At 2:14pm today, a relatively weak earthquake struck outside of Charleston, South Carolina, not far from where a catastrophic earthquake hit in 1886. While there has been unusual earthquake activity in South Carolina over the last year, today’s earthquake was the first to strike in the Charleston area in the same amount of time. The magnitude 1.4 event struck just south-southwest of Centerville, between the Legend Oaks Golf Club and Westcott Golf Club near the Ashley River north and west of downtown Charleston.
While people in South Carolina did use the “Did you feel it?” tool on the USGS earthquake website to provide a report on this quake, no shaking nor damage was reported as of this time. Generally, earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.0 or greater can be felt by most people. Earthquakes generally need a much greater intensity than that to do any harm.
According to the South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD), there are approximately 10-15 earthquakes every year in South Carolina, with most not felt by residents; on average, only 3-5 are felt each year. Most of South Carolina’s earthquakes are located in the Middleton Place-Summerville Seismic Zone. The two most significant historical earthquakes to occur in South Carolina were the 1886 Charleston-Summerville quake and the 1913 Union County quake. The 1886 earthquake in Charleston was the most damaging earthquake to ever occur in the eastern United States; it was also the most destructive earthquake in the U.S. during the 19th century.
The 1886 earthquake struck at about 9:50 pm on August 31; it was estimated to have been rated a magnitude 6.9 – 7.3 seismic event. The earthquake was felt as far away as Boston, Massachusetts to the north, Chicago, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the northwest, and New Orleans, Louisiana to the south. The earthquake energy even traveled as far away as Cuba and Bermuda, where some shaking was felt too. The initial earthquake lasted about 45 seconds.
The 1886 Charleston earthquake was responsible for 60 deaths and over $190 million (in 2023 dollars) in damage. The area of major damage extended out 60-100 miles from the epicenter, with some structural damage even reported in central Alabama, Ohio, eastern Kentucky, southern Virginia, and western West Virginia from the initial quake.
A study published in 2008 in the Journal of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering hypothesized that if such an earthquake were to strike the region today, it would lead to approximately 900 deaths, 44,000 injuries, and damages in excess of $20 billion in South Carolina alone.
The initial earthquake was followed by an aftershock 10 minutes later; over the first 24 hours, seven additional strong aftershocks hit. Over the following 30 years, a total of 435 aftershocks were measured.
Today’s earthquake near Charleston does not appear to be related to a mysterious swarm impacting places in central South Carolina. More than 80 earthquakes have hit near Elgin since December 2021.
That mysterious swarm began on Monday, December 27, at 2:18 pm in the afternoon. That first 3.3 magnitude earthquake hit 30 miles north of Columbia, South Carolina at a depth of only 3.1 km. More than 3,100 residents reported to USGS they felt it at the time, with one report of shaking coming from as far away as Rock Hill, which is at the North/South Carolina state border. While many felt the earthquake, there was no reported damage in the Palmetto State. That earthquake was followed by 10 more ranging in intensity between a magnitude 1.5 to a magnitude 2.6 event. The second earthquake struck three hours twenty minutes after the first one. The last earthquake in that series struck on the morning of January 5, bringing a temporary end to the earthquakes there.
But the earthquakes didn’t end then. Since then, dozens of earthquakes have hit the area near Elgin, South Carolina, generating hundreds of reports of shaking to USGS’s “Did you feel it?” tool on their earthquake website. Some earthquakes happen right after another, others have struck after a pause lasting weeks. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to this swarm, other than most earthquakes are under a 3 magnitude.
USGS scientists will continue to monitor all of South Carolina for any ongoing seismic activity.