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In Brief

What Ever Happened to the Richter Scale?

World map shows 105 years of earthquakes.
More than 100 years of earthquakes glow on a world map. (Image credit: John Nelson, IDV Solutions. )

For millions of people raised in earthquake country, the Richter scale was a constant companion. Earthquakes were reported on the Richter scale, a mathematical formula invented by Caltech seismologist Charles Richter in 1935 to compare quake sizes. But no one uses the Richter scale anymore in the media or in science. What happened?

The Richter scale was abandoned because it worked best for earthquakes in southern California, and only those hitting within about 370 miles (600 kilometers) of seismometers. These days, scientists detect temblors on the other side of the Earth. In addition, the scale was calculated from one type of earthquake wave, a kind that doesn't help much when measuring truly massive quakes, like Japan's magnitude-9 in 2011. So seismologists created a new scale, called the moment magnitude scale. The moment magnitude scale captures all the different seismic waves from an earthquake, giving a better idea of the shaking and possible damage.

As the Richter scale fades from use, historians in his hometown are worried that the famous scientist's legacy will be overlooked, the Hamilton JournalNews reported. However, within seismology, Richter's contributions live on, through equations that are critical for forecasting future earthquakes and calculating earthquake hazards.

Read more: Hamilton JournalNews

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Becky Oskin
Becky Oskin
Becky Oskin covers Earth science, climate change and space, as well as general science topics. Becky was a science reporter at Live Science and The Pasadena Star-News; she has freelanced for New Scientist and the American Institute of Physics. She earned a master's degree in geology from Caltech, a bachelor's degree from Washington State University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz.