5 feet (9 meters). The rupture, which shook the San Andreas fault north of Los Angeles, set off tremors felt throughout northern and southern California and inland as far east as Las Vegas. One person died when an adobe house collapsed.

2. Owens Valley; March 26, 1872
Magnitude 7.4

Twenty-seven people were killed when a row of houses collapsed in Lone Pine, east of the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the early morning. Both dip-slip and strike-slip faulting, referring to vertical and horizontal movements of the Earth's crust, occurred on the Owens Valley fault, moving the ground horizontally as much as 23 feet (seven meters) and vertically an average of three feet (one meter). The earthquake was felt throughout California and into Nevada. It stopped clocks in San Diego and caused an estimated $250,000 of property loss, a large amount of money at the time.

3. Imperial Valley; February 24, 1892
Magnitude 7.8

Ground fissures and rock slides, crumbled adobe and plaster, and some 155 tremors followed this quake that struck near Baja, California. Both dip-slip and strike-slip movement probably produced the earthquake on the Laguna Salada fault. Aftershocks continued every few days through April 1892. But the earthquake affected a largely uninhabited region, and no deaths were reported.

The "Great Quake" of 1906 left the city of San Francisco severely damaged. It remains one of the most significant earthquakes in U.S. history.


4. San Francisco; April 18, 1906
Magnitude 7.8

Striking early in the morning, the "Great Quake" of 1906 left more than 80 percent of the city damaged from the quake itself and from fires. With the quake's epicenter near San Francisco, tremors from the shaking caused by rupture and horizontal displacement of the San Andreas fault were felt from southern Oregon to southern California and inland to central Nevada. Although some estimates place the number of deaths from the earthquake and fires at around 700, the number is now thought to be at least 3,000.

The 1906 earthquake remains one of the most significant earthquakes in U.S. history. Scientists study the quake as an example of seismic cycles in the Bay Area in which a huge quake, of magnitude 7.0 or more, is preceded by a series of smaller earthquakes.

5. West of Eureka; January 31, 1922
Magnitude 7.3

This offshore quake caused by the Mendocino fault off the coast of northern California was felt from Eugene, Oregon, to San Francisco. In 1992, a series of earthquakes greater than magnitude 6.5 struck over an 18-hour period in the same region. In 2010, another magnitude 6.5 offshore earthquake shook coastal Eureka, breaking windows and snapping power lines.

A predawn earthquake near Tehachapi, California, on July 21, 1952, killed 12 people and injured dozens more.


6. Kern County; July 21, 1952
Magnitude 7.3

The largest temblor in the lower 48 United States since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, this quake caused property damage estimated at $60 million and claimed 12 lives. The shock was felt over most of California, in western Arizona, and in western Nevada. Nearly 200 aftershocks of magnitude greater than 4.0 were recorded through September 1952.

7. Landers; June 28, 1992
Magnitude 7.3

This early morning quake with an epicenter near the southern California town of Landers shifted the ground horizontally as much as 18 feet (5.5 meters) and vertically as much as 5.9 feet (1.8 meters). Three people died and more than 400 were injured. The shaking was felt throughout southern California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, as far north as Idaho, east to New Mexico and Colorado.

Although the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake didn't make it into the U.S. Geological Survey's top 7 biggest California earthquakes, it is perhaps the best remembered today since it occurred during the 1989 World Series, caused 63 deaths and more than 3,000 injuries.


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