The Big One?

Source: Wikimedia

Type: Investigation

Theme: Modeling

Grades: 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Learning Target: Students will plot a frequency chart of 2.0-9.0 magnitude earthquakes in Seattle and determine the likelihood of a very large earthquake of occurring (6, 7, 8, 9) and compare that to news article predictions.


This is a group project. Submit as a Word Document or Sway.

  1. Research earthquake predictions from news articles in Seattle, Washington. Make a collection of five headlines with dates and first paragraph.
  2. Collect ten years earthquake data from Seattle area from the USGS Earthquake Catalogue. You will need to decide how large of an area to sample. Take a snip of your selection area. Select 1.0 and higher magnitude quakes. Export as a CSV file.
  3. Use a spreadsheet to count the number of quakes within a range of magnitudes, such as 1.0 to 1.9, 2.0 to 2.9...etc.
  4. Create a model:
    1. Middle School Students: Create a histogram with the raw data, snip, and estimate probability based on the curve. 
    2. High School Students: Use a spreadsheet to count the number of quakes within a range of magnitudes, such as 1.0 to 1.9, 2.0 to 2.9...etc. Graph your data, x-axis (magnitude), y-axis (number of quakes). Use an exponential equation to model the equation and create a function to estimate probability.
  5. Create a table with earthquakes probabilities from 2.0-9.0.
  6. Answer the following questions:
    1. How large of an area did you sample? Why did you choose that size?
    2. How do your probabilities match with reality?
    3. How do the newspaper headlines match your probabilities? 
  7. Obtain and provide a Peer Review.
  8. Revise your work.


  1. PowerPoint or Word document.
  2. Five news articles.
  3. Snip of earthquake selection area.
  4. Snip of graph, table of probabilties.
  5. Answers to questions.
  6. Peer Review

USGS Search Tips

  • Select output format: CSV
  • The tool can reset settings without warning
  • Desmos calculator has a 5000 limit for lists
  • Use 10 years of data and do a yearly probability by dividing by 10 (or 5 years/5)


Exit Ticket
CCSS Math Practice
  • I can construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
  • I can model with mathematics.
NGSS Crosscutting Concepts
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter


Example Sway (without graphics)