The Modified Mercalli Scale
of Earthquake Intensity

In seismology a scale of seismic intensity is a way of measuring or rating the effects of an earthquake at different sites. The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale is commonly used in the United States by seismologists seeking information on the severity of earthquake effects. Intensity ratings are expressed as Roman numerals between I at the low end and XII at the high end.

The Intensity Scale differs from the Richter Magnitude Scale in that the effects of any one earthquake vary greatly from place to place, so there may be many Intensity values (e.g.: IV, VII) measured from one earthquake. Each earthquake, on the other hand, should have just one Magnitude, although the several methods of estimating it will yield slightly different values (e.g.: 6.1, 6.3).

Ratings of earthquake effects are based on the following relatively subjective scale of descriptions:

Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale

from FEMA
I. People do not feel any Earth movement.
II. A few people might notice movement if they are at rest and/or on the upper floors of tall buildings.
III. Many people indoors feel movement. Hanging objects swing back and forth. People outdoors might not realize that an earthquake is occurring.
IV. Most people indoors feel movement. Hanging objects swing. Dishes, windows, and doors rattle. The earthquake feels like a heavy truck hitting the walls. A few people outdoors may feel movement. Parked cars rock.
V. Almost everyone feels movement. Sleeping people are awakened. Doors swing open or close. Dishes are broken. Pictures on the wall move. Small objects move or are turned over. Trees might shake. Liquids might spill out of open containers.
VI. Everyone feels movement. People have trouble walking. Objects fall from shelves. Pictures fall off walls. Furniture moves. Plaster in walls might crack. Trees and bushes shake. Damage is slight in poorly built buildings. No structural damage.
VII. People have difficulty standing. Drivers feel their cars shaking. Some furniture breaks. Loose bricks fall from buildings. Damage is slight to moderate in well-built buildings; considerable in poorly built buildings.
VIII. Drivers have trouble steering. Houses that are not bolted down might shift on their foundations. Tall structures such as towers and chimneys might twist and fall. Well-built buildings suffer slight damage. Poorly built structures suffer severe damage. Tree branches break. Hillsides might crack if the ground is wet. Water levels in wells might change.
IX. Well-built buildings suffer considerable damage. Houses that are not bolted down move off their foundations. Some underground pipes are broken. The ground cracks. Reservoirs suffer serious damage.
X. Most buildings and their foundations are destroyed. Some bridges are destroyed. Dams are seriously damaged. Large landslides occur. Water is thrown on the banks of canals, rivers, lakes. The ground cracks in large areas. Railroad tracks are bent slightly.
XI. Most buildings collapse. Some bridges are destroyed. Large cracks appear in the ground. Underground pipelines are destroyed. Railroad tracks are badly bent.
XII. Almost everything is destroyed. Objects are thrown into the air. The ground moves in waves or ripples. Large amounts of rock may move.

As you can see from the list above, rating the Intensity of an earthquake's effects does not require any instrumental measurements. Thus seismologists can use newspaper accounts, diaries, and other historical records to make intensity ratings of past earthquakes, for which there are no instrumental recordings. Such research helps promote our understanding of the earthquake history of a region, and estimate future hazards.

Loma Prieta isoseismal map
This map plots the Mercalli Intensity ratings of localities near the Oct. 17, 1989 Loma Prieta (World Series) earthquake. It is called an isoseismal map, as one draws contour lines to enclose locations having higher intensities. Intensities typically increase close to an earthquake's epicenter, allowing seismologists to interpret maps such as this for the general location of historical earthquakes.

Note the locations of unusually high intensities (up to IX) far north of the earthquake's epicenter, near San Francisco Bay. During this earthquake, soft and water-saturated soils near the Bay amplified the effects of the shaking. The amplified shaking, together with soil liquefaction effects, caused some well-built structures to collapse and yielded the intensity IX rating at those locations.

It is also possible to estimate the Magnitude of an earthquake from the area of the map enclosed by isoseismal contours of certain intensities. Such estimates are, however, a subject of research and require verification.

J. Louie, 10 Oct. 1996

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