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For other uses, see Earthquake (disambiguation).
Global earthquake epicenters, 1963–1998
Global earthquake epicenters, 1963–1998

An earthquake is a sudden and sometimes catastrophic movement of a part of the Earth's surface. Earthquakes result from the dynamic release of elastic strain energy that radiates seismic waves. Earthquakes typically result from the movement of faults, planar zones of deformation within the Earth's upper crust. The word earthquake is also widely used to indicate the source region itself. The Earth's lithosphere is a patch work of plates in slow but constant motion (see plate tectonics). Earthquakes occur where the stress resulting from the differential motion of these plates exceeds the strength of the crust. The highest stress (and possible weakest zones) are most often found at the boundaries of the tectonic plates and hence these locations are where the majority of earthquakes occur. Events located at plate boundaries are called interplate earthquakes; the less frequent events that occur in the interior of the lithospheric plates are called intraplate earthquakes (see New Madrid Seismic Zone). Earthquakes also occur in volcanic regions and as the result of a number of anthropogenic sources, such as reservoir induced seismicity, mining and the removal or injection of fluids into the crust. Seismic waves including some strong enough to be felt by humans can also be caused by explosions (chemical or nuclear), landslides, and collapse of old mine shafts, though these sources are not strictly earthquakes.



Large numbers of earthquakes occur on a daily basis on Earth, but the majority of them are detected only by seismometers and cause no damage (magnitude 5).

Most earthquakes occur in narrow regions around plate boundaries down to depths of a few tens of kilometres where the crust is rigid enough to support the elastic strain. Where the crust is thicker and colder they will occur at greater depths and the opposite in areas that are hot. At subduction zones where plates descend into the mantle earthquakes have been recorded to a depth of 600 km.

Large earthquakes can cause serious destruction and massive loss of life through a variety of agents of damage, including fault rupture, vibratory ground motion (i.e., shaking), inundation (e.g., tsunami, seiche, dam failure), various kinds of permanent ground failure (e.g. liquefaction, landslide), and fire or a release of hazardous materials. In a particular earthquake, any of these agents of damage can dominate, and historically each has caused major damage and great loss of life, but for most of the earthquakes shaking is the dominant and most widespread cause of damage. There are four types of seismic waves that are all generated simultaneously and can be felt on the ground. S-waves (secondary or shear waves) and the two types of surfaces waves (Love waves and Rayleigh waves) are responsible for the shaking hazard.

Section of collapsed freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Section of collapsed freeway after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Most large earthquakes are accompanied by other, smaller ones, that can occur either before or after the principal quake — these are known as foreshocks or aftershocks, respectively. While almost all earthquakes have aftershocks, foreshocks are far less common occurring in only about 10% of events. The power of an earthquake is distributed over a significant area, but in the case of large earthquakes, it can spread over the entire planet. Ground motions caused by very distant earthquakes are called teleseisms. The Rayleigh waves from the Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake of 2004 caused ground motion of over 1 cm even at the seismometers that were located the greatest distance from it. Using such ground motion records from around the world it is possible to identify a point from which the earthquake's seismic waves appear to originate. That point is called its "focus" or "hypocenter" and usually proves to be the point at which the fault slip was initiated. The location on the surface directly above the hypocenter is known as the "epicenter". The total size of the fault that slips, the rupture zone, can be as large as 1000 km, for the biggest earthquakes. Just as a large loudspeaker can produce a greater volume of sound than a smaller one, large faults are capable of higher magnitude earthquakes than smaller faults are.

Earthquakes, especially those that occur beneath oceans or seas (also called seaquake) and have large vertical displacements, can give rise to tsunamis, either as a direct result of the deformation of the sea bed due to the earthquake, or as a result of submarine landslips or "slides" indirectly triggered by it.

Earthquake Size

The first method of quantifying earthquakes was intensity scales. In the United States the Mercalli (or Modified Mercalli, MM) scale, is commonly used while Japan (shindo) and the EU (European Macroseismic Scale) each have their own scales. These assign a numeric value (different for each scale) to a location based on the size of the shaking experienced there. The values 6 (normally denoted ‘’VI’’) in the MM scale for example is:

Everyone feels movement. People have trouble walking. Objects fall from shelves. Pictures fall off walls. Furniture moves. Plaster in walls might crack. Trees and bushes shake. Damage is slight in poorly built buildings. No structural damage.

The problem with these scales is the measurement is subjective, often based on the worst damage in an area and influenced by local effects like site conditions that make it a poor measure for the relative size of different events in different places. For some tasks related to engineering and local planning it is still useful for the very same reasons and thus still collected. If you feel an earthquake in the US you can report the effects to the USGS here: Did you feel it?

The first attempt to qualitatively define one value to describe the size of earthquakes was the magnitude scale (the name being taking from similar formed scales used on the brightness of stars). In the 1930s, a California seismologist named Charles F. Richter devised a simple numerical scale (which he called the magnitude) to describe the relative sizes of earthquakes in Southern California. This is known as the “Richter scale”, “Richter Magnitude” or “Local Magnitude” (ML). It is obtained by measuring the maximum amplitude of a recording on a Wood-Anderson torsion seismometer (or one calibrated to it) at a distance of 600km from the earthquake. Other more recent Magnitude measurements include: body wave magnitude (mb), surface wave magnitude (Ms) and duration magnitude (MD). Each of these is scaled to gives values similar to the values given by the Richter scale. However as each is also based on the measurement of one part of the seismogram they do not measure the overall power of the source and can suffer from saturation at higher magnitude values (larger events fail to produce higher magnitude values).These scales are also empirical and as such there is no physical meaning to the values. They are still useful however as they can be rapidly calculated, there are catalogues of them dating back many years and are they are familiar to the public. Seismologists now favor a measure called the seismic moment, related to the concept of moment in physics, to measure the size of a seismic source. The seismic moment is calculated from seismograms but can also by obtained from geologic estimates of the size of the fault rupture and the displacement. The values of moments for different earthquakes ranges over several order of magnitude. As a result the moment magnitude (MW) scale was introduced by Hiroo Kanamori, which is comparable to the other magnitude scales but will not saturate at higher values.

A Shakemap recorded by the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network that shows the instrument recorded intensity of the shaking of the Nisqually earthquake on February 28, 2001.
A Shakemap recorded by the Pacific Northwest Seismograph Network that shows the instrument recorded intensity of the shaking of the Nisqually earthquake on February 28, 2001.
A Community Internet Intensity Map generated by the USGS that shows the intensity felt by humans by ZIP Code of the shaking of the Nisqually earthquake on February 28, 2001.
A Community Internet Intensity Map generated by the USGS that shows the intensity felt by humans by ZIP Code of the shaking of the Nisqually earthquake on February 28, 2001.


Most earthquakes are powered by the release of the elastic strain that accumulate over time, typically, at the boundaries of the plates that make up the Earth's lithosphere via a process called Elastic-rebound theory. The Earth is made up of tectonic plates driven by the heat in the Earth's core. these plates collide against each other all the time but sometimes the gaps between them are stressed. Eventually, the plates make way and all that energy is sent out in the form of seismic waves. Deep focus earthquakes, at depths of 100's km, are possibly generated as subducted lithospheric material catastrophically undergoes a phase transition since at the pressures and temperatures present at such depth elastic strain cannot be supported. Some earthquakes are also caused by the movement of magma in volcanoes, and such quakes can be an early warning of volcanic eruptions. A rare few earthquakes have been associated with the build-up of large masses of water behind dams, such as the Kariba Dam in Zambia, Africa, and with the injection or extraction of fluids into the Earth's crust (e.g. at certain geothermal power plants and at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal). Such earthquakes occur because the strength of the Earth's crust can be modified by fluid pressure. Earthquakes have also been known to be caused by the removal of natural gas from subsurface deposits, for instance in the northern Netherlands. Finally, ground shaking can also result from the detonation of explosives. Thus scientists have been able to monitor, using the tools of seismology, nuclear weapons tests performed by governments that were not disclosing information about these tests along normal channels. Earthquakes such as these, that are caused by human activity, are referred to by the term induced seismicity.

Another type of movement of the Earth is observed by terrestrial spectroscopy. These oscillations of the earth are either due to the deformation of the Earth by tide caused by the Moon or the Sun, or other phenomena.

Preparation for earthquakes

Specific fault articles

Specific earthquake articles

See also List of earthquakes

See also

External links

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