- The sudden release of accumulated stress in the Earth by movement or shaking. Earthquakes are caused by tectonic activity, volcanoes and human activity (such as explosions). Earthquakes occur in the outer 720 km [445 miles] of the Earth, where rocks tend to break rather than flow under stress. The magnitude of earthquakes is determined according to the logarithmic Richter scale. An earthquake of magnitude 4.5 can cause damage, although humans can feel earthquakes as weak as magnitude 2.0. The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 measured 8.25 on the Richter scale, and the largest ever recorded were 8.9 magnitude earthquakes in Colombia and Ecuador (1906) and Japan (1933), and 9.5 in Chile (1960).