The US’s east coast was hit by an “unusual” earthquake registering 5.8 in magnitude.

The earthquake which was felt from New York to Virginia and led to the Capitol and Pentagon being evacuated is one of the biggest to hit the area since 1897.

The quake's strength was “highly unusual”, a Brown University seismology professor Karen Fisher said.

“This is the largest earthquake by far that I am aware of occurring there in recent history,”.

California seismologist Peggy Hellweg said the earthquake’s reach, compared Californian earthquake was down to the difference terrain between the two areas"

“(California's) ground is all of this chopped-up stuff – like a pile of marbles,” she said, saying shockwaves don’t travel as far due to the West Coast’s geology.

“What you've got [on the east coast] is gorgeous bedrock (and) the waves propagate beautifully.”

This means seismic shockwaves on the east coast are less frequent than those in the west but are normally felt over a wider region.

The east coast doesn’t straddle two tectonic plates the way the the west coast does with the San Andreas line so, “There's no driving engine in terms of the two plates sliding past each other – so that's why it's much more unusual,” she added.

No major damage or fatalities were reported in the "once in a century" quake but some east coast nuclear plants halted operations as a precaution.

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