Is New York City Overdue for a Major Earthquake?

The earthquake that hit the Northeast on Friday morning rattled nerves but did not do much damage. Still, it left many New Yorkers wondering how afraid they should be of a bigger one hitting closer to the city.

The answer? It’s hard to say.

Some news reports suggest that a large earthquake is “due” in New York City because moderate ones — with a magnitude of 5 or more — typically occur every few hundred years. The last one took place in the 1700s. Friday’s earthquake, in comparison, was a magnitude 4.8.

In 2008, Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found that the risk of earthquakes in the New York City area was greater than previously believed. That is because smaller earthquakes occur regularly in New York City, like a magnitude 1.7 earthquake that was recorded in Astoria, Queens, in January.

Experts caution that it is impossible to know when an earthquake will strike or how much damage it might cause. But if an earthquake much stronger than Friday’s were to hit closer to New York City, “it would be a different story,” said Kishor S. Jaiswal, a research structural engineer with the U.S. Geological Survey. Forecasts from the city suggest that such a quake could result in dozens of injuries and billions of dollars in damage.

There were few reports of damage or injuries after Friday’s earthquake. Still, city officials said they were inspecting bridges, train tracks and buildings, and that people should be prepared for aftershocks for at least several days.

Earthquakes with a similar magnitude to Friday’s are “rare, but they’re not unheard-of” close to New York City, said Leslie Sonder, an associate professor of earth sciences at Dartmouth College.

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