Earthquakes and tsunamis
Millions of earthquakes occur around the world each year. Most are too small or deep to cause significant problems. However, larger ones have the potential to cause serious injury and damage.
Explore this page to learn:
- the basics about earthquakes
- where earthquakes are common
- advice before travelling to an earthquake region
- what to do if there's an earthquake
- where to get help after an earthquake
This page is for Australians planning to travel to a destination where earthquakes are common. If you're already travelling and need help, see what to do if there's been an earthquake.
The basics about earthquakes
What causes earthquakes
The movement causes vibration deep below the ground, which in turn vibrates the surface. The bigger the movement and closer it is to the surface, the bigger the earthquake.
Magnitude and intensity
The size of the earthquake is called the 'magnitude'. The most common measurement used is the moment magnitude (US Geological Survey, USGS).
In the past, most countries reported earthquakes on the Richter scale. While not universal anymore, authorities in some destinations still use it.
Larger numbers means a bigger earthquake, and impact.
- You may barely notice an earthquake with a magnitude of 4. This is just a slight tremor and very common.
- The 1989 Newcastle earthquake was a magnitude of 5.6.
- The undersea earthquake near Indonesia that caused the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami was 9.1, the second largest ever recorded. Over 230 000 people died.
Geoscience Australia is the Australian Government's authority on earthquakes. They record, measure and report on earthquakes worldwide.
Dangers and risks
In an earthquake, most people are injured or die from falling buildings, debris and fires. If the earthquake causes a tsunami, many deaths are from drowning.
- The violent shaking can fracture structures. Once weakened, buildings collapse. This can trap or kill people inside.
- Earthquakes often damage water, gas and electricity lines. These can be underground, or in buildings. Ruptured gas lines can ignite, especially if the earthquake has also dislodged or exposed electrical wiring.
- Without running water and electricity, sanitation is an issue. Water-borne infectious diseases, including cholera, are common.
In developing countries, the impacts of an earthquake or tsunami may increase.
Poor building regulations and infrastructure may mean buildings and utilities are less able to withstand damage. Emergency responders may not have the level of training or resources as their counterparts in more developed nations.
Before you travel to a destination that experiences earthquakes
- Read our travel advisory for your destination. For some, we provide advice and information on earthquake and tsunami risks.
- Subscribe for updates. We will email you when we update our advice for your destination. If you add your mobile number, we can send critical alerts by text.
- Do your research. Find out how often your destination experiences earthquakes. Know how effective their emergency response is.
- Get travel insurance. Make sure it covers you for cancellations or changes if there's an earthquake before you get there. Check if it covers you if an earthquake happens when you're there.
- Be cautious about booking accommodation in high rise buildings. Especially in developing countries. Only book accommodation built to withstand earthquakes.
- If you're staying near the coast in an earthquake area, know the warning signs of a tsunami. You may only have minutes to get to safety.
- Accommodation by the beach is at higher risk during a tsunami. Higher up the hill may be a wiser choice.
- Know what to do during an earthquake or tsunami to stay safe. Read our advice, and that of your hotel and local emergency services.
Destinations where earthquakes are more common
Some destinations that Australians often travel to experience more frequent earthquakes. Some of these are:
This list isn't exhaustive. For more information, see the map of earthquake-prone areas (Global Seismic Hazard Assessment Program).
Living overseas in an earthquake-prone area
If you live in an area where earthquakes are common, plan ahead.
- Identify a room in your house or workplace that can be used as a shelter following a disaster. Water, food, and clean air are vital when sheltering in place.
- Have a basic emergency supply kit available at all times. Include items for individual needs such as medications and infant formula.
- Have a pair of closed-toed shoes within reach of your bed to use if you must walk over debris and broken glass following a major earthquake.
Some countries provide comprehensive advice on how to prepare for an earthquake, including how to prepare basic emergency kits and emergency plans, for example:
Follow the advice of local emergency services in the country you're in.
What to expect when a major earthquake occurs
If a major earthquake occurs, it is possible that the following will happen.
- There may be a very loud noise like a passing train.
- Buildings and the ground may shake violently for between 15 and 90 seconds. Sometimes even longer.
- Weak building facades may collapse onto the streets. Glass windows and panels may shatter, and roof tiles may dislodge.
- It may be hard to stand up or walk while the ground is shaking. In severe cases, the movement may throw you to the ground.
- Electricity, water and gas may fail or be switched off.
- Sprinkler systems and fire alarms may trigger.
- Phone systems may shut down for significant periods after an earthquake. This can be landlines and mobile services. You may not have internet access.
- A tsunami may occur in coastal areas or in areas bordering large lakes. Pay attention to any tsunami warnings after an earthquake.
- Be prepared for aftershocks. These may be stronger than the first tremor. Aftershocks can occur in the minutes, days, weeks and even months after an earthquake.
What to do during an earthquake
Shelter in place
Taking appropriate shelter is critical in a disaster. It may be safer to shelter inside rather than evacuate a building.
It may also be some days before authorities are able to assist you.
Follow instructions from local authorities. If these instructions are not available, use your judgment based on the information at hand.
If you're inside when the shaking starts
- In most situations you will reduce your chance of injury from falling objects if you drop, cover and hold on.
- Move as little as possible during an earthquake. Stay calm.
- Stay away from windows. This helps prevent flying glass injuring you.
- Stay indoors until the shaking stops and you're sure it's safe to exit. Many deaths or injuries occur when people try to move too soon. They're often hit by debris and other flying or falling objects.
- If you must leave the building after the shaking stops, use stairs rather than an elevator. Just in case there's aftershocks, power outages or other damage.
- Fire alarms and sprinkler systems frequently go off in buildings during an earthquake, even if there's no fire.
If you're outside when the shaking starts
- Find a clear spot and lie on the ground. Stay there until the shaking stops, away from buildings, power lines, trees or street lights. Stay calm.
- If you're in a vehicle, pull over to a clear location and stop. Avoid bridges, overpasses and power lines if possible. Stay inside with your seat belt fastened until the shaking stops. Then, drive carefully, avoiding bridges and ramps that may have been damaged.
- If a power line falls on your vehicle, don't get out. Wait for help.
- If you're in a mountainous area or near unstable slopes or cliffs, be alert for falling rocks and other debris. Earthquakes can trigger landslides.
Where to get help after an earthquake
- Contact local emergency services. We publish local contact numbers in the travel advisory for each destination.
- Talk to your hotel manager or tour guide. They may know what to do, where to go and where you can get help locally.
- Seek help and support from your travel companions. Help them if they're in need.
- Contact your friends and family back home. They may not be able to help you on the ground, however they may be able to help change your travel plans and talk to your insurer.
- Contact your travel insurer. Most have 24-hour emergency hotlines you can call from overseas. If you're covered, they may provide logistical support, as well as financial.
In some circumstances, the Australian Government may help. In most cases, you must exhaust all other avenues before seeking consular assistance.
It's important to understand how and when we may help. Read the Consular Services Charter.
- If you're already travelling and need help, see what to do if there's been an earthquake.
- Water-borne infectious diseases, including cholera, are common after an earthquake.
- Understand how and when we may help. Read the Consular Services Charter.
Cyclones, hurricanes, typhoons, monsoons and tornadoes are serious risks in some destinations. In others, it's severe winter weather you need to prepare for.
Find out what to do if you're travelling overseas and a volcano has erupted in or near your location. Learn how and where to get help.