This is the Biggest and Most Damaging Earthquake in West Virginia’s History


An earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 happened on August 23, 2011, near Mineral, Virginia. This is about 160 km south of Washington, D.C. From Maine to Georgia and even some parts of Canada, people in the eastern United States felt the quake.

A lot of buildings, roads, and landmarks were damaged, and several nuclear plants had to shut down because of it. For the people of West Virginia, though, it was more than just a strange and scary event. It was the biggest quake their state had ever seen.

How Big Did It Get?

The USGS says that the 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Virginia in 2011 was the biggest in the central and eastern U.S. since a 5.9 magnitude earthquake near Giles County, Virginia, in 1897. It was also the biggest quake West Virginia had felt since the USGS started keeping track in 1973.

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The USGS said the quake produced about 3.9 x 10^15 joules of energy, which is the same as 933 kilotons of TNT or 62 Hiroshima bombs. About one-third of the people in the U.S., or 100 million people, felt the quake. The depth of the quake was also very shallow—only about 6 km.

Because of this, the shaking was stronger and spread farther than a lower quake of the same size. The USGS said that people in 12 states and Washington, D.C. felt the quake at an intensity of VII (very strong) on the Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI) scale, which is close to the epicenter. In other places, people felt it at an intensity of IV (light) or higher.

What Made it Happen?

There was an earthquake in Virginia in 2011. It happened in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone (CVSZ), which goes from Charlottesville to Richmond. The CVSZ is a part of the Appalachian Mountains, which were made when the old continents of Laurasia and Gondwana crashed into each other about 300 million years ago.

The CVSZ is not near any active plate lines, which is where most earthquakes happen. It is an intraplate earthquake zone, which means it is inside a single geographic plate. It’s still not clear what causes intraplate earthquakes, but here are some things that could be to blame:

Stress transfer: When tectonic plates move along faraway limits, stress can be transferred to the inside of the plates, which can bend and break them.
Ancient faults: The CVSZ may have old, weak faults that were formed when the Appalachians were being formed or during earlier geological events. Stress or fluid pressure can set these problems off again.
core dynamics: The flow of hot, rising material in the Earth’s core may affect the CVSZ. This flow can make the crust rise or fall or experience shear stress.

What Were the Effects?

The 2011 Virginia earthquake caused extensive damage to buildings, infrastructure, and historical sites in the impacted area. Some of the more noteworthy impacts are:

Washington Monument: The Washington Monument’s marble and granite facade is cracked and chipped, and its elevator and lighting systems have been damaged. The monument was shuttered for restoration for nearly three years before reopening in 2014.
National Cathedral: The National Cathedral’s Gothic-style pinnacles, buttresses, gargoyles, and stained glass windows were all severely damaged. The renovations are expected to cost over $34 million and are still proceeding as of 2021.

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Louisa County High School: The school, which lies near the epicenter, was extensively damaged by the quake, requiring students and faculty to transfer to temporary buildings for over two years. The school was refurbished and reopened in 2013.
North Anna Nuclear Power Station: The nuclear facility, located approximately 18 kilometers from the epicenter, suffered ground shaking that exceeded its design limitations, resulting in the automatic shutdown of its two reactors. The factory was shut down for almost two months and underwent comprehensive inspections and modifications before resuming operations.

The earthquake also resulted in minor casualties, power outages, gas leaks, and traffic delays in the impacted area. However, no fatalities have been reported as a direct result of the earthquake.

What Does It Teach Us?

The 2011 Virginia earthquake was unusual and came as a surprise. It made us think about the risk of earthquakes in the central and eastern U.S. It also showed how important it is to be better prepared for and able to handle natural disasters. The earthquake taught us a lot of things, such as:

Monitoring earthquakes: The USGS and other groups are using seismometers, GPS, satellite images, and other tools to study and keep an eye on the CVSZ and other intraplate earthquake zones. These data can help us learn more about what causes intraplate earthquakes and how they happen. They can also help us make more accurate predictions and assessments of risk.

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Building codes: The earthquake showed how weak many buildings and structures in the area were, especially those that were constructed before modern seismic design standards were put in place. The earthquake also caused the national seismic danger maps to be updated. These maps are used to guide building codes and rules in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

Public awareness: The earthquake made people more aware of the risk of earthquakes in the area and how important it is to have emergency plans and kits, lock up furniture and equipment, and follow the “drop, cover, and hold on” rule during an earthquake. The earthquake also led to the creation of the Great ShakeOut drill, which gets millions of people across the country to practice how to stay safe during an earthquake every year.


Overall, the 2011 Virginia earthquake had a big effect on the central and eastern U.S., even though it happened in an intraplate zone, which was not expected. It made people more aware of the dangers of earthquakes, which led to better tracking, changes to building rules, and more people being ready. The damage to famous buildings during the earthquake made it clear how important it is to be resilient to earthquakes. This is one of the lessons we are still learning about earthquake science and being ready for disasters.

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