What it is like to experience an earthquake

I have been lucky to never experience a serious earthquake, the closest being slight tremors that I would likely not have even noticed if I had been outdoors or asleep. The video below was taken at an airport during the 2011 earthquake in Japan. It is quite terrifying. The tremors last for about two minutes.

What amazes me is that the person taking the video was so committed to doing so that they did not seek to run outside to avoid being injured if the balcony they were on collapsed, or to hide under something to prevent being hit by falling debris.


  1. snarlymon says

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the tsunami at the end of the video, which caused more deaths than the earthquake. I wonder how far this particular airport was from the sea?

  2. Ridana says

    I’ve been through many earthquakes, to the point where I can tell what direction from me (i.e., Sierras, Bay Area, southern valley, Cascades) the epicenter likely was, based on the kind of motion. But none that have done any local damage, nor lasted more than half a minute. I’d think after the first minute of it not letting up, you’d start to wonder if it was ever going to stop.

    And then just as it’s apparently over, the tsunami rolls in… That’s hard to imagine, even seeing it on video. What impressed me was how quickly the babies all calmed down. I guess they were afraid of the noise more than the movement, and when it got quiet, so did they.

    I wonder what it would’ve been like to be on a plane landing just as that hit. I don’t know if any did, but that would be a whole extra level of terror.

    As for the balcony collapsing, that would be a reasonable fear in the US, but not so much in Japan, where everything is built with earthquakes in mind.

  3. fentex says

    I’ve experienced one of those (and 10,000 aftershocks).

    There really isn’t much of an option of moving -- getting to the nearest wall and crouching against it is about the most you could do (a better option than standing in doors -- don’t do that)..

    In my case I was lying in bed, and just at the moment I realized -- as I listened to all the glass crashing to the floor in my kitchen -- that my homes header tank (about half a tonne of water) is mounted directly above where I was lying and I started to consider rolling out and under my bed, it stopped.

    That one went a loong time because it was BIG -- centred (IIRC) 400 ~ 500 km east of Japan at about 9ish on the logarithmic scale used those people experienced it at, I’d guess, about the force of a 7 ~ 7.5 quake.

    As Ridana says you can learn to estimate direction, distance and strength, from the movement. More sideways movement means the quake is centred further away (when they’re under you, you feel more of a kick) -- because that quake was big but centred a long way a way it swayed side to side longer than would be felt closed to it’s epicentre.

  4. says

    I lived my first thirty-four years in British Columbia where earthquakes in the 5.0-5.5 range were a regular event. The ones here were no big deal to me.

    On October 31, 2013, Taiwan was hit with a 6.3 quake in the early evening. I was at work where tables were rocking, legs threatening to leave the floor. I was fine, and my students were too.

    Next door was another matter, an Albertan I worked with, from a place that almost never feels them. I went to see it he was alright. He sat in silence, eyes as wide as saucers, hands in a death grip on the table, and visibly trembling. His students were laughing.

    The humour of the situation aside, Japan’s 8.9 quake was 398 times more powerful than a 6.3 quake. I could only imagine how terrifying it was.


    A couple of years ago, a quake hit the city of Hualien, causing the partial collapse of a hotel. The bottom floor “pancaked”, crushing two hotel staff. Thankfully it was midnight and not day when dozens or hundreds would have been walking around.


  5. Deanna says

    I experienced the Nisqually quake near Seattle in 2000, which was 6.8 though fortunately was a deep quake so didn’t cause as much damage as it could have (at my apartment near the epicenter I figured there’d be lots of stuff on the floor but I think all that happened was some papers shifted and one of my cats decided to stay under the futon for 24 hours). Lasted about 20 seconds.

    But as for running outside that is actually quite dangerous, because you’re in danger from falling glass from above you. You’re better off to shelter in place under something sturdy. That said, the guy taking the video was fortunate that he didn’t get hurt, because he easily could have if that glass window next to him broke. The fact that it didn’t is thanks to good Japanese engineering.

    Something to note though is that I don’t think that tsunami arrived that quickly after the quake. They do take some time and I think this airport was the one in Sendai, where it took an hour for the tsunami to arrive after the quake.

    My understanding is that the shaking actually lasted about 5 minutes with the 2011 quake…essentially as long as it takes the fault to finish ripping.

  6. Ridana says

    4) @ fentex: Determining the direction I think also has to do with the kind of ground the waves have to travel through, as well as the kind of slippage characteristic of different faults. For example, quakes coming at me from the Bay area tend to feel like rolling waves, whereas from the Sierras they’re a series of sharp jolts. But regardless of direction, I usually first register an incoming quake as mild vertigo, up to 15 seconds prior to consciously feeling the motion to know it’s an earthquake.
    When the ’89 Loma Prieta quake hit the Bay (100 mi to the west of me), I was at my car in the parking lot, and felt the vertigo. But then I could literally hear it coming, as the shockwave tripped car alarms sequentially across the lot. It was really eerie.
    The other odd quake I remember was centered at Coalinga, 200 mi to the south. I was on the 4th floor of my building, trying to weigh some samples on a Mettler balance. As usual, vertigo first, but then I could hear a tiny “tch, tch, tch” sound, from the hanging balance pan rubbing against the arrest peg. When I released it, it was fascinating to watch the readout numbers going up and down as the pan swayed freely. But other than the vertigo, I never felt any motion. After half an hour, I gave up and went home because the building was still swaying enough that I couldn’t get an accurate weighing.

  7. fentex says

    45 minutes after a ~7 quake I was walking down a street with kilometers long views forward and back and the first (~6ish) aftershock occurred and I saw the ground rolling and swaying in the distance come towards me like the tide coming in.

    The weirdest thing about it was how, after I spent sometime standing in the open on ground moving like it was the sea, was how the hell was anything still in one piece afterwards -- it is extremely weird to realize things like concrete medians have the flexibility to be in one piece afterwards.

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