Earthquakes since 1841. Red indicates quakes greater than magnitude 6 in size. (Credit: Australian Geographic)

Australia's worst earthquakes

  • BY Tiffany Hoy |
  • July 10, 2012

Australia has few big earthquakes, but some of them have caused great devastation. Here are the 10 most significant.

EARTHQUAKES CAN STRIKE anywhere and at any time as tectonic plates mash and grind against each other.

You may think Australia is relatively safe, being in the middle of a tectonic plate, but we are actually rattled by roughly one small earthquake a day, says Clive Collins, a seismologist at Geoscience Australia.

The Indo-Australian plate, on which our continent lies, is colliding with the Pacific plate in the east and the Eurasian plate to the north.

"When [the plates] are moving and jostling around they're getting pushed on one side and pulled on the other, so stresses build up inside the plate itself," Clive explains. "When these forces get big enough they actually break the rock, which causes vibrations in the Earth that we feel as an earthquake."

About every five years the pent up stresses give rise to an earthquake in Australia of Magnitude 6 or greater. If the quake takes place under a city, especially if shallow, it can cause catastrophic damage.

But it's hard to predict when and where a major earthquake will strike. "If you imagine you have a piece of glass or crockery and you press down hard on one side, eventually it's going to break - but you never know when or where - it could crack anywhere," says Clive.

Our best bet is to look at the historic record, going back 150 years or so, to pinpoint our earthquake hotspots. Seismologists have identified three main regions - in southwest Western Australia, along the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, and in a broad area from Tasmania to northern New South Wales - where violent earthquakes most often occur.

Note: As of 2016, the Inernational Seismological Centre and Geoscience Australia have revised the magnitude scores of Australia's earthquakes. The scores below have been updated. Read more: Australia has a new biggest earthquake.

Here are the top 10 worst Australian earthquakes in modern times

Ranking is by cost, magnitude and damage.

1. Newcastle, New South Wales, 28 December 1989 (Magnitude 5.6)
One of Australia's worst natural disasters, the 1989 Newcastle earthquake killed 13 people and hospitalised 160. It caused an estimated $4 billion of damage to 35,000 homes, 147 schools and 3000 buildings. Damage was reported over an area of 9,000 sq km, with movement up to 800km away. The amount of devastation was unusual for a relatively small magnitude earthquake. Experts say soft sediments in the ground may have intensified the shaking, to a strength the older buildings could not withstand.

2. Beachport, South Australia, 10 May 1897 (Magnitude 6.5)

Fifty people were injured in this earthquake, which occurred off the coast between Beachport and Robe, but was felt throughout southern South Australia and in south-western Victoria. Most of Beachport and Robe were destroyed, and Kingston and Mount Gambier also faced severe damage. The earth heaved in waves and ruptured to a depth of 4m. In Adelaide, crowds panicked as buildings swayed, suffering minor injuries as they rushed to the exits. The quake also caused liquefaction - when water-saturated sediments loosened into quicksand erupted at Robe, Beachport and Kingston in sand volcanoes and water spouts. Ninety aftershocks were felt at Kingston in the following two days and continued for many months.

3. Meckering, Western Australia, 14 October 1968 (Magnitude 6.5)

The small town of Meckering, 130km east of Perth, was destroyed by the second strongest onshore earthquake recorded in Australia. Twenty people were injured and 50 buildings damaged, with a cost of $1.5 million (equal to about $57 million today). In Perth buildings swayed for three minutes, and tremors were felt up to 700km from the epicentre. Before the earthquake, Meckering had 51 dwellings, 12 businesses and 15 public buildings. Only 16 houses and three businesses survived. The ground ruptured in a scarp 37km long, and where the fault crossed the highway, the road was split by a step 1.5m high. Railway lines buckled and a water main folded upon itself.

4. Ellalong, New South Wales, 6 August 1994 (Magnitude 5.4)

Five people were injured and 1000 homes damaged in this earthquake, which hit the Hunter region of New South Wales to the tune of $37.2 million in insurance payouts (equivalent to $115 million today). Fifty hotels and other buildings suffered serious damage. The quake was the biggest in the region since Newcastle 1989.

5. Adelaide, South Australia, 1 March 1954 (Magnitude 5.5)
Citizens of Adelaide woke at 3.45am to the first earthquake to hit the city in almost 100 years. It caused three serious injuries and damaged 3000 buildings with cracked walls, smashed windows and collapsed chimneys in the southern suburbs, plus cracks in several big city buildings. The cost has been estimated at $8 million (about $50 million today), with 30,000 insurance claims filed - but much of the property wasn't insured. As Adelaide sits on heavy clay and rock, amplification of the tremors is thought to have been reduced, resulting in less damage than is normally expected of a quake of this magnitude.

6. Warooka, South Australia, 19 September 1902 (Magnitude 6.0)

The second-largest recorded South Australian earthquake, this disaster claimed two lives and damaged stone and masonry buildings. It was the first earthquake in Australia to have associated fatalities - with two people suffering heart attacks. Only one small building in the town escaped damage. A local newspaper, The Advertiser, reported: "Women and children rushed screaming into the street, cows bellowed, horses stampeded as if mad, and altogether the scene was one of indescribable noise and confusion."

7. Meeberrie, Western Australia, 29 April 1941 (Magnitude 6.3)
Australia's fifth largest earthquake caused little devastation as it shook Meeberrie, an area where few people lived. It did, however, crack all the walls of Meeberrie homestead, a heritage listed station north of Mullewa, from floor to ceiling, burst the rainwater tanks and rupture the ground. Minor damage was reported in Perth, 500km away. No injuries were recorded.

8. Tennant Creek, Northern Territory, 22 January 1988 (Magnitude 6.3-6.6)

Three earthquakes of greater than magnitude 6 rattled Tennant Creek in one day, each about half an hour apart. At magnitude 6.6, the largest of these is considered Australia's biggest earthquake. Considering the intensity of the quakes, damage was remarkably small. The tremors warped the natural gas pipeline and opened a 35km long fault scarp, with a step of 2m. Two buildings and three other structures - including the hospital - were damaged, with a total cost of $2.5 million. No injuries were reported. Thousands of aftershocks continued over a number of years. Seismic activity still occurs in the region.

9. Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia, 20 April 2010 (Magnitude 5.0)

Felt up to 200km away from the epicentre, this earthquake caused major damage to the historic buildings in Kalgoorlie-Boulder and injured two people. The strongest quake in the goldfields region for 50 years, it shut down the local mines temporarily, including the Super Pit, the largest open cut mine in Australia.
Some scientists suggest the earthquake may have actually been a 'rock-burst', induced by deep mining and not a natural quake at all.

10. Cadoux, Western Australia, 2 June 1979 (Magnitude 6.1)

The second-most damaging earthquake in the history of Western Australia injured one person and struck 25 buildings in the wheatbelt town of Cadoux, 180km northeast of Perth. Roads, railway lines, pipes and power lines were damaged in an area of about 400 sq km, at an estimated total cost of $3.8 million (at the time). A fault, 15km long, opened on the Earth's surface - significant because only about 12 earthquakes in Australia's modern history have caused the ground to rupture. Tall buildings swayed in Perth, and mercury spilled at the Rottnest Island lighthouse.

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