Earthquake is a shaking of the ground caused by the sudden breaking and shifting of large sections of Earth’s rocky outer shell. Earthquakes are among the most powerful events on earth, and their results can be terrifying. A severe earthquake may release energy 10,000 times as great as that of the first atomic bomb. Rock movements during an earthquake can make rivers change their course. Earthquakes can trigger landslides that cause great damage and loss of life. Large earthquakes beneath the ocean can create a series of huge, destructive waves called tsunamis (tsoo NAH meez)that flood coasts for many miles.
Earthquakes almost never kill people directly. Instead, many deaths and injuries result from falling objects and the collapse of buildings, bridges, and other structures. Fire resulting from broken gas or power lines is another major danger during a quake. Spills of hazardous chemicals are also a concern during an earthquake.
The force of an earthquake depends on how much rock breaks and how far it shifts. Powerful earthquakes can shake firm ground violently for great distances. During minor earthquakes, the vibration may be no greater than the vibration caused by a passing truck.
On average, a powerful earthquake occurs less than once every two years. At least 40 moderate earthquakes cause damage somewhere in the world each year. Scientists estimate that more than 8,000 minor earthquakes occur each day without causing any damage. Of those, only about 1,100 are strong enough to be felt.
This article discusses Earthquake (How an earthquake begins) (How an earthquake spreads) (Damage by earthquakes) (Where and why earthquakes occur) (Studying earthquakes).
How an earthquake begins
Most earthquakes occur along a fault — a fracture in Earth’s rocky outer shell where sections of rock repeatedly slide past each other. Faults occur in weak areas of Earth’s rock. Most faults lie beneath the surface of Earth, but some, like the San Andreas Fault in California, are visible on the surface. Stresses in Earth cause large blocks of rock along a fault to strain, or bend. When the stress on the rock becomes great enough, the rock breaks and snaps into a new position, causing the shaking of an earthquake.
Earthquakes usually begin deep in the ground. The point in Earth where the rocks first break is called the focus, also known as the hypocenter, of the quake. The focus of most earthquakes lies less than 45 miles (72 kilometers) beneath the surface, though the deepest known focuses have been nearly 450 miles (700 kilometers) below the surface. The point on the surface of Earth directly above the focus is known as the epicenter of the quake. The strongest shaking is usually felt near the epicenter.
From the focus, the break travels like a spreading crack along the fault. The speed at which the fracture spreads depends on the type of rock. It may average about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) per second in granite or other strong rock. At that rate, a fracture may spread more than 350 miles (560 kilometers) in one direction in less than three minutes. As the fracture extends along the fault, blocks of rock on one side of the fault may drop down below the rock on the other side, move up and over the other side, or slide forward past the other.
How an earthquake spreads
When an earthquake occurs, the violent breaking of rock releases energy that travels through Earth in the form of vibrations called seismic waves. Seismic waves move out from the focus of an earthquake in all directions. As the waves travel away from the focus, they grow gradually weaker. For this reason, the ground generally shakes less farther away from the focus.
There are two chief kinds of seismic waves: (1) body waves and (2) surface waves. Body waves, the fastest seismic waves, move through Earth. Slower surface waves travel along the surface of Earth.
Body waves tend to cause the most earthquake damage. There are two kinds of body waves: (1) compressional waves and (2) shear waves. As the waves pass through Earth, they cause particles of rock to move in different ways. Compressional waves push and pull the rock. They cause buildings and other structures to contract and expand. Shear waves make rocks move from side to side, and buildings shake. Compressional waves can travel through solids, liquids, or gases, but shear waves can pass only through solids.
Compressional waves are the fastest seismic waves, and they arrive first at a distant point. For this reason, compressional waves are also called primary (P) waves. Shear waves, which travel slower and arrive later, are called secondary (S) waves.
Body waves travel faster deep within Earth than near the surface. For example, at depths of less than 16 miles (25 kilometers), compressional waves travel at about 4.2 miles (6.8 kilometers) per second, and shear waves travel at 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers) per second. At a depth of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers), the waves travel more than 11/2 times that speed.
Surface waves are long, slow waves. They produce what people feel as slow rocking sensations and cause little or no damage to buildings.
There are two kinds of surface waves: (1) Love waves and (2) Rayleigh waves. Love waves travel through Earth’s surface horizontally and move the ground from side to side. Rayleigh waves make the surface of Earth roll like waves on the ocean. Typical Love waves travel at about 23/4 miles (4.4 kilometers) per second, and Rayleigh waves, the slowest of the seismic waves, move at about 21/4 miles (3.7 kilometers) per second. The two types of waves were named for two British physicists, Augustus E. H. Love and Lord Rayleigh, who mathematically predicted the existence of the waves in 1911 and 1885, respectively.
Damage by earthquakes
How earthquakes cause damage
Earthquakes can damage buildings, bridges, dams, and other structures, as well as many natural features. Near a fault, both the shifting of large blocks of Earth’s crust, called fault slippage, and the shaking of the ground due to seismic waves cause destruction. Away from the fault, shaking produces most of the damage. Undersea earthquakes may cause huge tsunamis that swamp coastal areas. Other hazards during earthquakes include rockfalls, ground settling, and falling trees or tree branches.
The rock on either side of a fault may shift only slightly during an earthquake or may move several feet or meters. In some cases, only the rock deep in the ground shifts, and no movement occurs at Earth’s surface. In an extremely large earthquake, the ground may suddenly heave 20 feet (6 meters) or more. Any structure that spans a fault may be wrenched apart. The shifting blocks of earth may also loosen the soil and rocks along a slope and trigger a landslide. In addition, fault slippage may break down the banks of rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water, causing flooding.
Ground shaking causes structures to sway from side to side, bounce up and down, and move in other violent ways. Buildings may slide off their foundations, collapse, or be shaken apart.
In areas with soft, wet soils, a process called liquefaction may intensify earthquake damage. Liquefaction occurs when strong ground shaking causes wet soils to behave temporarily like liquids rather than solids. Anything on top of liquefied soil may sink into the soft ground. The liquefied soil may also flow toward lower ground, burying anything in its path.
An earthquake on the ocean floor can give a tremendous push to surrounding seawater and create one or more large, destructive waves called tsunamis, also known as seismic sea waves. Some people call tsunamis tidal waves, but scientists think the term is misleading because the waves are not caused by the tide. Tsunamis may build to heights of more than 100 feet (30 meters) when they reach shallow water near shore. In the open ocean, tsunamis typically move at speeds of 500 to 600 miles (800 to 970 kilometers) per hour. They can travel great distances while diminishing little in size and can flood coastal areas thousands of miles or kilometers from their source.
Structures collapse during a quake when they are too weak or rigid to resist strong, rocking forces. In addition, tall buildings may vibrate wildly during an earthquake and knock into each other. Picture San Francisco earthquake of 1906 A major cause of death and property damage in earthquakes is fire. Fires may start if a quake ruptures gas or power lines. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake ranks as one of the worst disasters in United States history because of a fire that raged for three days after the quake.
Other hazards during an earthquake include spills of toxic chemicals and falling objects, such as tree limbs, bricks, and glass. Sewage lines may break, and sewage may seep into water supplies. Drinking of such impure water may cause cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other serious diseases.
Loss of power, communication, and transportation after an earthquake may hamper rescue teams and ambulances, increasing deaths and injuries. In addition, businesses and government offices may lose records and supplies, slowing recovery from the disaster.
Reducing earthquake damage
In areas where earthquakes are likely, knowing where to build and how to build can help reduce injury, loss of life, and property damage during a quake. Knowing what to do when a quake strikes can also help prevent injuries and deaths.
Where to build
Earth scientists try to identify areas that would likely suffer great damage during an earthquake. They develop maps that show fault zones, flood plains (areas that get flooded), areas subject to landslides or to soil liquefaction, and the sites of past earthquakes. From these maps, land-use planners develop zoning restrictions that can help prevent construction of unsafe structures in earthquake-prone areas.
How to build
An earthquake-resistant building includes such structures as shear walls, a shear core, and cross-bracing. Base isolators act as shock absorbers. A moat allows the building to sway. Image credit: World Book illustration by Doug DeWitt
Engineers have developed a number of ways to build earthquake-resistant structures. Their techniques range from extremely simple to fairly complex. For small- to medium-sized buildings, the simpler reinforcement techniques include bolting buildings to their foundations and providing support walls called shear walls. Shear walls, made of reinforced concrete (concrete with steel rods or bars embedded in it), help strengthen the structure and help resist rocking forces. Shear walls in the center of a building, often around an elevator shaft or stairwell, form what is called a shear core. Walls may also be reinforced with diagonal steel beams in a technique called cross-bracing.
Builders also protect medium-sized buildings with devices that act like shock absorbers between the building and its foundation. These devices, called base isolators, are usually bearings made of alternate layers of steel and an elastic material, such as synthetic rubber. Base isolators absorb some of the sideways motion that would otherwise damage a building.
Skyscrapers need special construction to make them earthquake-resistant. They must be anchored deeply and securely into the ground. They need a reinforced framework with stronger joints than an ordinary skyscraper has. Such a framework makes the skyscraper strong enough and yet flexible enough to withstand an earthquake.
Earthquake-resistant homes, schools, and workplaces have heavy appliances, furniture, and other structures fastened down to prevent them from toppling when the building shakes. Gas and water lines must be specially reinforced with flexible joints to prevent breaking.
Safety precautions are vital during an earthquake. People can protect themselves by standing under a doorframe or crouching under a table or chair until the shaking stops. They should not go outdoors until the shaking has stopped completely. Even then, people should use extreme caution. A large earthquake may be followed by many smaller quakes, called aftershocks. People should stay clear of walls, windows, and damaged structures, which could crash in an aftershock.
People who are outdoors when an earthquake hits should quickly move away from tall trees, steep slopes, buildings, and power lines. If they are near a large body of water, they should move to higher ground. Where and why earthquakes occur
Scientists have developed a theory, called plate tectonics, that explains why most earthquakes occur. According to this theory, Earth’s outer shell consists of about 10 large, rigid plates and about 20 smaller ones. Each plate consists of a section of Earth’s crust and a portion of the mantle, the thick layer of hot rock below the crust. Scientists call this layer of crust and upper mantle the lithosphere. The plates move slowly and continuously on the asthenosphere, a layer of hot, soft rock in the mantle. As the plates move, they collide, move apart, or slide past one another.
The movement of the plates strains the rock at and near plate boundaries and produces zones of faults around these boundaries. Along segments of some faults, the rock becomes locked in place and cannot slide as the plates move. Stress builds up in the rock on both sides of the fault and causes the rock to break and shift in an earthquake.
There are three types of faults: (1) normal faults, (2) reverse faults, and (3) strike-slip faults. In normal and reverse faults, the fracture in the rock slopes downward, and the rock moves up or down along the fracture. In a normal fault, the block of rock on the upper side of the sloping fracture slides down. In a reverse fault, the rock on both sides of the fault is greatly compressed. The compression forces the upper block to slide upward and the lower block to thrust downward. In a strike-slip fault, the fracture extends straight down into the rock, and the blocks of rock along the fault slide past each other horizontally.
Most earthquakes occur in the fault zones at plate boundaries. Such earthquakes are known as interplate earthquakes. Some earthquakes take place within the interior of a plate and are called intraplate earthquakes.
Interplate earthquakes occur along the three types of plate boundaries: (1) mid-ocean spreading ridges, (2) subduction zones, and (3) transform faults.
Mid-ocean spreading ridges are places in the deep ocean basins where the plates move apart. As the plates separate, hot lava from Earth’s mantle rises between them. The lava gradually cools, contracts, and cracks, creating faults. Most of these faults are normal faults. Along the faults, blocks of rock break and slide down away from the ridge, producing earthquakes.
Near the spreading ridges, the plates are thin and weak. The rock has not cooled completely, so it is still somewhat flexible. For these reasons, large strains cannot build, and most earthquakes near spreading ridges are shallow and mild or moderate in severity.
Subduction zones are places where two plates collide, and the edge of one plate pushes beneath the edge of the other in a process called subduction. Because of the compression in these zones, many of the faults there are reverse faults. About 80 per cent of major earthquakes occur in subduction zones encircling the Pacific Ocean. In these areas, the plates under the Pacific Ocean are plunging beneath the plates carrying the continents. The grinding of the colder, brittle ocean plates beneath the continental plates creates huge strains that are released in the world’s largest earthquakes.
The world’s deepest earthquakes occur in subduction zones down to a depth of about 450 miles (700 kilometers). Below that depth, the rock is too warm and soft to break suddenly and cause earthquakes.
Transform faults are places where plates slide past each other horizontally. Strike-slip faults occur there. Earthquakes along transform faults may be large, but not as large or deep as those in subduction zones.
One of the most famous transform faults is the San Andreas Fault. The slippage there is caused by the Pacific Plate moving past the North American Plate. The San Andreas Fault and its associated faults account for most of California’s earthquakes.
Intraplate earthquakes are not as frequent or as large as those along plate boundaries. The largest intraplate earthquakes are about 100 times smaller than the largest interplate earthquakes.
Intraplate earthquakes tend to occur in soft, weak areas of plate interiors. Scientists believe intraplate quakes may be caused by strains put on plate interiors by changes of temperature or pressure in the rock. Or the source of the strain may be a long distance away, at a plate boundary. These strains may produce quakes along normal, reverse, or strike-slip faults.
Recording, measuring, and locating earthquakes
To determine the strength and location of earthquakes, scientists use a recording instrument known as a seismograph. A seismograph is equipped with sensors called seismometers that can detect ground motions caused by seismic waves from both near and distant earthquakes. Some seismometers are capable of detecting ground motion as small as 0.1 nanometer. One nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter or about 39 billionths of an inch. Scientists called seismologists measure seismic ground movements in three directions: (1) up-down, (2) north-south, and (3) east-west. The scientists use a separate sensor to record each direction of movement.
A seismograph produces wavy lines that reflect the size of seismic waves passing beneath it. The record of the wave, called a seismogram, is imprinted on paper, film, or recording tape or is stored and displayed by computers.
Probably the best-known gauge of earthquake intensity is the local Richter magnitude scale, developed in 1935 by United States seismologist Charles F. Richter. This scale, commonly known as the Richter scale, measures the ground motion caused by an earthquake. Every increase of one number in magnitude means the energy release of the quake is about 32 times greater. For example, an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 releases about 32 times as much energy as an earthquake measuring 6.0. An earthquake with a magnitude of less than 2.0 is so slight that usually only a seismometer can detect it. A quake greater than 7.0 may destroy many buildings. The number of earthquakes increases sharply with every decrease in Richter magnitude by one unit. For example, there are 8 times as many quakes with magnitude 4.0 as there are with magnitude 5.0.
Although large earthquakes are customarily reported on the Richter scale, scientists prefer to describe earthquakes greater than 7.0 on the moment magnitude scale. The moment magnitude scale measures more of the ground movements produced by an earthquake. Thus, it describes large earthquakes more accurately than does the Richter scale.
The largest earthquake ever recorded on the moment magnitude scale measured 9.5. It was an interplate earthquake that occurred along the Pacific coast of Chile in South America in 1960. The largest intraplate earthquakes known struck in central Asia and in the Indian Ocean in 1905, 1920, and 1957. These earthquakes had moment magnitudes between about 8.0 and 8.3. The largest intraplate earthquakes in the United States were three quakes that occurred in New Madrid, Missouri, in 1811 and 1812. The earthquakes were so powerful that they changed the course of the Mississippi River. During the largest of them, the ground shook from southern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and from the Atlantic Coast to the Rocky Mountains. Scientists estimate the earthquakes had moment magnitudes of 7.5.
Scientists locate earthquakes by measuring the time it takes body waves to arrive at seismographs in a minimum of three locations. From these wave arrival times, seismologists can calculate the distance of an earthquake from each seismograph. Once they know an earthquake’s distance from three locations, they can find the quake’s focus at the center of those three locations.
Scientists can make fairly accurate long-term predictions of where earthquakes will occur. They know, for example, that about 80 percent of the world’s major earthquakes happen along a belt encircling the Pacific Ocean. This belt is sometimes called the Ring of Fire because it has many volcanoes, earthquakes, and other geologic activity.
Scientists are working to make accurate forecasts on when earthquakes will strike. Geologists closely monitor certain fault zones where quakes are expected. Along these fault zones, they can sometimes detect small quakes, the tilting of rock, and other events that might signal a large earthquake is about to occur.
Exploring Earth’s interior
Most of what is known about the internal structure of Earth has come from studies of seismic waves. Such studies have shown that rock density increases from the surface of Earth to its center. Knowledge of rock densities within Earth has helped scientists determine the probable composition of Earth’s interior.
Scientists have found that seismic wave speeds and directions change abruptly at certain depths. From such studies, geologists have concluded that Earth is composed of layers of various densities and substances. These layers consist of the crust, mantle, outer core, and inner core. Shear waves do not travel through the outer core. Because shear waves cannot travel through liquids, scientists believe the outer core is liquid. Scientists believe the inner core is solid because of the movement of compressional waves when they reach the inner core.
Contributor: Karen C. McNally, Ph.D., Professor of Earth Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz.
How to cite this article: To cite this article, World Book recommends the following format: McNally, Karen C. “Earthquake.” World Book Online Reference Center. 2005. World Book, Inc. http://www.worldbookonline.com/wb/Article?id=ar171680.