Modified Mercalli intensity scale

Last updated

The Modified Mercalli intensity scale (MM or MMI), descended from Giuseppe Mercalli's Mercalli intensity scale of 1902, is a seismic intensity scale used for measuring the intensity of shaking produced by an earthquake. It measures the effects of an earthquake at a given location, distinguished from the earthquake's inherent force or strength as measured by seismic magnitude scales (such as the "Mw " magnitude usually reported for an earthquake). While shaking is driven by the seismic energy released by an earthquake, earthquakes differ in how much of their energy is radiated as seismic waves. Deeper earthquakes also have less interaction with the surface, and their energy is spread out across a larger area. Shaking intensity is localized, generally diminishing with distance from the earthquake's epicenter, but can be amplified in sedimentary basins and certain kinds of unconsolidated soils.

Giuseppe Mercalli Italian volcanologist

Giuseppe Mercalli was an Italian volcanologist and Catholic priest. He is best remembered for the Mercalli intensity scale for measuring earthquakes.

Seismic intensity scales categorize the intensity or severity of ground shaking (quaking) at a given location, such as resulting from an earthquake. They are distinguished from seismic magnitude scales, which measure the magnitude or overall strength of an earthquake, which may, or perhaps not, cause perceptible shaking.

Seismic magnitude scales are used to describe the overall strength or "size" of an earthquake. These are distinguished from seismic intensity scales that categorize the intensity or severity of ground shaking (quaking) caused by an earthquake at a given location. Magnitudes are usually determined from measurements of an earthquake's seismic waves as recorded on a seismogram. Magnitude scales vary on what aspect of the seismic waves are measured and how they are measured. Different magnitude scales are necessary because of differences in earthquakes, the information available, and the purposes for which the magnitudes are used.


Intensity scales empirically categorize the intensity of shaking based on the effects reported by untrained observers, and are adapted for the effects that might be observed in a particular region. [1] In not requiring instrumental measurements, they are useful for estimating the magnitude and location of historical (pre-instrumental) earthquakes: the greatest intensities generally correspond to the epicentral area, and their degree and extent (possibly augmented with knowledge of local geological conditions) can be compared with other local earthquakes to estimate the magnitude.


The Italian volcanologist Giuseppe Mercalli formulated his first intensity scale in 1883. [2] It had six degrees or categories, has been described as "merely an adaptation" of the then standard Rossi–Forel scale of ten degrees, and is now "more or less forgotten." [3] Mercalli's second scale, published in 1902, was also an adaptation of the Rossi‒Forel scale, retaining the ten degrees and expanding the descriptions of each degree. [4] This version "found favour with the users", and was adopted by the Italian Central Office of Meteorology and Geodynamics. [5]

The Rossi–Forel scale was one of the first seismic scales to reflect earthquake intensities. Developed by Michele Stefano Conte de Rossi of Italy and François-Alphonse Forel of Switzerland in the late 19th century, it was used for about two decades until the introduction of the Mercalli intensity scale in 1902.

In 1904 Adolfo Cancani proposed adding two additional degrees for very strong earthquakes, "catastrophe" and "enormous catastrophe", thus creating the 12 degree scale. [6] His descriptions being deficient, August Heinrich Sieberg augmented them in 1912 and 1923, and indicated a peak ground acceleration (PGA) for each degree. [7] This became known as the "Mercalli–Cancani scale, formulated by Sieberg", or the "Mercalli–Cancani–Sieberg scale", or simply "MCS", [8] and used extensively in Europe.

August Heinrich Sieberg was a German geophysicist. He researched mainly in the field of seismology and developed a seismic intensity scales as well as a tsunami intensity scale.

When Harry O. Wood and Frank Neumann translated this into English in 1931 (along with modification and condensation of the descriptions, and removal of the acceleration criteria), they called it the "Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale of 1931". [9] (MM31. Some seismologists prefer to call this version the "Wood–Neumann scale". [10] ) Wood and Neumann also had an abridged version, with fewer criteria for assessing the degree of intensity.

The Wood–Neumann scale was revised in 1956 by Charles Francis Richter and published in his influential textbook Elementary Seismology. [11] Not wanting to have this intensity scale confused with the magnitude scale he had developed, he proposed calling it the "Modified Mercalli scale of 1956" (MM56). [12]

Charles Francis Richter Seismologist and mathematician

Charles Francis Richter ; April 26, 1900 – September 30, 1985) was an American seismologist and physicist.

The so-called Richter magnitude scale – more accurately, Richter's magnitude scale, or just Richter magnitude – for measuring the strength ("size") of earthquakes refers to the original "magnitude scale" developed by Charles F. Richter and presented in his landmark 1935 paper, and later revised and renamed the Local magnitude scale, denoted as "ML" or "ML". Because of various shortcomings of the ML scale most seismological authorities now use other scales, such as the moment magnitude scale (Mw ), to report earthquake magnitudes, but much of the news media still refers to these as "Richter" magnitudes. All magnitude scales retain the logarithmic character of the original, and are scaled to have roughly comparable numeric values.

In their 1993 compendium of historical seismicity in the United States, [13] Carl Stover and Jerry Coffman ignored Richter's revision, and assigned intensities according to their slightly modified interpretation of Wood and Neumann's 1931 scale, [14] effectively creating a new but largely undocumented version of the scale. [15]

The basis by which the U. S. Geological Survey (and other agencies) assigns intensities is nominally Wood and Neumann's "Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale of 1931". However, this is generally interpreted with the modifications summarized by Stover and Coffman because in the decades since 1931 it has been found that "some criteria are more reliable than others as indicators of the level of ground shaking." [16] Also, construction codes and methods have evolved, making much of built environment stronger; these make a given intensity of ground shaking seem weaker. [17] And it is now recognized that some of the original criteria of the higher degrees (X and above), such as bent rails, ground fissures, landslides, etc., are "related less to the level of ground shaking than to the presence of ground conditions susceptible to spectacular failure...." [18]

The "catastrophe" and "enormous catastrophe" categories added by Cancani (XI and XII) are used so infrequently that current USGS practice is merge them into a single "Extreme" labeled "X+". [19]

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 structural damage.

This table gives Modified Mercalli scale intensities that are typically observed at locations near the epicenter of the earthquake. [20]

I. Not feltNot felt except by very few under especially favorable conditions.
II. WeakFelt only by a few people at rest, especially on upper floors of buildings.
III. WeakFelt quite noticeably by people 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. LightFelt 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. ModerateFelt by nearly everyone; many awakened. Some dishes, windows broken. Unstable objects overturned. Pendulum clocks may stop.
VI. StrongFelt by all, many frightened. Some heavy furniture moved; a few instances of fallen plaster. Damage slight.
VII. Very strongDamage 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. SevereDamage 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. ViolentDamage 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. Liquefaction.
X. ExtremeSome well-built wooden structures destroyed; most masonry and frame structures destroyed with foundations. Rails bent.
XI. ExtremeFew, 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. ExtremeDamage total. Waves seen on ground surfaces. Lines of sight and level distorted. Objects thrown upward into the air.

Correlation with magnitude

MagnitudeMagnitude / intensity comparison
7.0 and higherVIII or higher
Magnitude/intensity comparison, USGS

The correlation between magnitude and intensity is far from total, depending upon several factors including the depth of the hypocenter, terrain, distance from the epicenter. 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. [21]

The small table is a rough guide to the degrees of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale. [20] [22] The colors and descriptive names shown here differ from those used on certain shake maps in other articles.

Estimating site intensity and its use in seismic hazard assessment

Dozens of so-called intensity prediction equations [23] have been published to estimate the macroseismic intensity at a location given the magnitude, source-to-site distance and, perhaps, other parameters (e.g. local site conditions). These are similar to ground motion prediction equations for the estimation of instrumental strong-motion parameters such as peak ground acceleration. A summary of intensity prediction equations is available. Such equations can be used to estimate the seismic hazard in terms of macroseismic intensity, which has the advantage of being more closely related to seismic risk than instrumental strong-motion parameters [24] .

Correlation with physical quantities

The Mercalli scale is not defined in terms of more rigorous, objectively quantifiable measurements such as shake amplitude, shake frequency, peak velocity, or peak acceleration. Human-perceived shaking and building damages are best correlated with peak acceleration for lower-intensity events, and with peak velocity for higher-intensity events. [25]

Comparison to the moment magnitude scale

The effects of any one earthquake can vary greatly from place to place, so there may be many Mercalli intensity values measured for the same earthquake. These values can be best displayed using a contoured map of equal intensity, known as an isoseismal map. However, each earthquake has only one magnitude.

See also

Related Research Articles

Peak ground acceleration (PGA) is equal to the maximum ground acceleration that occurred during earthquake shaking at a location. PGA is equal to the amplitude of the largest absolute acceleration recorded on an accelerogram at a site during a particular earthquake. Earthquake shaking generally occurs in all three directions. Therefore, PGA is often split into the horizontal and vertical components. Horizontal PGAs are generally larger than those in the vertical direction but this is not always true, especially close to large earthquakes. PGA is an important parameter for earthquake engineering, The design basis earthquake ground motion (DBEGM) is often defined in terms of PGA.

1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake October 1987 earthquake in California, USA

The 1987 Whittier Narrows earthquake occurred in the southern San Gabriel Valley and surrounding communities of southern California at 7:42 a.m. PDT on October 1. The moderate 5.9 magnitude blind thrust earthquake was centered several miles north of Whittier in the town of Rosemead, had a relatively shallow depth, and was felt throughout southern California and southern Nevada. A large number of homes and businesses were impacted, along with roadway disruptions, mainly in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Damage estimates ranged from $213–358 million, with 200 injuries, three directly-related deaths, and five additional fatalities that were associated with the event.

The Medvedev–Sponheuer–Karnik scale, also known as the MSK or MSK-64, is a macroseismic intensity scale used to evaluate the severity of ground shaking on the basis of observed effects in an area of the earthquake occurrence.

The Virginia Seismic Zone in the U.S. state of Virginia covers about 8,000 square kilometres (3,100 sq mi) in the Piedmont province. Earthquakes in the state are irregular and rarely reach over 4.5 in magnitude.

1983 Coalinga earthquake

The 1983 Coalinga earthquake struck at 4:42 p.m. Monday, May 2 of that year, in Coalinga, California,

1868 Hayward earthquake

The 1868 Hayward earthquake occurred in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, United States on October 21. With an estimated moment magnitude of 6.3–6.7 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of IX (Violent), it was the most recent large earthquake to occur on the Hayward Fault Zone. It caused significant damage and a number of deaths throughout the region, and was known as the "Great San Francisco earthquake" prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.

The 1783 New Jersey earthquake occurred on November 29 in the Province of New Jersey. It measured 5.3 on a seismic scale that is based on an isoseismal map or the event's felt area. It stands as the most powerful earthquake to occur in the state.

1915 Pleasant Valley earthquake earthquake struck to the south of Winnemucca, Nevada on October 3, 1915

The 1915 Pleasant Valley earthquake occurred at 22:53:21 on October 2 in north-central Nevada. With a moment magnitude of 6.8 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of X (Extreme), it was the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the state.

Isoseismal map

In seismology, an isoseismal map is used to show lines of equal felt seismic intensity, generally measured on the Modified Mercalli scale. Such maps help to identify earthquake epicenters, particularly where no instrumental records exist, such as for historical earthquakes. They also contain important information on ground conditions at particular locations, the underlying geology, radiation pattern of the seismic waves and the response of different types of buildings. They form an important part of the macroseismic approach, i.e. that part of seismology dealing with non-instrumental data. The shape and size of the isoseismal regions can be used to help determine the magnitude, focal depth and focal mechanism of an earthquake.

1940 New Hampshire earthquakes

The 1940 New Hampshire earthquakes struck on December 20 and again on December 24. Both shocks had an estimated Ms magnitude of 5.6, and a maximum Mercalli intensity of VII. These doublet earthquakes were the largest to hit the state. Damage included minor fractures or knocked over chimneys in a zone extending through New Hampshire and four other states: Maine, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts.

1867 Manhattan, Kansas earthquake 1867 earthquake in Riley County, Kansas

The 1867 Manhattan earthquake struck Riley County, Kansas, in the United States on April 24, 1867 at 20:22 UTC, or about 14:30 local time. The strongest earthquake to originate in the state, it measured 5.1 on a seismic scale that is based on an isoseismal map or the event's felt area. The earthquake's epicenter was near the town of Manhattan.

1865 Memphis earthquake

The 1865 Memphis earthquake struck southwest Tennessee near the Mississippi River in the United States on August 17 that year. Soon after the Mfa  5.0 earthquake hit, observers said the earth appeared to undulate and waves formed in nearby rivers. The force of the earthquake felled and cracked chimneys in Memphis and New Madrid, Missouri on the other side of the Mississippi. Shaking from the earthquake spread as far as St. Louis, Missouri; Jackson, Mississippi; and Illinois. Apart from the 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes, only three major events have struck the state of Tennessee, in 1843, 1865, and 1895. Several minor events have taken place as well.

1872 North Cascades earthquake earthquake in Washington state, United States

The 1872 North Cascades earthquake occurred at 9:40 p.m. local time on December 14 in central Washington state. A maximum Mercalli intensity of VIII (Severe) was assessed for several locations, though less intense shaking was observed at many other locations in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. Some of these intermediate outlying areas reported V (Moderate) to VII shaking, but intensities as high as IV (Light) were reported as far distant as Idaho and Montana. Due to the remote location of the mainshock and a series of strong aftershocks, damage to man made structures was limited to a few cabins close to the areas of the highest intensity.

Harry Oscar Wood was an American seismologist who made several significant contributions in the field of seismology in the early twentieth-century. Following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, California, Wood expanded his background of geology and mineralogy and his career took a change of direction into the field of seismology. In the 1920s he co-developed the torsion seismometer, a device tuned to detect short-period seismic waves that are associated with local earthquakes. In 1931 Wood, along with another seismologist, redeveloped and updated the Mercalli Intensity Scale, a seismic scale that is still in use as a primary means of rating an earthquake's effects.

1973 Point Mugu earthquake

The 1973 Point Mugu earthquake occurred at 06:45:57 local time on February 21 in the Point Mugu area of southeastern Ventura County of southern California. It had a moment magnitude of 5.8 and a maximum Mercalli Intensity of VII. This oblique-slip shock resulted in several injuries and $1 million in damage. The epicenter was near the Oxnard Plain and the northern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains, in the California South Coast region.


  1. "The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale". USGS.
  2. Davison 1921 , p. 103.
  3. Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 414.
  4. Davison 1921 , p. 108.
  5. Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 415.
  6. Davison 1921 , p. 112.
  7. Davison 1921 , p. 114.
  8. Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 416.
  9. Wood & Neumann 1931.
  10. Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 416.
  11. Richter 1958; Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 416.
  12. Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 416.
  13. Stover & Coffman 1993.
  14. Their modifications were mainly to degrees IV and V, with VI contingent on reports of damage to man-made structures, and VII considering only "damage to buildings or other man-made structures". See details at Stover & Coffman 1993 , pp. 3–4.
  15. Grünthal 2011 , p. 238. The most definitive exposition of the Stover and Coffman's effective scale is at Musson & Cecić 2012 , §12.2.2.
  16. Dewey et al. 1995 , p. 5.
  17. Davenport & Dowrick 2002.
  18. Dewey et al. 1995 , p. 5.
  19. Musson, Grünthal & Stucchi 2010 , p. 423.
  20. 1 2 "Magnitude / Intensity Comparison". USGS.
  21. USGS: Did you feel it? for 20 May 2011
  22. "Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale". Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG).
  23. Allen, Trevor I.; Wald, David J.; Worden, C. Bruce (2012-07-01). "Intensity attenuation for active crustal regions". Journal of Seismology. 16 (3): 409–433. doi:10.1007/s10950-012-9278-7. ISSN   1383-4649.
  24. Musson, R.M.W. (2000). "Intensity-based seismic risk assessment". Soil Dynamics and Earthquake Engineering. 20 (5–8): 353–360. doi:10.1016/s0267-7261(00)00083-x.
  25. "ShakeMap Scientific Background". USGS. Archived from the original on 2009-08-25. Retrieved 2017-09-02.


  • Richter, Charles F. (1958), Elementary Seismology, W. H. Freeman