Frequently asked questions

General questions about earthqaukes

Questions on the topic of earthquake insurance in Switzerland

Questions about the localization and measurement of earthquakes

References see below


What are earthquakes and how are they generated?

Earthquakes are generated when tensions built up due to relative movement between rocks along faults are suddenly released. The seismic energy from these events travels through the Earth in the form of waves and causes the tremors observed as earthquakes.

Where do earthquakes occur?

Most earthquakes occur in the Earth’s crust, a 10-50km thick layer covering our planet. This layer has broken apart into oceanic and continental plates. The relative movement of these thin, rigid plates to each other causes the build-up of tensions along the boundaries, which are released in the form of earthquakes. The movement of the plates can be convergent (towards each other, e.g. Andes), divergent (away from each other, e.g. mid-ocean ridge) and/or transform (horizontal sideways movement, e.g. San-Andreas-fault). The movement at the faults is in accordance with the movement of the plates as a whole. Furthermore, earthquakes can also be linked to volcanic or magmatic activity, the displacement or emplacement of hot rocks. This type of earthquake is closely related to processes occurring along plate boundaries, where most volcanoes are situated. Earthquakes can occur within tectonic plates as well. The cause for these can be tensions transferred from the boundaries towards weak spots of the plate where they are then released; or they can be related to local tectonic movements independent of the relative movements of the plates themselves.

Where do earthquakes occur in Europe?

Earthquakes in Europe can either occur in close proximity to plate boundaries or within the plates. The most endangered areas are situated along the boundary of the African and Eurasian plate in central and especially south-southeastern Europe.

Fig.1: Border area between the African and Eurasian plates. The northwards motion of the Arabian plate, which is responsible for the movement along the Anatolian fault (in red) is shown as well (Udías und Buforn, 1991).

These plates collided approximately 65 million years ago, with the formation of the Alps as a consequence. The upper crustal part of the Adriatic micro plate (Italy), which is part of the African plate, was thrust on top of the European plate, which in turn was pushed down.

Fig.2: Subduction zone in the Alps. The African plate is shown in lilac, the Eurasian plate in red. Both plates were split horizontally within the crust (comparable to two interlocked crocodile mouths). The upper part of the African plate has since been eroded to a large extent (NFP20, 1990). The peak of the Matterhorn is a prominent example of a remnant of the African plate.

All of Switzerland was affected by the formation of this new mountain range. However, tectonically speaking Switzerland is rather quiet these days and it is being discussed at the moment if the collision is still underway at all in this area. Earthquakes, which are signs of movement within the crust, are for the most part of small to medium magnitude (ML < 5.0). The exception to this rule was the earthquake in Basel in 1356 which is classified as one of the most destructive known earthquakes north of the Alps.

The medium to high seismic activity in the eastern part of the Mediterranean is an indication that today the converging motion is absorbed primarily in that area (Fig.3). Earthquakes of medium magnitude and the two volcanoes Etna and Vesuvius are strong signs of tectonic movement in Italy as well.

Fig.3: Earthquakes in Europe with a magnitude greater than 5 from 1973 until 2006 (USGS/NEIC-Catalogue)

Where do earthquakes occur in Switzerland?

Switzerland has small to medium seismic activity. Areas of increased activity are the Rheingraben near Basel, the Wallis, Graubünden, the Rheintal in the St. Gallen area and Central Switzerland. The strongest earthquake recorded in Switzerland since the installation of an area-wide sensor network at the SED at ETH in the mid-70s occurred near Vaz in Graubünden in 1991. It had a magnitude of 5.2. The strongest known earthquake overall occurred in 1356 near Basel; it had an intensity of IX. Estimates of its magnitude vary between 6.2 and 6.9. No active faulting is observed at the surface today, but there is evidence of deep large-scale active faults, e.g. in the northern part of the Wallis (Maurer et al., 1997), Fribourg (Kastrup, 2002) and Martigny (Deichmann et al., 2002). In addition the Rheingraben is an ancient fault system where earthquakes still occur today. It has been postulated that the large Basel earthquake is connected to the activity in the Rheingraben (Reinach fault; Meghraoui et al., 2001).

Are buildings in Switzerland insured against earthquakes as a rule?

No, as a rule, earthquake damage is insured only to a small extent in Switzerland. In the event of a major earthquake, most house and condominium owners would not be reimbursed for the cost of any possible damage, or would be reimbursed only partially. The specific rules vary from canton to canton. Parliament is currently discussing whether to extend the obligatory fire and natural hazards insurance to cover earthquake damage.

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What is the situation in the canton in which I live?

Buildings in 19 Swiss cantons are currently insured against fire and natural hazards by a state-owned monopoly insurer (Aargau, Appenzell Ausser Rhoden, Basel-Land, Basel-Stadt, Bern, Fribourg, Glarus, Graubünden, Jura, Lucerne, Neuchâtel, Nidwalden, St. Gallen, Solothurn, Thurgau, Schaffhausen, Vaud, Zug, and Zurich) and in 7 cantons by private building insurers (Appenzell Inner Roden, Geneva, Obwalden, Schwyz, Ticino, Uri, and Valais). At present, the earthquake risk cannot be insured within the context of this obligatory building insurance.

In 1978, 18 cantonal building insurers came together to form the Swiss Pool for Earthquake Insurance, which in the event of an earthquake will provide benefits on a voluntary basis. The cover provided by the earthquake pool currently amounts to CHF 2 billion; a further CHF 2 billion is available for a second earthquake in the same year. The building insurer of the canton of Bern (GVB) quit the pool on January 1, 2013. Since then, future earthquake damage in the canton of Bern can no longer be covered by the pool.

The building insurer of the canton of Zürich (GVZ) covers earthquake damage with resources from an in-house fund, providing cover of up to CHF 1 billion. The same sum would be available in the event of a second earthquake occurring in the same calendar year.

In the cantons of Appenzell Inner Rhoden, Geneva, Obwalden, Schwyz, Ticino, Uri, and Valais, private building insurers provide fire and natural hazard insurance. In these cantons, no financial resources are available for voluntary compensation following an earthquake.

Private insurers offer voluntary earthquake insurance solutions. At the present time, these products represent the only solution for the contractual coverage of earthquake damage in Switzerland.

Source: Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN),

Do I need to insure my building against earthquakes?

The benefits of an earthquake insurance policy are dependent upon many factors. The following factors are important: the vulnerability of a building, local subsoil, the likelihood of a damaging earthquake, and the insurance terms and conditions. For this reason, it is not possible to provide a universal recommendation. An insurance policy represents one means of reducing the personal (financial) risk, and is an element of integrated risk management. The best protection from earthquakes, however, is offered by earthquake-resistant building design.

Are buildings in Switzerland constructed to withstand earthquakes?

Only to a limited extent. Although corresponding standards have been in force since 1989, only a small number of cantons insist upon their implementation. The following cantons have explicitly anchored adherence to the applicable standards of the Swiss Society of Engineers and Architects (SIA) in their statutory regulations, or impose earthquake-specific conditions within the context of planning permission procedures. As a rule, buildings constructed before 1989 did not take earthquakes into account.

How can buildings be constructed to withstand earthquakes?

Detailed information about constructing new buildings to withstand earthquakes, or corresponding reinforcements for conversions or renovations, is available from the Federal Office for the Environment under the following link:

Do earthquakes that cause significant damage actually occur in Switzerland?

The last major earthquake to cause substantial damage occurred in 1946 in Valais. However, the earthquakes of February 17, and March 14, 1964 in the canton of Obwalden also caused significant damage. A major damage-causing earthquake with a magnitude of approximately 6 is likely to occur at a location somewhere in Switzerland every 50 to 150 years. The likelihood of this occurring at your particular place of residence is set out in the magnitudes map. The effects maps indicate how often specific consequences of an earthquake could occur at your particular place of residence.

Although such damaging earthquakes are relatively infrequent, earthquakes represent the natural hazard with the greatest potential to cause damage in Switzerland. The reason for this is, on the one hand, the densely populated settlements as well as the relatively high vulnerability of buildings and infrastructure in Switzerland. On the other hand, while catastrophic earthquakes occur rarely, they can cause extensive damage over substantial areas. A repeat of the Basel earthquake of 1356, which had a magnitude of 6.5, for example, would cause damage in excess of CHF 100 billion.

Is a Switzerland-wide insurance solution required?

Not all buildings in Switzerland are built to be earthquake resistant. For this reason, an insurance solution represents a key aspect of integrated risk management. The Swiss Seismological Service favors a nation-wide solution – one that boosts protection from the consequences of an earthquake across Switzerland. Politicians will need to decide how a solution of this nature is to be realized (e.g. in the form of comprehensive insurance protection, or another collective solution).

What is a seismogram?

A seismogram is the electronic recording made by a seismometer of the ground movements associated with earthquakes. The resulting diagram is wave-shaped with varying amplitudes and wavelengths since the movement at a measuring station during an earthquake is non-linear (Fig.4). The energy released by an earthquake (strength, magnitude) as well as the location of its hypocenter can be estimated by evaluating a large number of such diagrams.

Fig.4: Seismograms of a small earthquake in Switzerland recorded by six different stations of the SED network.

What is a seismometer?

A seismometer is an instrument with which the motion of the ground at 
a location can be recorded. Modern seismometers are highly sensitive 
electromechanical devices which can register ground motion on the 
order of nanometers (a millionth part of a millimeter). Earlier 
mechanical instruments were called seismographs. The display of the 
recorded motion on a time-axis is called seismogram.

What is a hypocenter?

The hypocenter describes the position of the seismic focus and is specified by its depth, longitude and latitude.

What is an epicentre?

The epicentre is the vertical projection of the hypocenter onto the Earth’s surface. It is specified by its longitude and latitude.

What is microseismicity?

Microseismicity describes the occurrence and frequency of small local earthquakes (micro quakes). These are normally so weak that they cannot be felt on the surface and can only be recorded with highly sensitive instruments. Many quakes are in fact so weak that they are hidden in the station-specific background noise and can thus not be distinguished as signals.

What is induced microseismicity?

The term induced microseismicity refers to small earthquakes caused by human activities. They can be a consequence of the development of geothermic reservoirs, oil or gas fields. The underlying cause is the inflow or outflow of fluids. In geothermic reservoirs for example the water pumped into the ground has to find its way through the rock. It accomplishes this by opening existing faults and clefts. The new fluids in these cracks decrease friction between the adjacent rocks and sudden displacements can occur. The multitude of such events increases the permeability. The events are generally so small that they are not felt on the surface. However, there are sporadic cases where the movement is large enough for an event to be noticed on the surface as a jerky ground movement or a loud bang.

What is magnitude?

The magnitude of an event is a physical quantity describing the energy released during an earthquake as a logarithmic value. An earthquake of magnitude 6 is thirty times stronger than an earthquake of magnitude 5 and 900 times stronger than an earthquake of magnitude 4. There are multiple ways to determine the magnitude. They are not directly related, but in some way or another they all measure the amplitude of a ground motion (velocity or acceleration) at different distances and in different frequency bands. The classical approach used here is called local magnitude and was developed by Richter (hence the term Richter scale). Earthquakes can be felt on the surface above a magnitude of 2.5-3.

What types of magnitudes are used?

The local magnitude ML is determined for earthquakes that occur relatively close to the recording stations, normally for distances up to a few hundred kilometres between the station and the earthquake. The first magnitude scale, the “Richter scale” developed in 1935 by Richter, is such a local earthquake magnitude. Even today earthquakes are commonly classified in units on the Richter scale.

The body wave magnitude mb is normally used for earthquakes which occurred more than 2000km away from a sensor station. The mb-estimation for such far earthquakes can be done relatively quickly because mb is determined from the amplitudes of the P-waves. The P-waves are compression waves which are transmitted through the Earth’s interior and constitute the first signal that is recorded of every earthquake. For larger earthquakes (stronger than mb=6) mb is “saturated”, meaning that the mb value will not increase much past this threshold even when an earthquake was significantly stronger. Such strong earthquakes, which occur anywhere between 50-100 times per year worldwide, require different scales in order to accurately calculate their true magnitude.


The magnitude MS is calculated from surface wave data. Surface waves run along the Earth’s surface with a much smaller velocity than the P-waves – 3-4 km/s compared to 8-14 km/s for P-waves. Thus one has to wait for longer at a far away station for the surface waves to arrive and MS cannot be calculated quite as fast as mb. Depending on the distance it can take 1 to 2 hours for the waves to arrive compared to a maximum of 20 minutes (New Zealand – Switzerland) for P-waves. The surface waves used for the calculation of MS have a period of around 20 seconds compared to about 1 second for the calculation ob mb from P-waves. Saturation is only an issue for very strong earthquakes above MS=8. The slow spreading of the surface waves is the reason why seismologists cannot estimate immediately after an earthquake if it was “just” strong (magnitude larger than 6) or potentially catastrophic.


Earthquakes which occur close to the surface (within the topmost 30 kilometres) create a large amount of surface waves compared to earthquakes of the same magnitude which occurred deeper within the Earth – the deepest earthquakes take place in subduction zones in up to 700km depth. The difference is caused by the way surface waves are created. Shallow earthquakes are more likely to cause large-scale damage simply due to their proximity to the surface. A comparison of MS and mb values can thus be used to estimate the potential damage; if the MS value is large compared to the mb value the earthquake probably occurred in a relatively shallow region and more damage has to be expected. The MS to mb ratio is also used to distinguish earthquakes from (nuclear) explosions. The latter have a smaller source volume than an earthquake of similar magnitude. In addition explosions cause less shear waves which are mainly responsible for the formation of surface waves. It follows that the MS values are typically much smaller for explosions. The mb/MS ratio is thus a good criterion for separating shallow earthquakes from explosions – if the value is high an explosion is the likely cause of the event.

The moment magnitude Mw is the only type of magnitude that is directly related to the physical processes and parameters at the hypocenter. Mw was derived from the seismic moment M0 based on theoretical studies. M0 is the product of the size of the fault times the average displacement at that fault times the shear strength of the rock. In principle Mw does not suffer from the problem of saturation since M0 considers the complete fault. There are various ways to determine Mw. Often synthetic seismograms are matched to the observations, either by looking at the wave forms or by comparing spectral amplitudes. The required effort is somewhat larger than the simple measurement of seismogram amplitudes (for the estimation of ML, mb, MS). For strong earthquakes the moment magnitude is available a few hours after the event.

You might find a magnitude designated only as “M” in one of our lists; this means that the seismic observatory which estimated this particular magnitude has not specified which type they used. Oftentimes this concerns observations made by the US Geological Survey. In these cases one assumes that a type of magnitude which is not saturated has been used; for strong earthquakes these magnitudes are often of the Mw type.

What can the intensity tell us about an earthquake?

The intensity describes the strength of an earthquake based on the extent of the destruction (buildings, landscape) and the subjective perception of an observer. The intensity of an earthquake is location-specific and is defined by the magnitude, the distance to the hypocenter and the geology of the subsurface. The European Macroseismic Scale 1998 (EMS-98) uses numbers between I (not felt) to XII (complete destruction) for the individual classification of earthquakes. Nowadays determining the intensity can be done instrumentally as well by looking at the peak ground movement velocities and accelerations at a station, among other considerations.

What is the instrumental intensity?

The instrumental intensity describes the shaking of the ground due to an earthquake. It is calculated from the peak ground acceleration and velocity amplitudes recorded at the measuring stations. In this way an overview of the distribution of ground movements in an area can be attained much quicker than by questioning the affected population and by damage evaluation, which are needed in the classical approach to creating an intensity map. The values can be displayed as dots on a map and/or they can be connected to form contours (ShakeMaps). As a simpler alternative to this shake maps can be created, which only contain the peak ground velocities and accelerations.

What is the twelve-stage European Macroseismic Scale 1998 (EMS-98)


Click on the picture for an enlarged version

What is the Peak Ground Acceleration (PGA)?

Earthquake waves cause a two-way movement of the ground in horizontal (parallel and perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation) and vertical direction. How big and how fast (acceleration and velocity) this deviation is depends on various factors: The length of the fault (magnitude), the distance between the station and the fault and the geology of the subsurface. The latter can have a large influence on the ground acceleration and wave form, which makes it very important to know about even slight changes in the subsurface below the station. It follows that the values of ground acceleration show a high variation even within small areas. This is especially true for medium to large-size earthquakes and interpolating the values is thus difficult. Generally the acceleration will decrease the further away we are from the fault. For the calculation of the PGA one considers only horizontal ground movements. The acceleration is given as a fraction or multiple of the Earth’s gravitational acceleration, g=9.81 ms−2. For small earthquakes (magnitude below 3) humans will mostly feel the acceleration (Wu et al., 2003). The values can be displayed on PGA or PGV maps, also referred to as shake maps (main source: Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington).

What is the Peak Ground Velocity (PGV)?

The PGV is measured in cm/s. For its calculation one uses the horizontal component of the ground movement, just like in the calculation for PGA. For medium and strong earthquakes the resulting velocity pattern mimics the geometry of the fault; the highest velocities occur close to the fault and in the direction of the spreading. The nature of the subsurface has an influence on the velocities as well, but this factor is much less important here than it is for the acceleration. Large-scale damage and damage to elastic structures are usually correlated with high velocities. The largest PGV ever measured was 183 cm/s. For small earthquakes (magnitude below 3) humans will mostly feel the acceleration (Wu et al., 2003). The values can be displayed on PGA or PGV maps, also referred to as shake maps (main source: Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington).

What are shake maps?

The peak horizontal ground movement during an earthquake can be displayed on so-called shake maps. They either refer to the peak ground velocity or the peak ground acceleration. For small earthquakes (magnitude below 3) humans will mostly feel the acceleration (Wu et al., 2003).

What is a strong-motion measuring station?

These measuring stations are designed specifically to record large ground movements which cannot be recorded without distortion by “normal” seismometers due to technical constraints (overdrive).

What is UTC time?

The Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) is the internationally valid world time. The universal time UT follows the variations of the Earth’s rotation by adjusting the length of the time unit; the UTC on the other hand achieves the same by introducing intercalary seconds, leading to the time units always being the same as the SI units used by the international atomic clock.


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