Are we having more earthquakes than usual?

After every damaging earthquake the world becomes hyper focused on quakes and people start to recognize how many earthquakes there are around the world. They become concerned. People start to ask if there more quakes than usual. This is the frequency illusion, also called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

Here’s an example – your friend gets a new car and suddenly you notice that same make and model of car all the time. There aren’t more of that car model suddenly, you’re just more aware it. That’s the frequency illusion. Earthquakes are similar. Most people don’t think much about them until a large, unusual, or damaging one happens. And then suddenly they notice all the other quakes around the world and think WHOA!!! What? But there are a few other things at play as well.

Large, damaging or unusual earthquakes also makes news agencies more likely to cover earthquakes they may not have paid attention to otherwise. Additionally, better seismic networks means we can detect more earthquakes, and greater global connectivity means we hear about earthquakes in remote locations more often.

Frequency of earthquake occurrence from SERC

On average there are 15-18 magnitude 7-7.9 quakes every year and ~10x that many magnitude 6-6.9 earthquakes. So while it may seem like there are more quakes than normal the world is not under any kind of unusual stress, and no, a “big one” is no more likely now than at any other time.

There is natural variability within any system and the earth is no exception; not every year will “follow the rules”. But when you look at the longer term average, the number of earthquakes is pretty constant.

But don’t take my word for it – take a look at the data! The USGS even has this page of earthquake statistics so you can get an idea of how many quakes occur around the world every year.

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