Can a destructive earthquake hit NYC? Here's what experts say

Could New York City experience a powerful, destructive earthquake?

On Friday, the USGS reported a 4.8-magnitude earthquake in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. The quake could be felt in NYC, including in the FOX 5 NY Manhattan newsroom, and as far away as Philadelphia and Long Island. 

Quakes on the West Coast – and recently Taiwan – make headlines for their damage, but they're a threat to the East Coast as well.

"An earthquake is an earthquake, no matter [where] it happens," Dr. Lucy Jones, a seismologist, told FOX 5 NY. "The fact that earthquakes cannot be predicted is a large part of what makes them so frightening. We are much more afraid of something when we don't know when it's coming."

Jones, of the Center for Science and Society, is the author of the book "The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us."

Damaging earthquakes have occurred in nearly every eastern state, including New York. The largest were two magnitude-5.2 earthquakes that occurred in 1737 and 1884. Terrified New Yorkers reported cracked chimneys and plaster, broken windows and objects thrown from shelves throughout the city.

The New York area is in the middle of a tectonic plate and therefore experiences so-called intraplate earthquakes. These tend to be smaller and happen less frequently.

"If a magnitude-5 earthquake happens in California, it's potentially less devastating than a magnitude-5 earthquake in the East Coast. And that's because the geology in the East Coast – the ground is colder, older and more brittle," seismologist Thersa Sawi of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory told FOX 5 NY. "So when seismic waves hit, it rings through the ground like a bell. And those seismic waves can be felt at a greater distance on the East Coast."

Lamont-Doherty monitors and records data on earthquakes that occur in the Northeast where seismic waves can travel easily through its dense ground.

"Earthquakes that happen all along the Eastern Seaboard. They might be able to be felt as far north as New York City," Sawi said.

This was evident in August 2011 when a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and was felt as far away as New York City. That earthquake was strong enough to crack the Washington Monument right through the middle.

And, did you know that the subway isn't the only source of ground rumbling in West Harlem? A fault line that lies right across 125th Street is one of numerous fault lines that run through the city. In fact, six fault lines run through Manhattan. One of them, called the East River Fault, runs down the western side of Central Park before turning at 32nd Street and heading to the East River.

The New York City Area Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation says the city's earthquake hazard is moderate. However, it is unclear if one of the fault lines could be a source of a strong earthquake. And the potential damage concerns many experts.

"I think you should be more concerned about your older mid-rise buildings, the 5- to 10-story level," Jones said. "Those probably haven't been engineered for winds, and therefore will be more susceptible to what happens in an earthquake."

One of the country's oldest seismic observatories sits on the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx where worldwide earthquakes have been recorded since 1924. Inside a small gothic stone building 28 feet underground is a seismometer encased in plexiglass that collects data for the United States Geological Survey.

"We are one of the stations that monitors for seismic activity in the Northeast," said Stephen Holler, an associate professor of physics at Fordham University. He monitors and analyzes the data that comes into the underground lab.

"All of this old equipment that we have has basically been miniaturized and put into this can," Holler said. "It has the same functionality as all the other devices that I showed you in here. But, it's all been compacted."

For 100 years, this lab was responsible for collecting the data on significant seismic events, like China's first atomic explosion in 1964.

"If there was some shaking in this slab as a wave came up, it would cause this piece to oscillate up and down," Holler said.

Although this classic equipment has not been used since the 1990s, it remains here for students to experience the physical principles learned in the classroom. The Fordham seismometer is one of three in New York City. The other two are located in Central Park and at Queens College.

"Probably in your lifetime, living in the East Coast, you will be feeling earthquakes, probably a few," Jones said. "And you have a decent chance of having a damaging one nearby."

Editor's note: This article was originally published in December 2020.