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Rhode Island Earthquakes

History of Earthquakes in Rhode Island

The earthquake history of Rhode Island predates the coming of European settlers.  In 1638, a strong earthquake was felt throughout the New England colonies.  Roger Williams, who had recently founded the Rhode Island Plantation, wrote about his experiences in that event, for which he reported that the ground shaking was not as strong where he was than was felt in Plymouth and Boston in the Massachusetts colony to the north.  He also reported on a conversation with the local Native Americans, the oldest of whom told him that they had previously experienced four strong earthquakes in Rhode Island.  These earthquakes took place about the years 1568, 1574, 1584 and 1592.  The local Native Americans in Rhode Island even had a word for earthquake in their language, “Naunaumemoauke”.

Map of Earthquakes of the Northeastern US and Southeastern Canada 1975 to 2017

Rhode Island has had a number of small and moderate earthquakes centered within the state, primarily in its southern part, and the state has been shaken strong by several earthquakes that were centered beyond its boundaries.  Throughout 2016, a total of 34 felt earthquakes have been centered in Rhode Island since the first known shock on August 25, 1776.  Of these felt earthquakes, only one caused some slight damage.  That event took place at 12:20 pm on June 10, 1951 and had a magnitude of 4.6.  The earthquake was centered a few miles south of Westerly, RI, and it was felt across Connecticut, Rhode Island and the south coast of Massachusetts to Cape Cod.  Some dishes were knocked from shelves and plaster was reported cracked in a few buildings in Newport, RI.  Many people in Westerly, RI were so frightened by the shaking that they ran from their homes. Residents jammed the telephones lines following the earthquake in their attempts to find out what had happened.  At 10:30 p.m. on February 27, 1883, an earthquake took place that was felt over a very similar area as that on June 10, 1951.  Although there has been no special study of the 1883 earthquake by seismologists, from the area over which it was felt and the effects reported due to the earthquake, it likely had an epicenter near that of the June 10, 1951 earthquake and perhaps had a slightly smaller magnitude than the 1951 shock.

Earthquakes Outside of Rhode Island Having Notable State Impacts

Some of the strong earthquakes that were centered outside of Rhode Island had notable effects within the state.  The November 18, 1755 magnitude 6.2 Cape Ann, MA earthquake caused strong ground shaking throughout the state of Rhode Island.  Some chimneys were reported damaged in Rhode Island due to that earthquake.  Although no primary reports describe its effects in Rhode Island, an earthquake of about magnitude 7.5 in Quebec on February 5, 1663 (January 25, 1662 on the Julian calendar that was in use in the British colonies at the time) must have been strongly felt throughout Rhode Island.  Many other notable northeastern earthquakes were felt in Rhode Island but did not cause any damage there.  These include events on October 29, 1727 in Massachusetts (magnitude 5.6), March 1, 1925 in Quebec (magnitude 6.2), November 18, 1929 at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland (magnitude 7.2), January 9, 1982 in New Brunswick (magnitude 5.8), November 25, 1988 in Quebec (magnitude 5.9), and August 23, 2011 in Virginia (magnitude 5.9).

Rhode Island Information and Links


Prepared in Consultation with Professor John E. Ebel PhD. Boston College, Weston Observatory