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A photo of a winemaker standing among toppled wine barrels after the earthquake in Napa on August 24, 2014.

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

Photograph by Eric Risberg, AP

Jessica Morrison

for National Geographic

Published August 25, 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.

A photo of the Painted Sister houses off of their foundations after the 1906 earthquake.
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.
Photograph by Buyenlarge, Getty

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 photo of buildings on the street in Tehachapi, California, collapsed after the 1952 earthquake.
A predawn earthquake near Tehachapi, California, on July 21, 1952, killed 12 people and injured dozens more.
Photograph by AP

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.

A photo of the collapsed Cyprus Structure after the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.
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.
Photograph by Dave Bartruff, Corbis

RELATED

— "What Caused California's Napa Valley Earthquake? Quakes Explained"

— "Earthquake Map Reveals Higher Risks for Much of the U.S."

— "Bizarre Earthquake Lights Finally Explained"

— "Scientists Seek Foolproof Signal to Predict Earthquakes"

11 comments
J E Garrett
J E Garrett

The biggest earthquake in California history is not on this list! It was the 1812 earthquake which devastated buildings, property and lives from San Francisco to San Diego, and caused a tsunami that swept the Ventura mission into the sea. That quake has been estimated at something near a magnitude 8.0.

Tyler Reed
Tyler Reed

The residents of Napa Valley were demanding an early warning system. Allow me to help out and save you fine folks a ton of time and money: WATCH OUT! YOU LIVE ON A MAJOR FAULT! ALL YOUR CRAP IS GONNA GET BUSTED AND YOU WILL LIKELY DIE!  


You are welcome.

Doug Williams
Doug Williams

why build in a quake zone  you know your gonna get hit ,same gose for beach houses ,why build them so close to the ocean ,they know there gonna get hit with a hurricane .why build Louisiana 15 ft under  sea level  we all saw what happened there . then when something hit they all go WHY ME  and expect the government to give them m0ney to build it right back .. .the hole thing is just stupid from the get go

 .

John Tyler
John Tyler

That photo of the damaged freeway doesn't look as horrific as it was.  The top level of the freeway feel onto the bottom level crushing everyone on the lower level.

Marcio Tonello
Marcio Tonello

Unfortunately this type of natural event is part of our planet. Our planet is moving. Our planet is alive.

G Pigdish
G Pigdish

@Doug Williams

OK, no living near fault zones, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, flood zones, fire prone areas, dust bowls, drought prone areas. Gee Doug, can we all come live with you?

Pierre Avignon
Pierre Avignon

@Doug Williams A hundered or even just decades ago, those risks weren't very well understood. People settled where climate and opportunities were best, reasons for quakes were often linked to divine superstitions. People in SF even blamed the Chinese immigrants for the 1906 quake... 

Then people adapt, engineer new ways of building habitats that can sustain those disasters. People have been known to come back to areas devastated by volcanic eruptions because of the fertility of the land. History, tradition, opportunities, people become resilient and favor a sense of community to some place where nothing ever happens.

The "why me" is often an interpretation of the reader. Louisiana was a bit different as there were many warning signs ignored by authorities and the poorest residents were hit most.

It is also all relative. We live on an island off the coast of Maine, and we don't consider the place to be anymore at risk than anywhere in North Carolina. 

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