Do you know how many Americans live and work in areas that could experience potentially damaging earthquakes?
That is the first questions asked in “Hazard a Guess,” an ongoing series by the US Geological Survey (USGS). Dubbed the “riskiest science quiz you will ever take,” the quiz series aims to raise awareness of natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and much more.
So what is the answer? Nearly half of all Americans, according to USGS scientists. This number includes 143 million people residing in the 48 contiguous states, as well as the populations living in the earthquake-prone areas of Alaska, Hawaii, and the US Territories.
This estimate was published in a study in the Earthquake Spectra journal and is derived from the recently updated U.S. National Seismic Hazard Maps. These maps identify where and how often earthquakes are likely to occur, as well as how strong they are likely to be. It is nearly double the previous 2006 projections, due to significant population growth in at-risk areas, as well as improvements in the science that allow for more accurate estimates.
While these numbers of people at risk are startling, it is worth noting that the number of Americans in areas with the highest potential to experience damaging shaking is smaller: 28 million people. In addition, while all states have some potential for earthquakes, according to those same maps, only 16 are at high risk. All of these states have historically experienced earthquakes with a magnitude of 6 or greater, such as the California Northridge earthquake (magnitude of 6.7) on January 17, 1994.
The state with the highest populations exposed to very strong ground shaking levels was California. Other high-risk states, listed in descending order of risk, were Washington, Utah, and then Tennessee. Even though severe levels of shaking could lead to heavy damage and casualties, they are believed to occur relatively infrequently.
The data helps researchers better understand the scale of earthquake hazards and ultimately strengthen the country’s ability to protect Americans against future disasters, said Kishor Jaiswal, lead author and USGS research structural engineer in a statement.
But in the meantime, to help all of us understand what possible natural dangers we could face, “Hazard a Guess” will publish a new question every three weeks or so. Next up is: In what year did the United States experience the most acres burned from wildfires? Check back with the USGS soon to find out the answer.
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