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Mercalli intensity scale facts for kids

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Earthquake damage in San Francisco's Marina District on the north side of the city from the Loma Prieta Earthquake
Earthquake damage in San Francisco's Marina District on the north side of the city from the Loma Prieta Earthquake

The Mercalli intensity scale (or more precisely the Modified Mercalli intensity scale) is a scale to measure the intensity of earthquakes. Unlike with the Richter scale, the Mercalli scale does not take into account the energy of an earthquake directly. Rather, they classify earthquakes by the effects they have (and the destruction they cause). When there is little damage, the scale describes how people felt the earthquake, or how many people felt it.

Very often, non-geologists use this scale, because it is easier for people to describe what damage an earthquake caused, than to do calculations to get a value on the Richter scale.

Values range from I - Instrumental to XII - Catastrophic.


Giuseppe Mercalli (1850-1914) originally developed the scale with ten levels. In 1902, Adolfo Cancani extended the scale to include twelve levels. August Heinrich Sieberg completely rewrote the scale. For this reason, the scale is sometimes named Mercalli-Cancani-Sieberg scale, or MCS scale.

Harry O. Wood and Frank Neumann translated it into English, and published it as Mercalli–Wood–Neumann (MWN) scale. Charles Francis Richter also edited it. He also developed the Richter scale later on.

Modified Mercalli Intensity scale

The lower degrees of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale generally deal with the manner in which the earthquake is felt by people. The higher numbers of the scale are based on observed damage to structures

The large table gives Modified Mercalli scale intensities that are typically observed at locations near the epicenter of the earthquake.

I. Not felt Not felt by humans but technology is capable of sensing it.
II. Weak Felt only by a few persons during sleep, especially on upper floors of buildings.
III. Weak Felt quite noticeably by persons indoors, especially on upper floors of buildings. Many people do not recognize it as an earthquake. Standing motor cars may rock slightly. Vibrations similar to the passing of a truck. Duration estimated.
IV. Light Felt indoors by many, outdoors by few during the day. At night, some awakened. Dishes, windows, doors disturbed; walls make cracking sound. Sensation like heavy truck striking building. Standing motor cars rocked noticeably.
V. Moderate Felt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop.
VI. Strong Felt by all, many frightened. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster. Damage slight.
VII. Very Strong Damage negligible in buildings of good design and construction; slight to moderate in well-built ordinary structures; considerable damage in poorly built or badly designed structures; some chimneys broken.
VIII. Severe Damage slight in specially designed structures; considerable damage in ordinary substantial buildings with partial collapse. Damage great in poorly built structures. Fall of chimneys, factory stacks, columns, monuments, walls. Heavy furniture overturned.
IX. Violent Damage considerable in specially designed structures; well-designed frame structures thrown out of plumb. Damage great in substantial buildings, with partial collapse. Buildings shifted off foundations.
X. Extreme Some well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations. Rails bent.
XI. Extremely Dangerous Few, if any, (masonry) structures remain standing. Bridges destroyed. Broad fissures in ground. Underground pipe lines completely out of service. Earth slumps and land slips in soft ground. Rails bent greatly.
XII. Catastrophic Damage total. Waves seen on ground surfaces. Lines of sight and level distorted. Objects thrown upward into the air.

Correlation with magnitude

Magnitude Typical Maximum
Modified Mercalli Intensity
Under 2.0 I
2.0 – 2.9 IIIII
3.0 – 3.9 IIIIV
4.0 – 4.9 IVV
5.0 – 5.9 VVI
6.0 – 6.9 VIVII
7.0 – 7.9 VIIVIII
8.0 or higher VIII or higher

There is a correlation between the magitude and the intensity of the earthquake. Even though this correlation is there, it may be difficult to link one to the other: This correlation depends on several factors, such as the depth of the earthquake, terrain, population density, and damage.

For example, on May 19, 2011, an earthquake of magnitude 0.7 in Central California, United States 4 km deep was classified as of intensity III by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) over 100 miles (160 km) away from the epicenter (and II intensity almost 300 miles (480 km) from the epicenter), while a 4.5 magnitude quake in Salta, Argentina 164 km deep was of intensity I.

The small table is a rough guide to the degrees of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale. The colors and descriptive names shown here differ from those used on certain shake maps in other articles. However, it will not be 100% accurate.

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