Public Release: 

Earthquakes kill thousands in 2003

Deadliest year since 1990

US Geological Survey

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), 2003 closed as the deadliest year for earthquakes since 1990, 25 times more fatal than 2002; 43,819 deaths have been reported for the past year, as confirmed by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). In 2002, 1711 people died in quakes around the world; in 1990, 51,916 people were killed in various seismic events.

The "strong" magnitude 6.6 that hit Bam, Iran on Dec. 26 was responsible for at least 41,000 deaths, and is expected to rise.

The magnitude 8.3 earthquake that rattled the Hokkaido, Japan region on Sept. 25 rang in as the largest temblor in the world for 2003, and the only "great" quake.

California experienced the deadliest U.S. quake, a magnitude 6.5, on Dec. 22 in San Simeon, 40 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Two people were killed when a building collapsed in nearby Paso Robles. Shallow but powerful, the earthquake uplifted the Santa Lucia mountains and triggered a vigorous aftershock sequence. The last strong earthquake to strike this area occurred over 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1952. Four other events in Alaska, magnitudes 6.6 to 7.8 were stronger than the San Simeon temblor.

The USGS locates about 50 earthquakes each day or almost 25,000 a year. On average, there are 18 major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0 to 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or higher) each year worldwide. Several million earthquakes occur in the world each year, but many go undetected because they occur in remote areas or have very small magnitudes. In the U.S., earthquakes pose significant risk to 75 million Americans in 39 States.

"Federal science plays an essential role in reducing our vulnerability to earthquakes. The ability to coordinate and respond to threats is a defining characteristic of good government," said USGS Director Chip Groat. "Mother Nature lacks the malice of terrorists, but compensates with endless energy and dogged persistence. We must be prepared."

Under the authority of the National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program (NEHRP), currently under reauthorization by Congress, the USGS is mandated to monitor earthquakes and provide earthquake warnings and notifications. It is the only agency in the Government that provides this service nationwide. The USGS and its partners operate a nationwide earthquake monitoring system that provides warnings, assesses seismic hazards, records earthquake activity and provides information essential in the design of building codes for new construction and retrofitting of existing structures. Timely information on the distribution and severity of earthquake shaking in urban areas is used to direct emergency response and to minimize disruption of lifelines and infrastructure. Data on earthquake shaking is used in the design and construction of safer, more earthquake resistant, future buildings and structures.

Although significant progress has been achieved in earthquake research and mitigation, earthquake risk is still high, especially in Third World countries where population growth and lack of earthquake-resistant structural design standards have put more and more people at risk.

In the U.S., the USGS and partners are working to improve earthquake monitoring and reporting capabilities to speed earthquake response efforts while at the same time minimize economic impact and enhance business continuity. Central to this goal is a new initiative designed to improve earthquake monitoring and reporting infrastructure. This effort, known as the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) has resulted in the installation of approximately 400 new earthquake-monitoring instruments in vulnerable urban areas including San Francisco, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Anchorage, Reno, Las Vegas, and Memphis. Full implementation of ANSS will result in 7000 new instruments on the ground and in structures. Once in place, the ANSS will provide emergency response personnel with real-time (within 5-10 minutes of an event) information on the intensity and distribution of ground shaking that can be used to guide emergency response efforts. Information on building "shaking" will equip engineers with the data they need to improve building designs in the future.


The USGS serves the nation by providing reliable scientific information to describe and understand the Earth; minimize loss of life and property from natural disasters; manage water, biological, energy, and mineral resources; and enhance and protect our quality of life.

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