Earthquake in Virginia! August 23, 2011, the Day the Earth Shook Near the North Anna Power Plant

by DerdriuMarriner

The surprise earthquake in Mineral, Virginia, near Richmond, on August 23, 2011, brought attention to the state's little known, generally mild earthquake zones.

An earthquake in Virginia?

Possibly up until mid-afternoon on Tuesday, August 23, 2011, earth tremors were one of Virginia's little known secrets.

But an earthquake that slightly shakes the pre-Labor Day golf game of 44th U.S. President Barack Obama (born August 4, 1961) almost 600 miles (about 965 kilometers) away at Oak Bluffs' Farm Neck Golf Club on Martha's Vineyard, that prompts evacuation of the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol Building, and parts of the White House in the nation's capital and the FBI Building in New York City, and that initially is rated at 5.9 magnitude? An earthquake that is centered only 10 and 100 miles away from Virginia's two nuclear power plants?

Now that is an earthquake that definitely garners widespread attention.

beach at Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts: earthquake in Virginia was felt in northern Martha's Vineyard town, famous for colorful gingerbread cottages.

insular, southeastern Massachusetts
insular, southeastern Massachusetts

Amazing visualization of energy traveling out from Virginia earthquake


Please click on the link immediately below to view a beautiful visualization of the energy traveling out from this earthquake. Seismic energy is detected by over 4,000 sensors at over 400 broadband seismic stations across the United States. This instrumentation, which was installed beginning in 2004 under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, is integral to the EarthScope Array Project, which collects detailed seismic images with the objectives of studying and controlling earthquakes. The visualization was triggered with the first spasm at 17:51:03 UTC (1:51:03 p.m. EDT) and recorded seismic energy until 18:27:31 UTC (02:27:31 p.m. EDT).

Amazing visualization of the energy traveling out from Virginia, as detected by the EarthScope Array Project.



Twitter was flooded with tweets within seconds after earthquake hit Mineral, Virginia.

cartoon: In Case of Earthquake, Do Not Tweet
cartoon: In Case of Earthquake, Do Not Tweet

Where was I when the earth moved?


I was researching a Chesapeake Bay prehistoric marine invertebrate on the fourth-floor stacks of the Newman Library at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). Suddenly, the blinds on all four windows spaced along the wall quivered and whipped out and back against the glass. The low sound of wood teetering back and forth on casters spread quickly like a domino effect through all twelve study booths and then the mini-table at which I was seated. For a minute, I thought it was the effect of researching while plugged into the inspirational beauty of Mark Romero's "Midnight Sun."

But then to my left a young male student said, "Did you see what I just saw or did you imagine what I just imagined? The floor moved back and forth under my feet. Weird! Weird! The shelf that has the book I need just moved back and forth before my eyes. Weirder! Weirder!"

As a previous resident of Utah, I knew at that moment that it was, not the unimaginably energizing effects of Mark Romero's guitar-playing, but an earthquake.


Map of Mid-Atlantic area affected by Virginia earthquake

M5.8 - Virginia
M5.8 - Virginia

The earthquake that shook the Mid-Atlantic coast



At 1:51:04 p.m. Eastern Daylight time (17:51:04 UTC), an earthquake surprised the Mid-Atlantic eastern seaboard. Even more astonishingly, the epicenter of the earthquake was located in the seemingly quiet geology of the Commonwealth of Virginia.



Originally tying, at a rating of 5.9 magnitude, with the worst, reported Virginia earthquake, the earthquake was downgraded subsequently to 5.8 magnitude.



The epicenter is situated over 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Jamestown, the site of the first permanent English settlement in 1607 in the then-British Colony of Virginia.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey official report, the epicenter is located at 37.936° North, 77.933° West. That location is tracked to an unnamed road in Mineral, Virginia. Major highways which demarcate the epicenter include Goodwin Store Road (State Route 677) to the west, Cuckoo Road (State Route 643) to the north, and Indian Creek Road (State Route 699) to the east.

The epicenter is located less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station.


old Chesapeake & Ohio Depot (1880s), Historic District, Mineral, Virginia

Mineral, Virginia landmarks
Mineral, Virginia landmarks

Mineral, Virginia: pastoral beauty of former mining town with a nuclear power plant

Mineral, Virginia, is a quaint town in the county of Louisa in east central Virgina. The town was known formerly as Tolersville after its founder, Adam Toler (November 30, 1766 - March 20, 1813), a merchant and a Louisa County native.

Upon incorporation in 1902, Tolersville changed its name to Mineral in recognition of local mining industries, especially gold, which benefited the community. In fact, Mineral, with over a dozen gold mines, was the center of gold mining in Louisa County. Pyrite ore was also processed there to extract sulfur for the production of sulfuric acid, an integral component in many chemical processes. Additionally, Mineral was rich in lead. Mining occupied Mineral for almost 100 years, from the opening of gold mines in 1830 until the closing of the pyrite mines in 1921.


Mineral Baptist Church, built in 1906, now houses Mineral Historic Foundation & Museum, instrumental in garnering town's approval in December 2004 for listings on Virginia Landmarks Register and on National Register of Historic Places

Mineral, Virginia
Mineral, Virginia

Lake Anna State Park: former site of Goodwin Gold Mine, where gold was discovered in 1829; mining peaked in 1880s; park opened in 1983, built around Lake Anna, created in 1971 as water coolant for power stations.

from gold mining to recreation and nuclear power
from gold mining to recreation and nu...


Louisa County itself has an ideal location for businesses and residences at the center of a triangle formed by Fredericksburg to the north, Charlottesville to the west, and Richmond to the south.


As such, the Mineral area emerged in the twentieth century as a prime location for another industry: nuclear power plants.

  • Virginia's second set of nuclear reactors were installed on a 1,075 acre (4.35 square kilometers) site on the shores of scenic Lake Anna, at a distance of less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the town of Mineral with its over 400 inhabitants.


Seismic hazard map of the United States

Colors on map show levels of horizontal shaking that a 2-in-100 chance of being exceeded in a 50-year period. Shaking is expressed as a percentage of g (g is the acceleration of a falling object due to gravity).
2008 US National Seismic Hazard Maps
2008 US National Seismic Hazard Maps

U.S. Geological Survey's seismic hazard map: not much shaking from Virginia quakes


Interestingly, according to the U.S. Geological Survey's seismic hazard map of 2008, the infrequent earthquakes in east central Virginia -- and, in fact, throughout all of the nation's first colony -- are not envisioned as producing violent shaking of the ground at any of its power plants. Depth of the earthquake, frequency of waves emitted by the quake, and distance from epicenter are all factors which intensify or minimize shaking. The seismic hazard map is color coded according to levels of horizontal shaking with a 2-in-100 chance of being exceeded within a 50-year period. Shaking is expressed as a percentage of peak ground acceleration (pga), which is the acceleration of a galling object due to gravity (g).


USGS maps of (1) Earthquakes in Virginia and Vicinity 1774-2004; (2) May 31, 1897, Giles County, Virginia Earthquake; (3) Generalized Seismic Hazard of Virginia; (4) December 9, 2003, Central Virginia Earthquake

US Geological Survey
US Geological Survey

Virginia's seismic zone


Yes, Virginia does experience earthquakes. In fact, over 140 earthquakes were experienced in the Commonwealth between 1976 and the first reported earthquake on February 21, 1774, near Petersburg, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Richmond. Normally, seismic tantrums in the Old Dominion state whisper their energy waves into quiet dissipation.

Nevertheless, the seismic events which rankled the geologic landscape near Mineral on August 23, 2011, trembled into moderately strong waves of energy which radiated lengthily in every direction. This attention-craving quake reminded the United States -- specifically Virginia and its Mid-Atlantic stately colleagues -- that there are seismic zones in Virginia and that faults with devastating potentiality exist there. As evinced in historical accounts and in the visual geological record, scatterings of seismic activity are found throughout the state. Nevertheless, quakes primarily are concentrated either in central Virginia along the James River or in southwestern Virginia along the New River Valley in Giles County.


Central Virginia Quakemap spotlighting Mineral earthquake in geologic setting

Generalized geologic map of the central Virginia Piedmont with Faults and Earthquakes (M>2, 1973-2011)
Generalized geologic map of the central Virginia Piedmont with Faults and Earthquakes (M>2, 1973-2011)


The Mineral earthquake occurred within the central Virginia Seismic Zone, which stretches through central Virginia's Piedmont region with its low, rolling hills and complex geological formations intermingling vastly different materials from widely different ages. This seismic zone, which covers approximately 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) is far removed from the nearest plate boundaries, which are centered in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Nevertheless, this is a zone of persistent -- albeit largely unassuming -- earthquakes due to the lacings throughout of known faults, such as Lakeside and Spotsylvania, ancient faults which are the suspects in Mineral's tremors.

Additionally, although as yet largely undetected, numerous smaller or deeply buried faults are suspected in this stubbornly seismic zone. In fact, the eastern coast is believed to be riddled with faults which are unidentified because of their depth below the earth's surface.


Virginia's two main seismic zones: Piedmont region in central Virginia and Giles County in the southwest

Last 5.9 earthquake in Virginia: May 31, 1987 in Giles County


Virginia was last rattled by a tremblor with a magnitude of 3.9 well over a century ago on Monday, May 31, 1897. That epicenter was located in Pearisburg in picturesque Giles County in southwestern Virginia. County residents were disturbed by deafeningly loud, mysterious subterranean grumblings for weeks before the momentous outburst of energy. The warm sunshine of the last day of May was marred by incessant, startling detonations, which were likened to heavy thunder or to the explosion of distant artillery.


Isoseismal map of May 31, 1897, Giles County earthquake

jpg US Geological Survey
jpg US Geological Survey


At 1:58 p.m., the convulsions began, rocking and shaking buildings, jostling furniture, swaying chandeliers and doors to and fro, and rattling windows. 

  • "The earth seemed to rise and fall in waves" (Richmond Dispatch, June 1, 1897) while houses "were trembling like autumn leaves in a stiff breeze" (Roanoke Times, June 1, 1897).
  • Court proceedings were abandoned, and everywhere terrified people, rushing out of businesses and homes, spilled into the undulating streets.

After a few minutes an eerie stillness prevailed, followed by four separate aftershocks between 2 and 5 o'clock that afternoon (Richmond Dispatch, June 4, 1897).


Giles County Courthouse in Pearisburg: established in 1806, Giles County built courthouse in 1836 ~ beautiful survivor of 1897 earthquake

Giles County earthquake landmarks
Giles County earthquake landmarks


The quake that came to life on the warm, sunshiny last day of May was felt from Georgia northward to Pennsylvania and from the Atlantic Coast westward to Indiana and Kentucky. The quake ultimately laid claim to an area of about 280,000 square miles (725,197 square kilometers). Aftershocks continued for a week, through Sunday, June 6th.

The retrospective assignment of a magnitude of 5.8 to the Giles County earthquake is derived from written accounts of damages in journals and newspapers. Calamities included cracks in brick walls, toppled chimneys, changes in the flow of springs, and muddying of water in springs.

Another way to convey quake severity is with an isoseismal (Greek: ἴσος, isos, "equal" + σεισμός, seismos, "shaking, earthquake"), or "felt area," map. An isoseismal map is derived from perceived intensity of a quake on the basis of descriptive evidence, such as effects on water and types and extent of property damage. This perceived intensity is measured according to the Modified Mercalli scale, which was devised in 1902 by Italian seismologist Giuseppe Mercalli (May 21, 1850 - March 19, 1914) as a revision of the Rossi-Forel scale introduced in 1873 by Italian seismologist Michele Stefano Conte de Rossi (October 30, 1834 - October 23, 1898) and Swiss limnologist François-Alphonse Forel (February 2, 1841 - August 7, 1912).


"San Francisco in Ruins": May 28, 1906 aerial, panoramic photograph by George R. Lawrence (February 24, 1868 - December 15, 1938):

San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906 and devastating resulting fires are ranked among worst natural disasters in US history.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Earthquakes in California vs. those in Virginia: local concentration vs. distant dispersion


Earthquakes on the west coast differ from those on the east coast, specifically in Virginia.

  • In California, for example, where the San Andreas fault extrudes visibly upon the earth's surface, earthquakes tend to break the earth's surface.
  • Contrarily, faults lying at a depth of 3 to 15 feet (0.9 to 4.5 meters) usually activate quakes in Virginia, so surface faults are uninvolved.

Thus, it is easier to attribute accurate blame to the offending faults on the west coast.

Seismic waves travel further in Virginia where the bedrock is strong and well connected, whereas a quake's energy is dissipated quickly close to the epicenter on the west coast where the bedrock is extensively broken up.

  • Thus, a 5.5 magnitude earthquake causes immediate, intense local damage at its epicenter on the west coast but in Virginia clearly is felt well over 300 miles (500 kilometers) away from the epicenter and may cause noticeable damage at a distance of well over 25 miles (40 kilometers).

Moreover, the infrequency and general weakness of quakes on the east coast are reflected in reduced concern over establishing quake-proof building standards. Consequently, many buildings on the east coast may be troubled by higher magnitude quakes.


earthquake damage: shattered plate-glass storefront window and building displacement for Ferrell's Termite, Pest & Moisture Control in Bumpass, 11.5 miles (18.5 kilometers) southeast of Mineral

damage from Mineral, Virginia, earthquake
damage from Mineral, Virginia, earthquake

Mineral earthquake: damages and injuries


Aftershocks were experienced. For example, an aftershock with 4.5 magnitude was recorded at 05:07:50 UTC (1:07:50 a.m. Eastern daylight time) less than 48 hours later in the early morning hours --only one hour after midnight -- of Thursday, August 25, 2011. Aftershocks may continue for days, weeks, or even months.

No devastating losses and no fatalities were reported. Ephemeral inconveniences were encountered, such as:

  • in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Capitol Building was evacuated, the metro ceased, and monuments were closed on National Mall;
  • animals at the National Zoo displayed sensitivity by emitting alarm or distress calls, hiding, huddling, or writhing;
  • 3,000 books shuffled off their shelves onto the floor at the Louisa County Public Library in Mineral.

As for the library books, they were reshelved the next day by volunteers -- including students from Bethany Christian Church in nearby Bumpass -- who just wanted to help.


Nevertheless, consequential damages occurred:

  • Assuredly irreplaceable family heirlooms were broken and damaged.
  • A few miles from the epicenter, damage was inflicted on almost every home in the Shannon Glen subdivision of the town of Louisa, the county seat, and only one homeowner there was covered by earthquake insurance.
  • In the nation's capital, 84 miles (135 kilometers) to the northeast, the National Cathedral experienced an estimated million dollars in damage. Battered the most were central tower pinnacles, with the top third of the southwestern pinnacle breaking off -- despite its weight of 3,000 pounds (1,361 kilograms, or 1.5 tons) -- and, fortunately, falling inward onto the roof instead of outward and down to the ground. Also fortunately the poured concrete roof is supported by massive poured concrete beams and is able to support the toppled weight. Nevertheless, the price tag for moderate repairs was estimated at $15 to $20 million+ and will take a decade to complete.

At Virginia Tech, safety personnel efficiently and courteously evacuated library denizens to safety outdoors. The respite outside was brief so definitely attitudes were upbeat. Soon the welcome announcement was made that it was safe to re-enter the library. Conversations momentarily ensued concerning the epicenter. With relief I settled at my research post and was soon transported to the intriguing marine environment of the benevolent Chesapeake Bay.


when the earth quakes: a gathering crowd of evacuees from buildings in the town center of Kingstowne, eastern Fairfax County, Virginia

about 80 miles (128.7 kilometers) northeast of epicenter
about 80 miles (128.7 kilometers) northeast of epicenter

Mineral earthquake: memorable or forgettable?


Soon this seismic outburst will be only a faint, or even lost, memory for many. Nevertheless, there are many who will not forget Tuesday, August 23, 2011, the day the earthquake dragon rasped a cough outside of Mineral, Virginia, that noisily shrugged its way in any and all directions and revisited a similar event over 100 years before. Those whose lives were disrupted, those who occupationally respond as emergency personnel for public safety, and those who research and study earthquakes will be among the memory-keepers of this day in August which started out with sunny warmth, just as in Giles County long before.


Four days after Mineral earthquake, Hurricane Irene slammed Virginia's east coast as aftershocks continued: 3 deaths and estimated $39 million in damage/emergency costs, but Mineral was spared a second onslaught.

morning after Irene: Gloucester Point, southeastern Virginia
morning after Irene: Gloucester Point, southeastern Virginia



This article is dedicated to:

  • those who experienced distress as a result of the Mineral, Virginia, earthquake;
  • all the emergency personnel and others who helped people and organizations distressed by this earthquake;
  • all those who research and study earthquakes in order to improve our ability as humans to survive when the earth quakes.


Two structural engineer rappellers from Wiss Janney Elstner Associates inspect the bottom third of the Washington Monument for damage on month after August 23, 2011, quake.

Washington Monument, September 30, 2011
Washington Monument, September 30, 2011



My special thanks to talented artists and photographers/concerned organizations who make their fine images available on the internet.


Episcopal Church of Incarnation: Gothic Revival-style church is Mineral's oldest and most decorative, built 1902 - 1903

intact survivor of Mineral earthquake
Mineral Historic District
Mineral Historic District

Sources Consulted


Bailey, Chuck. "All Shook Up! The 2011 Virginia Earthquake." William & Mary Blogs. December 22, 2011. William & Mary. Blogs.

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Bailey, Chuck.“It’s not my fault." William & Mary Blogs. August 23, 2011. William & Mary. Blog.

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Bailey, Chuck. "Whose Fault Is It? The 2011 Virginia Earthquake (Part 2)." William & Mary Blogs. January 9, 2012. William & Mary. Blog. wmblogs.wmedu

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Bentley, Callan. "The Mineral, VA earthquake of August 23, 2011 - Updated." AGU Blogosphere - Mountain Beltway. August 23, 2011. American Geophysical Union. Blog.

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"Earthquakes." Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy > Division of Geology and Mineral Resources > Geologic Hazards. Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. Web.

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"Earthquakes in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone." Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory Outreach. Virginia Polytechnic and State University. Web. Cached page last accessed August 23, 2014: 

"Giles County Earthquake of May 31, 1897 News Reports." Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory Outreach. Virginia Polytechnic and State University. Web.

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Grymes, Charles A. "Virginia Earthquakes." Virginia Places > The Natural Setting > Rocks and Ridges. Charles A. Grymes. Web.

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Hopper, Margaret G., and Gil A. Bollinger. The Earthquake History of Virginia 1774 - 1900. Blacksburg VA: Department of Geological Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1971.

Hopper, Margaret G., and Gil A. Bollinger. The Earthquake History of Virginia 1900 to 1980. Blacksburg VA: Department of Geological Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1972.

Imster, Eleanor. "How animals at National Zoo reacted to August 23 D.C. earthquake." Earthsky > Blogs > Earth > Biodiversity. August 24, 2011. Earthsky Communications Inc. Blog.

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Lasch, David K. "On Earthquakes." Virginia Minerals, Volume 23, No. 1 (February 1977): 1-12.

"Magnitude 5.8 - Virginia - 2011 August 23 17:51:04 UTC." Earthquakes > Present > Real-time. U.S. Geological Survey.

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Reitherman, Robert K. 21 April 2012. Earthquakes and Engineers: An International History. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers Press.

Shepherd, James W. "Nixing the Netting." Washington National Cathedral > Shareholders Bulletin. December 10, 2013. Washington National Cathedral. Web.

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Stover, Carl W., and Jerry L. Coffman. Seismicity of the United States 1568 - 1989. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527. Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1993.

Tarr, Arthur C., and Russell L. Wheeler. "Earthquakes in Virginia and Vicinity 1774 - 2004." U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2006-1017. Reston VA: U.S. Geological Survey, 2006.

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U.S. Geological Survey. "The Fall Line." A Tapestry of Time and Terrain: The Union of Two Maps -- Geology and Topography. Last modification: 18 October 2000. U.S. Geological Survey. Web.

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Wood, L. J. "Hog Island." 2007. MPA Global: A database of the world's marine protected areas. Sea Around Us Project, UNEP-WCMC & WWF. University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre.

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Stained glass light rainbows across earthquake netting in National Cathedral, September 13, 2012: Fortunately stained glass windows were not damaged, but netting was installed as precaution during thorough inspection.

Netting to be removed over a period of 20 months beginning in February, 2014.
interior National Cathedral, Washington DC
interior National Cathedral, Washington DC
the end which is also the beginning
the end which is also the beginning

Earthquakes and Engineers: An International History by Robert K. Reitherman

First comprehensive treatment of the engineering techniques devised around the world to address seismic problems.
earthquake-themed books



Me and my purrfectly purrfect Maine coon kittycat, Augusta "Gusty" Sunshine

Gusty and I thank you for reading this article and hope that our product selection interests you; Gusty Gus receives favorite treats from my commissions.
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
DerdriuMarriner, All Rights Reserved
Updated: 11/13/2021, DerdriuMarriner
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DerdriuMarriner on 08/25/2014

frankbeswick, Those earthquakes in the high 5 end of the scale definitely are noticeable.
That's an interesting question that you pose about a connection with collapsing old mine shafts because the Mineral area had a mining heyday.
Also interesting is that of the two main earthquake areas in Virginia -- central Piedmont region (scene of Mineral earthquake) and southwestern sector (Valley and Ridge region) -- the latter (where the Giles County earthquake occurred in 1897) abounds in karst landscape.

frankbeswick on 08/25/2014

Excellent and informative article. I have only experienced a few quakes, the worst being two on the Richter scale, so I cannot but imagine what a 5.9 feels like. Do you think some of the tremors were augmented by old mine shafts collapsing? This is what caused an earthquake cluster in Manchester in the early years of this century. The scale 2 was the worst, but there were several scale 1 quakes; and it is no coincidence that the city contains many old mine shafts dating as far back as the industrial revolution.

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