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Earthquake Risk in New Jersey

by Daniel R. Dombroski, Jr.

in Acrobat™ PDF
What is an Earthquake? How are Earthquakes
Modified Mercalli Scale
Past damage in NJ Table of Damaging
Eartquakes felt in NJ
Area affected by Eastern
Geologic Faults and
Earthquakes in NJ
Frequency of damaging
Earthquakes in NJ
Earthquake Frequency
Buildings and Earthquakes How to prepare for an
What to do during an
Sources of Earthquake
NJGS earthquake

Epicenter What is an earthquake?

In New Jersey earthquakes usually occur when slowly accumulated
strain within the Earth's crust is suddenly released along a fault. The
energy from this movement travels as seismic waves along the ground
surface and within the crust. The arrival of this released energy is felt
as an earthquake.

How are earthquakes measured?

The measure of an earthquake's strength is expressed as magnitude,
and is determined by using an instrument called a seismograph.
Magnitude values are expressed according to a scale in which an
increase of 1 represents a 10--fold increase in amplitude of the seismic

A 10--fold increase in amplitude represents about a 32--fold increase in energy released for the
same duration of shaking. The best known magnitude scale is one designed by C.F. Richter in 1935 for
west coast earthquakes.

In New Jersey, earthquakes are measured with seismographs operated by the Lamont--Doherty Earth
Observatory of Columbia University and the Delaware Geological Survey.

An earthquake's intensity is determined by observing its effects at a particular place on the Earth's
surface. Intensity depends on the earthquake's magnitude, the distance from the epicenter, and local
geology. These scales are based on reports of people awakening, felt movements, sounds, and visible
effects on structures and landscapes. The most commonly used scale in the United States is the
Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, and its values are usually reported in Roman numerals to distinguish
them from magnitudes.


Past damage in New Jersey

New Jersey doesn't get many earthquakes, but it does get some. Fortunately most are small. A few
New Jersey earthquakes, as well as a few originating outside the state, have produced enough damage
to warrant the concern of planners and emergency managers.

Damage in New Jersey from earthquakes has been minor: items knocked off shelves, cracked plaster
and masonry, and fallen chimneys. Perhaps because no one was standing under a chimney when it fell,
there are no recorded earthquake--related deaths in New Jersey. We will probably not be so fortunate
in the future.

Area Affected by Eastern Earthquakes

Although the United States east of the Rocky Mountains has fewer
and generally smaller earthquakes than the West, at least two factors
increase the earthquake risk in New Jersey and the East. Due to
geologic differences, eastern earthquakes effect areas ten times larger
than western ones of the same magnitude. Also, the eastern United
States is more densely populated, and New Jersey is the most densely
populated state in the nation.


Geologic Faults and Earthquakes in New Jersey

Although there are many faults in New Jersey, the Ramapo Fault, which
separates the Piedmont and Highlands Physiographic Provinces, is the best
known. In 1884 it was blamed for a damaging New York City earthquake
simply because it was the only large fault mapped at the time. Subsequent
investigations have shown the 1884 earthquake epicenter was actually
located in Brooklyn, New York, at least 25 miles from the Ramapo Fault.

However, numerous minor earthquakes have been recorded in the Ramapo
Fault Zone, a 10 to 20 mile wide area lying adjacent to, and west of, the
actual fault.

More recently, in the 1970's and early 1980's, earthquake risk along the Ramapo Fault received
attention because of its proximity to the Indian Point, New York, Nuclear Power Generating Station.
East of the Rocky Mountains (including New Jersey), earthquakes do not break the ground surface.
Their focuses lie at least a few miles below the Earth's surface, and their locations are determined by
interpreting seismographic records. Geologic fault lines seen on the surface today are evidence of
ancient events. The presence or absence of mapped faults (fault lines) does not denote either a seismic
hazard or the lack of one, and earthquakes can occur anywhere in New Jersey.


Frequency of Damaging Earthquakes in New Jersey

Records for the New York City area, which have been kept for 300 years, provide good information
for estimating the frequency of earthquakes in New Jersey.

Earthquakes with a maximum intensity of VII (see table Damaging Earthquakes Felt in New Jersey )
have occurred in the New York City area in 1737, 1783, and 1884. One intensity VI, four intensity V's,
and at least three intensity III shocks have also occurred in the New York area over the last 300 years.

The time--spans between the intensity VII earthquakes were 46 and 101 years. This, and data for the
smaller--intensity quakes, implies a return period of 100 years or less, and suggests New Jersey is
overdue for a moderate earthquake like the one of 1884.

Table of Earthquake Frequency Worldwide


Buildings and Earthquakes

The 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, is an example of what might happen in New Jersey in a similar
quake. It registered a magnitude 7.2 on the Richter scale and produced widespread destruction. But it
was the age of construction, soil and foundation condition, proximity to the fault, and type of structure
that were the major determining factors in the performance of each building. Newer structures, built to
the latest construction standards, appeared to perform relatively well, generally ensuring the life safety
of occupants.

New Jersey's building code has some provisions for earthquake--resistant design. But there are no
requirements for retrofitting existing buildings -- not even for unreinforced masonry structures that are
most vulnerable to earthquake damage. Housing of this type is common in New Jersey's crowded
urban areas. If an earthquake the size of New York City's 1884 quake (magnitude 5.5) were to
occur today, severe damage would result. Fatalities would be likely.

Structures have collapsed in New Jersey without earthquakes; an earthquake would trigger many
more. Building and housing codes need to be updated and strictly enforced to properly prepare for
inevitable future earthquakes.


How to Prepare for an Earthquake


- Maintain emergency supplies of food, water (at least one gallon per day per person), prescribed
medicines, etc., sufficient for three days.

- Rotate these with normal stocks to keep supplies fresh.

- Replace water every 6 months.

Emergency items

- Emergency items to have on hand should include:

- Fire extinguishers

- First--aid supplies and manual

- Battery--powered radio

- Flashlights with extra batteries.
(Replace or rotate batteries periodically)

- Nonelectric can opener

Secure unstable furniture and other items

- Secure unstable furniture and heavy items that might fall in a quake (book cases, files, shelving,
TV's, computers, vases, etc.).

- Put heavy and large objects on lower shelves.

- Store glass, china and bottled foods in low, closed cabinets with latches.

- Heavy pictures and mirrors should be hung away from beds, chairs and couches.

- Tightly fasten overhead light fixtures.

- Strap water heaters and furnaces to walls, because the plumbing is not strong enough to support
them in an earthquake. A broken gas pipe could lead to a fire.

- Keep pesticides, herbicides and flammable items in closed, latched cabinets on bottom shelves.

Identify safe places inside and outside

- Under sturdy furniture like a heavy table or desk.

- Against an inside wall.

- Away from glass that might shatter (windows, mirror, pictures) or where heavy furniture like
bookcases could fall.

- Locate places outdoors away from buildings, trees, telephone and electrical lines, overpasses, or
elevated roadways.


What to do During a Strong Earthquake


- Move away from windows, glass doors, furniture or other objects that might fall.

- Get under a sturdy table, or under a doorway of an interior wall.

- Stay in the building unless it is clearly unsafe, or you are told to leave. Leaving a building during
the shaking of an earthquake is very dangerous because objects can fall on you.

- Use stairs. Elevators may lose power or fall.


- Move away from buildings (glass and debris may fall).

- Move away from trees, utility poles, overhead electric wires.

- Avoid highway underpasses, and other structures that might collapse.

In a car

- Drive to (or stay in) open areas away from danger of falling objects, power lines, etc.

- Vacate bridges, tunnels and underpasses.

- Watch traffic, other drivers may be disoriented, or out of control.

- Once in an open area, stay in your car.

What to do If You Think You Feel an Earthquake:

- Ask your neighbors if they felt it too.

- Check with your local police.

- Call your local newspapers and radio stations

or the

New Jersey Geological and Water Survey:

(609) 292-2576 or (609) 292-1185


USGS "Did You Feel It?" site.

What to do After an Earthquake

Expect and Check

- Expect aftershocks. They cause additional damage and can collapse weakened structures.

- Expect to be on your own for some time, perhaps two days or more.

- Check for injured or trapped. Render assistance and first aid as needed.

- Check for gas or smoke odors.

- Check for building structural damage and general safety.


- Flipping an electric switch causes sparks that will trigger explosions around gas leaks, as will
cigarettes, candles and matches.

- Use flashlights, they are safe.

- Remain calm, and beware of panic in crowded places.

- Open closet and cupboard doors cautiously.

- Clean up spills of hazardous liquids, such as medicines and flammables.

- Clean up broken glass and other debris.

- Inspect chimneys carefully. Damage could lead to fire.

- Leave gas-main on unless you smell gas.

- Leave electric-main on unless you know the lines are damaged and unsafe.

- If you turn off a utility-main after a disaster, only the utility company is allowed to turn it on
again -- after they have determined it is safe. This may leave you without heat or light for several


- Water can be obtained from canned vegetables, melted frozen foods or ice, hot-water-heater
drain valves (even if water main is off), and from toilet tanks (not bowls).


- There may be significant behavioral changes in pets after an earthquake. Cats and dogs that are
normally friendly and quiet may become aggressive or defensive. Watch them closely. Leash dogs
or place them in a fenced yard.


Sources of Earthquake Information:

New Jersey Geological and Water Survey

State Geologist
P.O. Box 420
Mail Code:29-01
Trenton, NJ 08625-0420

Phone: (609) 292-2576 or 292-1185

FAX: (609) 633-1004


Survey earthquake publications:

- Digital Geodata Series DGS04-1 Earthquakes Epicentered in New Jersey

- Earthquakes in New Jersey, Dombroski, Daniel R., Jr., 1973, revised 1977, 30 p., 1 illus.

- Catalog of New Jersey Earthquakes through 1990, Dombroski, Daniel R., Jr., 1992, 30 p.,
2 illus. (GSR 31).

New Jersey State Police

Tom Giordano
Office of Emergency Management
Preparedness Unit
Box 7068 River Road
West Trenton, NJ 08628--0068

Phone: (609)538-6008

U.S. Geological Survey

Phone: 1-888-ASK-USGS

Internet: or

Lamont-Doherty Cooperative Seismographic Network

Phone: 845-365-8554


County Offices of Emergency Management

see your local phone book's blue-pages for number.



Amplitude -- A seismic wave amplitude is how far the ground shakes up and down or side to side.
To determine magnitudes, the amplitudes measured by seismographs are adjusted for distance of the
seismograph to the epicenter.

Earthquake-- A sudden motion or trembling in the Earth caused by the abrupt release of strain,
slowly accumulated by faulting, or volcanic activity.

Epicenter -- The point on the surface directly above the focus.

Fault -- A fracture--surface in the Earth's crust along which sliding motion has taken place in the past.
See also, fault line. Types of faults and motion.

Fault Line -- The trace of a fault on the surface, frequently exposed by erosion. Often simply called a

Focus or Hypocenter -- The location of an earthquake within the crust.

Highlands -- a relatively large area of elevated or mountainous land standing above adjacent low

Intensity -- The severity of the effects of an earthquake. The intensity of an earthquake is different
at different locations. Intensities are given in Roman numerals to distinguish them from magnitudes.

Magnitude -- A measure of an earthquake's size. Magnitude is determined by various methods.
Magnitude is an index of the amplitude of the seismic waves created by an earthquake. An increase
of one magnitude unit represents a ten--fold amplitude increase. This ten--fold amplitude increase
represents about a 32--fold energy increase, for the same duration of shaking (larger quakes
generally last longer, releasing even more energy).

Modified Mercalli Intensity -- The intensity scale most commonly used in the United States.
(see table above)

Physiographic province -- A region with similar geologic structure and history, and whose features
and landforms differ significantly from that of adjacent regions.

Piedmont -- an area lying or formed at the base of a mountain or mountain range.

Richter Magnitude -- The first widely used magnitude scale. It was developed by Charles F.
Richter for west--coast earthquakes.

Return Period or Recurrence Rate -- The average amount of time between earthquakes of similar
size and location. They are determined from our short 300--year historical record. Return periods
of the larger, infrequent, earthquakes can be estimated from that of the smaller ones, and sometimes
from geologic clues in sediments that were disturbed by ancient shocks. Return periods are shorter
in the West than the East, and also shorter for smaller earthquakes. A return period is an average,
and does not imply that earthquakes happen on any schedule.

Seismic -- caused by an earthquake

Seismograph -- An instrument that detects, magnifies, and records vibrations of the Earth, especially

Tsunami -- (Japanese for harbor wave) A sea--wave caused by an earthquake. It has a very low
profile in deep water, but grows vertically (up to 50 feet or more) in the shallow water near land.
It often breaks, like a huge surf-wave. Popularly called a tidal wave.


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Department of Environmental Protection
Geological and Water Survey
P. O. Box 420
Mail Code:29-01
Trenton, NJ 08625-0420

Phone: (609) 292-1185
FAX: (609) 633-1004