Earthquake Magnitude and Intensity: Definition and Difference

Earthquakes are awe-inspiring natural phenomena that can strike with varying degrees of force, leaving a lasting impact on the affected regions. As we delve into the fascinating world of seismic events, we encounter two essential measures - earthquake magnitude and intensity. Let us explore the distinctions between these measures, their significance, and the methodologies used for their calculation.

Earthquake Magnitude: A Measure of Size

Magnitude, a fundamental parameter used to quantify earthquake size, remains constant regardless of the distance from the earthquake epicenter. This measure is calculated through instrumental monitoring, employing data collected from seismic instruments placed strategically worldwide. The moment magnitude scale (Mw), one critical magnitude scale, precisely gauges the energy released at the earthquake's source. It considers several factors, such as fault length, slip, and material properties. The logarithmic nature of the magnitude scale means that each whole number increase represents a tenfold increase in the amplitude of seismic waves and approximately 31.6 times more energy release. For example, a magnitude 6 earthquake releases about 31.6 times more energy than a magnitude 5 earthquake.

Despite the objective nature of magnitude measurement, different procedures may yield slightly different magnitudes for the same earthquake due to the complexities involved in seismic measurements and the use of multiple seismometers to triangulate the data.

Earthquake Intensity: Describing Shaking at a Specific Location

Intensity, however, describes the degree of shaking experienced at a particular place due to an earthquake and varies with distance from the epicenter. Intensity scales, such as the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) Scale and the Rossi-Forel scale, measure the amount of shaking observed at specific locations. The MMI Scale, widely used in the United States, categorizes earthquake effects based on observable damage and human perception, making it more subjective than the magnitude scale.

The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale consists of twelve levels, each representing different degrees of shaking and corresponding effects on structures and people. At the lowest intensity levels (I and II), the shaking is not perceptible to most people, while at the highest levels (X and above), the earthquake causes severe damage and destruction.

Assigning Intensity: From Not Felt to Total Devastation

The process of assigning intensity requires collecting data on the felt responses of the population in the affected area. Intensity levels are graded on the European Macroseismic Scale (EMS) intensity scale, which ranges from Intensity 1 (Not felt) to Intensity 12 (Total devastation). For example, an earthquake event with a magnitude of 5.4 ML might exhibit an intensity of 6 EMS in the epicentral region on the Lleyn Peninsula but an intensity of 3 EMS in Carlisle.

Assigning intensity levels involves gathering reports from people who experienced the earthquake and describing their observations. These reports are then evaluated, and each location's corresponding intensity level is determined based on the effects observed.

Importance of Intensity and Isoseismal Maps

The study of intensity plays a vital role, particularly for earthquakes that occurred before the advent of instrumental monitoring. Before the widespread use of seismometers, historical earthquakes were primarily assessed based on the damage they caused to structures and the reports of people who experienced the shaking.

Producing isoseismal maps is a crucial application of intensity data. Isoseismal maps contour areas of equal intensity, helping researchers gain insights into the historical seismic activity and distribution of shaking effects in the past. These maps aid in identifying the extent of the earthquake's impact and understanding how the intensity varied across different regions.

Earthquake intensity table


In conclusion, earthquake magnitude and intensity are two essential measures that provide distinct perspectives on seismic events. While magnitude gauges the earthquake's size and energy release at its source, intensity describes the shaking experienced at specific locations. Both measures play crucial roles in understanding and characterizing earthquakes, empowering scientists and communities to be better prepared for future seismic events.

By appreciating the differences and complementing their applications, we take significant strides toward a safer and more resilient world in the face of earthquakes. The combination of magnitude and intensity data allows us to comprehensively evaluate seismic events, assess their impact on communities, and develop robust strategies for mitigating earthquake risks. As our understanding of earthquakes advances, we continue to make progress in protecting lives and property from the tremors of the Earth. Together, let's build a safer future and ensure that our communities are resilient in the face of seismic challenges.


1) USGS. What is the difference between earthquake magnitude and earthquake intensity? What is the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale? Accessed on 21-Jul-2023. Available at:
2) British Geological Service. What is the difference between magnitude and intensity? Accessed on 21-Jul-2023. Available at:

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