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Earthquakes and the Poisson Distribution


Recommendations for Integration:

  • This RWLO has been designed for use in either a basic or business statistics class to use as a practice exercise for calculating Poisson probabilities.
  • It is recommended that Microsoft Excel be used to perform the calculations, but Minitab or a calculator with statistical functions could be used as well. To reinforce the use of various technologies, the calculations could be done using any combination of the above methods, and including calculations by hand.
  • A follow-up activity, especially at the high-school level, could be to continue collecting data each month for several months. Then have students do a similar activity by picking out those earthquakes that have magnitude greater than 5 or 6 and changing the interval of time used.



  • If activity is to be done in class, save a recent copy of the earthquake data to a portable device. Make copies of all handouts for students.
  • Also, for an in-class activity, have the students make the frequency distribution and histogram, and calculate the mean and standard deviation by hand. Remind students of the Poisson formula to calculate the probabilities by hand. For the last two probability calculations, a calculator with statistical functions (such as the TI-83 Plus) would make more efficient the rote calculations. This would be good opportunity to give the students "previews of coming attractions" by telling them that the normal distribution (to be learned later) can help with cumbersome calculations if certain conditions are met.