Seismologists use a Magnitude scale to express the seismic energy released by each earthquake. Here are the typical effects of earthquakes in various magnitude ranges.
Richter Magnitudes Earthquake Effects <3.5 Generally not felt, but recorded 3.5-5.4 Often felt, but rarely causes damage Under 6.0 At most slight damage to well-designed buildings. Can cause major damage to poorly constructed buildings over small regions 6.1-6.9 Can be destructive in areas up to about 100 kilometers across where people live 7.0-7.9 Major earthquake. Can cause serious damage over larger areas 8 or greater Great earthquake. Can cause serious damage in areas several hundred kilometers across.
Magnitude Energy Yield (approximate) 3.5 73 tons 5.5 80,000 tons Little Skull Mtn., NV Quake, 1992 6.0 1 million tons Double Spring Flat, NV Quake, 1994 6.5 5 million tons Northridge, CA Quake, 1994 7.0 32 million tons Hyogo-Ken Nanbu, Japan Quake, 1995; Largest Thermonuclear Weapon 7.5 160 million tons Landers, CA Quake, 1992 8.0 1 billion tons San Francisco, CA Quake, 1906 8.5 5 billion tons Anchorage, AK Quake, 1964 9.0 32 billion tons Chilean Quake, 1960
Most seismologists prefer to use the seismic moment to estimate earthquake magnitudes.
Finding an earthquake fault's length, depth, and its slip can take several days, weeks, or even months after a big earthquake. Geologists' mapping of the earthquake's fault breaks, or seismologists' plotting of the spatial distribution of aftershocks, can give these parameters after a substantial effort.
But some large earthquakes, and most small earthquakes, show neither surface fault breaks nor enough aftershocks to estimate magnitudes the way we have above. However, seismologists have developed ways to estimate the seismic moment directly from seismograms using computer processing methods.
The Centroid Moment Tensor Project at Harvard University has been routinely estimating moments of large earthquakes around the world by seismogram inversion since 1982.