What’s the Most Powerful Earthquake to Ever Strike New York State?
When you think of natural disasters striking New York state, you may think of only blizzards, floods, or hurricanes. However, while the West Coast gets all the attention when it comes to powerful earthquakes, they do occur in New York as well. Most here are small and have little damaging effect on any surrounding areas. But every now and then the Earth will surprise us. According to the NESEC, around 551 earthquakes were recorded in New York state from 1737-2016.
The first earthquake to hit the state of New York in 2022 was a 2.3 magnitude tremor in Boonville on January 10. Most earthquakes that happen within the state are either far north towards Quebec, in western New York around Lake Ontario, or closer to the New York City area. The most well known fault line near our area is the Ramapo fault line. The 185 mile system of faults runs through parts of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and has been known to spawn smaller earthquakes.
But could something as strong as a magnitude 7.0 ever occur on this fault?
Some say this fault system is much more complex and extensive than originally thought. A 2008 study proposed that there may be an additional fault zone extending from the Ramapo Fault into southwestern Connecticut. There are also many smaller faults that criss-cross across New York City, and the city could be long overdue for a significant earthquake.
There is also the Western Quebec Seismic Zone, which can produce larger quakes that can be felt up and down the eastern coast of the United States, particularly for their neighbors directly south in the Empire State. This is where the strongest quakes happen near us.
New York state's all-time most powerful earthquake?
According to the NESEC, the largest earthquake centered in New York state happened on September 5, 1944. The magnitude 5.9 quake, with an epicenter beneath the New York-Canada border, did major damage in the towns of Massena, NY, and Cornwall, Ontario. Heavy damage was recorded in the town of Massena (St. Lawrence County), with a number of chimneys, windows, housing foundations, and a high school gymnasium reported destroyed.
New York City has suffered two damaging quakes of note. The first was December 18, 1737, when a 5.2 struck in the Greater New York City area. However, since it was so long ago, little is known about the epicenter or the extent of the damage. Another 5.2 quake struck on August 10, 1884, in Brooklyn, which cracked houses, tossed objects off shelves and shook towns in New York and New Jersey.
An interesting note
When earthquakes hit states like California, they typically are felt across a smaller area. But when the slightly weaker quakes occasionally strike the eastern U.S. or Canada, they can be felt over a much wider area, extending hundreds of miles. Why is this? According to CBS, the Earth's crust over this region is much older, colder, and more healed versus out west which is far more seismically active. But when a quake does occur here, the harder, smoother ground is more effective at conducting seismic waves. One Columbia University professor compares it to striking a bell. So, a strong quake in the middle of Quebec, or even New Jersey, can be felt across many portions of New York.
Who remembers August 23, 2011, when a 5.9 quake centered in Mineral, Virginia was felt up and down the entire East Coast, including New York? On October 19, 1985, a 4.0 magnitude quake struck the town of Ardsley in Westchester County.