An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor or temblor) is the shaking of the surface of the Earth, resulting from the sudden release of energy in the Earth‘s lithosphere that creates seismic waves. Earthquakes can range in size from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt to those violent enough to toss people around and destroy whole cities. Theseismicity or seismic activity of an area refers to the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time.

At the Earth’s surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and sometimes displacement of the ground. When theepicenter of a large earthquake is located offshore, the seabed may be displaced sufficiently to cause a tsunami. Earthquakes can also trigger landslides, and occasionally volcanic activity.

In its most general sense, the word earthquake is used to describe any seismic event — whether natural or caused by humans — that generates seismic waves. Earthquakes are caused mostly by rupture of geological faults, but also by other events such as volcanic activity, landslides, mine blasts, and nuclear tests. An earthquake’s point of initial rupture is called itsfocus or hypocenter. The epicenter is the point at ground level directly above the hypocenter.

Naturally occurring earthquakes

Fault types

Tectonic earthquakes occur anywhere in the earth where there is sufficient stored elastic strain energy to drive fracture propagation along a fault plane. The sides of a fault move past each other smoothly and aseismically only if there are no irregularities or asperities along the fault surface that increase the frictional resistance. Most fault surfaces do have such asperities and this leads to a form of stick-slip behavior. Once the fault has locked, continued relative motion between the plates leads to increasing stress and therefore, stored strain energy in the volume around the fault surface. This continues until the stress has risen sufficiently to break through the asperity, suddenly allowing sliding over the locked portion of the fault, releasing the stored energy.[1] This energy is released as a combination of radiated elastic strain seismic waves, frictional heating of the fault surface, and cracking of the rock, thus causing an earthquake. This process of gradual build-up of strain and stress punctuated by occasional sudden earthquake failure is referred to as the elastic-rebound theory. It is estimated that only 10 percent or less of an earthquake’s total energy is radiated as seismic energy. Most of the earthquake’s energy is used to power the earthquake fracture growth or is converted into heat generated by friction. Therefore, earthquakes lower the Earth’s available elastic potential energy and raise its temperature, though these changes are negligible compared to the conductive and convective flow of heat out from the Earth’s deep interior.[2]

Earthquake fault types

There are three main types of fault, all of which may cause an interplate earthquake: normal, reverse () and strike-slip. Normal and reverse faulting are examples of dip-slip, where the displacement along the fault is in the direction of dip and movement on them involves a vertical component. Normal faults occur mainly in areas where the crust is being extended such as a divergent boundary. Reverse faults occur in areas where the crust is being shortened such as at a convergent boundary. Strike-slip faults are steep structures where the two sides of the fault slip horizontally past each other; transform boundaries are a particular type of strike-slip fault. Many earthquakes are caused by movement on faults that have components of both dip-slip and strike-slip; this is known as oblique slip.

Reverse faults, particularly those along convergent plate boundaries are associated with the most powerful earthquakes, megathrust earthquakes, including almost all of those of magnitude 8 or more. Strike-slip faults, particularly continental transforms, can produce major earthquakes up to about magnitude 8. Earthquakes associated with normal faults are generally less than magnitude 7. For every unit increase in magnitude, there is a roughly thirtyfold increase in the energy released. For instance, an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 releases approximately 30 times more energy than a 5.0 magnitude earthquake and a 7.0 magnitude earthquake releases 900 times (30 × 30) more energy than a 5.0 magnitude of earthquake. An 8.6 magnitude earthquake releases the same amount of energy as 10,000 atomic bombs like those used in World War II.[3]

This is so because the energy released in an earthquake, and thus its magnitude, is proportional to the area of the fault that ruptures[4] and the stress drop. Therefore, the longer the length and the wider the width of the faulted area, the larger the resulting magnitude. The topmost, brittle part of the Earth’s crust, and the cool slabs of the tectonic plates that are descending down into the hot mantle, are the only parts of our planet which can store elastic energy and release it in fault ruptures. Rocks hotter than about 300 degrees Celsius flow in response to stress; they do not rupture in earthquakes.[5][6] The maximum observed lengths of ruptures and mapped faults (which may break in a single rupture) are approximately 1000 km. Examples are the earthquakes in Chile, 1960; Alaska, 1957; Sumatra, 2004, all in subduction zones. The longest earthquake ruptures on strike-slip faults, like the San Andreas Fault (1857, 1906), the North Anatolian Fault in Turkey (1939) and the Denali Fault in Alaska (2002), are about half to one third as long as the lengths along subducting plate margins, and those along normal faults are even shorter.

Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain, northwest of Los Angeles

The most important parameter controlling the maximum earthquake magnitude on a fault is however not the maximum available length, but the available width because the latter varies by a factor of 20. Along converging plate margins, the dip angle of the rupture plane is very shallow, typically about 10 degrees.[7] Thus the width of the plane within the top brittle crust of the Earth can become 50 to 100 km (Japan, 2011; Alaska, 1964), making the most powerful earthquakes possible.

Strike-slip faults tend to be oriented near vertically, resulting in an approximate width of 10 km within the brittle crust,[8] thus earthquakes with magnitudes much larger than 8 are not possible. Maximum magnitudes along many normal faults are even more limited because many of them are located along spreading centers, as in Iceland, where the thickness of the brittle layer is only about 6 km.[9][10]

In addition, there exists a hierarchy of stress level in the three fault types. faults are generated by the highest, strike slip by intermediate, and normal faults by the lowest stress levels.[11] This can easily be understood by considering the direction of the greatest principal stress, the direction of the force that ‘pushes’ the rock mass during the faulting. In the case of normal faults, the rock mass is pushed down in a vertical direction, thus the pushing force (greatest principal stress) equals the weight of the rock mass itself. In the case of thrusting, the rock mass ‘escapes’ in the direction of the least principal stress, namely upward, lifting the rock mass up, thus the overburden equals the least principal stress. Strike-slip faulting is intermediate between the other two types described above. This difference in stress regime in the three faulting environments can contribute to differences in stress drop during faulting, which contributes to differences in the radiated energy, regardless of fault dimensions.

Earthquakes away from plate boundaries

Where plate boundaries occur within the continental lithosphere, deformation is spread out over a much larger area than the plate boundary itself. In the case of the San Andreas fault continental transform, many earthquakes occur away from the plate boundary and are related to strains developed within the broader zone of deformation caused by major irregularities in the fault trace (e.g., the “Big bend” region). The Northridge earthquake was associated with movement on a blind within such a zone. Another example is the strongly oblique convergent plate boundary between the Arabian and Eurasian plates where it runs through the northwestern part of the Zagros Mountains. The deformation associated with this plate boundary is partitioned into nearly pure sense movements perpendicular to the boundary over a wide zone to the southwest and nearly pure strike-slip motion along the Main Recent Fault close to the actual plate boundary itself. This is demonstrated by earthquake focal mechanisms.[12]

All tectonic plates have internal stress fields caused by their interactions with neighboring plates and sedimentary loading or unloading (e.g. deglaciation).[13] These stresses may be sufficient to cause failure along existing fault planes, giving rise to intraplate earthquakes.[14]

Shallow-focus and deep-focus earthquakes

Collapsed Gran Hotel building in the San Salvador metropolis, after the shallow 1986 San Salvador earthquake.

The majority of tectonic earthquakes originate at the ring of fire in depths not exceeding tens of kilometers. Earthquakes occurring at a depth of less than 70 km are classified as ‘shallow-focus’ earthquakes, while those with a focal-depth between 70 and 300 km are commonly termed ‘mid-focus’ or ‘intermediate-depth’ earthquakes. In subduction zones, where older and colder oceanic crust descends beneath another tectonic plate, Deep-focus earthquakes may occur at much greater depths (ranging from 300 up to 700 kilometers).[15]These seismically active areas of subduction are known as Wadati–Benioff zones. Deep-focus earthquakes occur at a depth where the subducted lithosphere should no longer be brittle, due to the high temperature and pressure. A possible mechanism for the generation of deep-focus earthquakes is faulting caused by olivine undergoing a phase transition into a spinel structure.[16]

Earthquakes and volcanic activity

Earthquakes often occur in volcanic regions and are caused there, both by tectonic faults and the movement of magma in volcanoes. Such earthquakes can serve as an early warning of volcanic eruptions, as during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.[17] Earthquake swarms can serve as markers for the location of the flowing magma throughout the volcanoes. These swarms can be recorded byseismometers and tiltmeters (a device that measures ground slope) and used as sensors to predict imminent or upcoming eruptions.[18]

Rupture dynamics

A tectonic earthquake begins by an initial rupture at a point on the fault surface, a process known as nucleation. The scale of the nucleation zone is uncertain, with some evidence, such as the rupture dimensions of the smallest earthquakes, suggesting that it is smaller than 100 m while other evidence, such as a slow component revealed by low-frequency spectra of some earthquakes, suggest that it is larger. The possibility that the nucleation involves some sort of preparation process is supported by the observation that about 40% of earthquakes are preceded by foreshocks. Once the rupture has initiated, it begins to propagate along the fault surface. The mechanics of this process are poorly understood, partly because it is difficult to recreate the high sliding velocities in a laboratory. Also the effects of strong ground motion make it very difficult to record information close to a nucleation zone.[19]

Rupture propagation is generally modeled using a fracture mechanics approach, likening the rupture to a propagating mixed mode shear . The rupture velocity is a function of the fracture energy in the volume around the tip, increasing with decreasing fracture energy. The velocity of rupture propagation is orders of magnitude faster than the displacement velocity across the fault. Earthquake ruptures typically propagate at velocities that are in the range 70–90% of the S-wave velocity, and this is independent of earthquake size. A small subset of earthquake ruptures appear to have propagated at speeds greater than the S-wave velocity. These supershear earthquakes have all been observed during large strike-slip events. The unusually wide zone of coseismic damage caused by the 2001 Kunlun earthquake has been attributed to the effects of the sonic boom developed in such earthquakes. Some earthquake ruptures travel at unusually low velocities and are referred to as slow earthquakes. A particularly dangerous form of slow earthquake is the tsunami earthquake, observed where the relatively low felt intensities, caused by the slow propagation speed of some great earthquakes, fail to alert the population of the neighboring coast, as in the 1896 Sanriku earthquake.[19]

Tidal forces

Tides may induce some seismicity, see tidal triggering of earthquakes for details.

Earthquake clusters

Most earthquakes form part of a sequence, related to each other in terms of location and time.[20] Most earthquake clusters consist of small tremors that cause little to no damage, but there is a theory that earthquakes can recur in a regular pattern.[21]


Magnitude of the Central Italy earthquakes of August and October 2016, ofJanuary 2017 and the aftershocks (which continued to occur after the period shown here).

An aftershock is an earthquake that occurs after a previous earthquake, the mainshock. An aftershock is in the same region of the main shock but always of a smaller magnitude. If an aftershock is larger than the main shock, the aftershock is redesignated as the main shock and the original main shock is redesignated as a foreshock. Aftershocks are formed as the crust around the displacedfault plane adjusts to the effects of the main shock.[20]

Earthquake swarms

Earthquake swarms are sequences of earthquakes striking in a specific area within a short period of time. They are different from earthquakes followed by a series of aftershocks by the fact that no single earthquake in the sequence is obviously the main shock, therefore none have notable higher magnitudes than the other. An example of an earthquake swarm is the 2004 activity atYellowstone National Park.[22] In August 2012, a swarm of earthquakes shook Southern California’s Imperial Valley, showing the most recorded activity in the area since the 1970s.[23]

Sometimes a series of earthquakes occur in what has been called an earthquake storm, where the earthquakes strike a fault in clusters, each triggered by the shaking or stress redistribution of the previous earthquakes. Similar to aftershocks but on adjacent segments of fault, these storms occur over the course of years, and with some of the later earthquakes as damaging as the early ones. Such a pattern was observed in the sequence of about a dozen earthquakes that struck the North Anatolian Fault in Turkey in the 20th century and has been inferred for older anomalous clusters of large earthquakes in the Middle East.[24][25]

Intensity of earth quaking and magnitude of earthquakes

Quaking or shaking of the earth is a common phenomenon undoubtedly known to humans from earliest times. Prior to the development of strong-motion accelerometers that can measure peak ground speed and acceleration directly, the intensity of the earth-shaking was estimated on the basis of the observed effects, as categorized on various seismic intensity scales. Only in the last century has the source of such shaking been identified as ruptures in the earth’s crust, with the intensity of shaking at any locality dependent not only on the local ground conditions, but also on the strength or magnitude of the rupture, and on its distance.[26]

The first scale for measuring earthquake magnitudes was developed by Charles F. Richter in 1935. Subsequent scales (see seismic magnitude scales) have retained a key feature, where each unit represents a ten-fold difference in the amplitude of the ground shaking, and a 32-fold difference in energy. Subsequent scales are also adjusted to have approximately the same numeric value within the limits of the scale.[27]

Although the mass media commonly reports earthquake magnitudes as “Richter magnitude” or “Richter scale”, standard practice by most seismological authorities is to express an earthquake’s strength on the moment magnitude scale, which is based on the actual energy released by an earthquake.[28]

Frequency of occurrence

It is estimated that around 500,000 earthquakes occur each year, detectable with current instrumentation. About 100,000 of these can be felt.[29][30] Minor earthquakes occur nearly constantly around the world in places like California and Alaska in the U.S., as well as in El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Peru, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, the Azoresin Portugal, Turkey, New Zealand, Greece, Italy, India, Nepal and Japan, but earthquakes can occur almost anywhere, including Downstate New York, England, and Australia.[31]Larger earthquakes occur less frequently, the relationship being exponential; for example, roughly ten times as many earthquakes larger than magnitude 4 occur in a particular time period than earthquakes larger than magnitude 5.[32] In the (low seismicity) United Kingdom, for example, it has been calculated that the average recurrences are: an earthquake of 3.7–4.6 every year, an earthquake of 4.7–5.5 every 10 years, and an earthquake of 5.6 or larger every 100 years.[33] This is an example of the Gutenberg–Richter law.

The Messina earthquake and tsunami took as many as 200,000 lives on December 28, 1908 in Sicily andCalabria.[34]

The number of seismic stations has increased from about 350 in 1931 to many thousands today. As a result, many more earthquakes are reported than in the past, but this is because of the vast improvement in instrumentation, rather than an increase in the number of earthquakes. The United States Geological Survey estimates that, since 1900, there have been an average of 18 major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0–7.9) and one great earthquake (magnitude 8.0 or greater) per year, and that this average has been relatively stable.[35] In recent years, the number of major earthquakes per year has decreased, though this is probably a statistical fluctuation rather than a systematic trend.[36] More detailed statistics on the size and frequency of earthquakes is available from the United States Geological Survey (USGS).[37] A recent increase in the number of major earthquakes has been noted, which could be explained by a cyclical pattern of periods of intense tectonic activity, interspersed with longer periods of low-intensity. However, accurate recordings of earthquakes only began in the early 1900s, so it is too early to categorically state that this is the case.[38]

Most of the world’s earthquakes (90%, and 81% of the largest) take place in the 40,000 km long, horseshoe-shaped zone called the circum-Pacific seismic belt, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, which for the most part bounds the Pacific Plate.[39][40] Massive earthquakes tend to occur along other plate boundaries, too, such as along the Himalayan Mountains.[41]

With the rapid growth of mega-cities such as Mexico City, Tokyo and Tehran, in areas of high seismic risk, some seismologists are warning that a single quake may claim the lives of up to 3 million people.[42]

Induced seismicity

While most earthquakes are caused by movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates, human activity can also produce earthquakes. Four main activities contribute to this phenomenon: storing large amounts of water behind a dam (and possibly building an extremely heavy building), drilling and injecting liquid into wells, and by coal mining and oil drilling.[43] Perhaps the best known example is the 2008 Sichuan earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province in May; this tremor resulted in 69,227 fatalities and is the 19th deadliest earthquake of all time. The Zipingpu Dam is believed to have fluctuated the pressure of the fault 1,650 feet (503 m) away; this pressure probably increased the power of the earthquake and accelerated the rate of movement for the fault.[44] The greatest earthquake in Australia’s history is also claimed to be induced by humanity, through coal mining.The city of Newcastle was built over a large sector of coal mining areas. The earthquake has been reported to be spawned from a fault that reactivated due to the millions of tonnes of rock removed in the mining process.[45]

Measuring and locating earthquakes

The instrumental scales used to describe the size of an earthquake began with the Richter magnitude scale in the 1930s. It is a relatively simple measurement of an event’s amplitude, and its use has become minimal in the 21st century. Seismic waves travel through the Earth’s interior and can be recorded by seismometers at great distances. Thesurface wave magnitude was developed in the 1950s as a means to measure remote earthquakes and to improve the accuracy for larger events. The moment magnitude scalemeasures the amplitude of the shock, but also takes into account the seismic moment (total rupture area, average slip of the fault, and rigidity of the rock). The Japan Meteorological Agency seismic intensity scale, the Medvedev–Sponheuer–Karnik scale, and the Mercalli intensity scale are based on the observed effects.

Every tremor produces different types of seismic waves, which travel through rock with different velocities:

Propagation velocity of the seismic waves ranges from approx. 3 km/s up to 13 km/s, depending on the density and elasticity of the medium. In the Earth’s interior the shock- or P waves travel much faster than the S waves (approx. relation 1.7 : 1). The differences in travel time from the epicenter to the observatory are a measure of the distance and can be used to image both sources of quakes and structures within the Earth. Also, the depth of the hypocenter can be computed roughly.

In solid rock P-waves travel at about 6 to 7 km per second; the velocity increases within the deep mantle to ~13 km/s. The velocity of S-waves ranges from 2–3 km/s in light sediments and 4–5 km/s in the Earth’s crust up to 7 km/s in the deep mantle. As a consequence, the first waves of a distant earthquake arrive at an observatory via the Earth’s mantle.

On average, the kilometer distance to the earthquake is the number of seconds between the P and S wave times 8.[46] Slight deviations are caused by inhomogeneities of subsurface structure. By such analyses of seismograms the Earth’s core was located in 1913 by Beno Gutenberg.

S waves and later arriving surface waves do main damage compared to P waves. P wave squeezes and expands material in the same direction it is traveling. S wave shakes the ground up and down and back and forth.[47]

Earthquakes are not only categorized by their magnitude but also by the place where they occur. The world is divided into 754 Flinn–Engdahl regions (F-E regions), which are based on political and geographical boundaries as well as seismic activity. More active zones are divided into smaller F-E regions whereas less active zones belong to larger F-E regions.

Standard reporting of earthquakes includes its magnitude, date and time of occurrence, geographic coordinates of its epicenter, depth of the epicenter, geographical region, distances to population centers, location uncertainty, a number of parameters that are included in USGS earthquake reports (number of stations reporting, number of observations, etc.), and a unique event ID.[48]

Although relatively slow seismic waves have traditionally been used to detect earthquakes, scientists realized in 2016 that gravitational measurements could provide instantaneous detection of earthquakes, and confirmed this by analyzing gravitational records associated with the 2011 Tohoku-Oki (“Fukushima”) earthquake.[49][50]

Effects of earthquakes

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