Hands-on Activity: Mercalli Scale Illustrated

Contributed by: Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder

The aftermath of a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami in Japan: A large ferry boat rests inland around destroyed houses.
Students learn about the Mercalli Scale for rating earthquakes.
Copyright © http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c7/US_Navy_110320-M-0145H-063_A_large_ferry_boat_rests_inland_amidst_destroyed_houses_after_a_9.0_earthquake_and_subsequent_tsunami_struck_Japan_March.jpg


In this activity, students will learn about the Mercalli Scale for rating earthquakes. Also, students will make a booklet with drawings that represent each rating of the scale.

Engineering Connection

Engineers often invent scales or systems to use as measurement tools. To protect people from the force of earthquakes, they continually improve the methods used to predict and rate (or score) earthquakes. Rating earthquakes helps engineers determine which ones are going to cause the most damage so they can warn people in advance. With improved engineering technology to predict the size and force of earthquakes, cities and communities have more time to prepare themselves from harm.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Understand the difference between the Richter Scale and the Mercalli Scale for rating earthquakes (a scale that uses instruments and a scale that uses human observation, respectively).
  • Explain the different levels of the Mercalli Scale using words or pictures.
  • Understand how a community could use the Mercalli Scale.
  • Understand why engineers develop rating scales for earthquakes.
  • Explain the Mercalli Scale on their own through drawing and writing.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Analyze and interpret data on natural hazards to forecast future catastrophic events and inform the development of technologies to mitigate their effects. (Grades 6 - 8) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Analyze and interpret data identifying ways Earth's surface is constantly changing through a variety of processes and forces such as plate tectonics, erosion, deposition, solar influences, climate, and human activity (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Develop and communicate an evidence based scientific explanation around one or more factors that change Earth's surface (Grade 5) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each student should have:

  • 4 ½ sheets (cut lengthwise) of white copy paper
  • 1 ½ sheet (cut lengthwise) of any color construction paper
  • Variety of crayons, colored pencils, and markers
  • Stapler (students may share)


Engineers work very hard to protect humans from the potentially dangerous force of earthquakes. They are continuously trying to improve the ways to predict and rate (or score) earthquakes. If engineers can develop better technology for predicting the size and force of earthquakes, then cities and communities can work to keep themselves from harm.

There are many ways that we can rate events that occur during everyday life. We can use scales, rubrics, points, letter and numbers to show the level of something. Can you think of any examples? We use a grading scale in school when we get an A, B or C. Some schools use a numeric grading system for the same level of work, where an A is equal to a 4, a B to a 3, and so on. We sometimes assign points to a homework assignment to rate how well we did. Even sports teams have different levels to make sure that teams with the same ability play each other.

By rating earthquakes, engineers can predict which quakes are going to cause the most damage and warn humans about them. There are two commonly-used ways of rating earthquakes: 1) the Richter scale and 2) the Mercalli Scale.

The Mercalli Scale was used earlier than the Richter Scale. It describes the damage left by an earthquake, not the actual force of the earthquake. The Mercalli Scale uses human observation to assess damage from an earthquake, while a Richter Scale uses instruments to measure how much force an earthquake produces, or the size of its waves. Today, we are going to look at the Mercalli Scale's damage rating and create a booklet to help inform citizens of potential danger.


Before the Activity

  • Cut all necessary paper needed for the class activity.
  • Make copy of the Mercalli Scale Handout, one per student.
  • Make one Mercalli Scale booklet as an example by following steps 2 – 5 below.

With the Students

  1. Lead a brief discussion around the topic of the Mercalli Scale, as described above. Has anyone ever heard of the Mercalli scale? What does it measure? (Answer: the damage left by an earthquake) Today we will learn more about this scale.
  2. Layer the four pieces of white copy paper in one stack with one piece of construction paper on top for the cover.
  3. Fold in half to make a small booklet.
  4. Staple the booklet along the fold.
  5. Tell students to label and illustrate the cover. It can be labeled the "Mercalli Scale." (Write the words on the board for them to copy.) Tell students to draw a picture having to do with an earthquake or the Mercalli Scale. Suggest a house or building that has been damaged by an earthquake or a picture of the Earth shaking.
  6. Number the pages from I to XII.
  7. Break up the class into pairs.
  8. Distribute copies of the Mercalli Scale handout for each pair of students.
  9. Review the purpose of the Mercalli Scale with the students, as described in the Introduction/Motivation section.
  10. Brainstorm with the students how they might illustrate one of the pages.
  11. Show the students the example booklet.
  12. Instruct students to illustrate each page to describe the destruction of each level of earthquake based on the 12 point Mercalli Scale.
  13. If time permits, have the students write a sentence on the bottom of each page describing the illustration.


Troubleshooting Tips

If students are having difficulty brainstorming drawings for the different levels of the Mercalli Scale, have them brainstorm ideas with their partner or as a group.

It may be helpful to put the scale up on the board and read it aloud with the students. The class could even draw one level of the scale at a time together.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Class Discussion: As a class, have students engage in open discussion. Solicit, integrate and summarize student responses. Ask the students:

  • Has anyone ever been in an earthquake?
  • How they think engineers and scientists measure earthquake damage?
  • Can they think of examples where something has a rating or a level?

Activity Embedded Assessment

With Words and Pictures: Have students write a sentence on the bottom of each page of their information booklet describing their illustration of the Mercalli Scale rating.

Post-Activity Assessment

Pairs Check/Sharing with the Community: Have students share their booklets with a partner or the person next to them. Does the booklet make sense? Are there any suggestions for improvement? Using a deck of cards or by calling random numbers between 1 and 12, have the students show their drawing of what would happen during an earthquake with that Mercalli rating.

Activity Extensions

Students can research famous earthquakes on the Internet and discover the Mercalli Scale level for each one. A good website to visit is: http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/ngdc.html.

List some famous earthquakes and their Richter Scale measurements. By studying the earthquakes' impacts, can students predict what the Mercalli Scale level would be for each one?

  • The San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which measured 8.3 on the Richter Scale.
  • California's Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was a 7.1.
  • Alaska in 1964 was an 8.5.
  • Tokyo in 1923 was an 8.2.
  • Chile in 1960 was an 8.5.
  • China in 1976 was a 8.0.




Jessica Todd; Melissa Straten; Malinda Schaefer Zarske; Janet Yowell


© 2004 by Regents of the University of Colorado.

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


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