earthquake, trembling or shaking movement of the earth's surface. Most earthquakes are minor tremors. Larger earthquakes usually begin with slight tremors but rapidly take the form of one or more violent shocks, and end in vibrations of gradually diminishing force called aftershocks. The subterranean point of origin of an earthquake is called its focus; the point on the surface directly above the focus is the epicenter. The magnitude and intensity of an earthquake is determined by the use of scales, e.g., the moment magnitude scale, Richter scale, and the modified Mercalli scale.
Causes of Earthquakes
Most earthquakes are causally related to compressional or tensional stresses built up at the margins of the huge moving lithospheric plates that make up the earth's surface (see lithosphere). The immediate cause of most shallow earthquakes is the sudden release of stress along a fault, or fracture in the earth's crust, resulting in movement of the opposing blocks of rock past one another. These movements cause vibrations to pass through and around the earth in wave form, just as ripples are generated when a pebble is dropped into water. Volcanic eruptions, rockfalls, landslides, and explosions can also cause a quake, but most of these are of only local extent. Shock waves from a powerful earthquake can trigger smaller earthquakes in a distant location hundreds of miles away if the geologic conditions are favorable.
See also plate tectonics.
There are several types of earthquake waves including P, or primary, waves, which are compressional and travel fastest; and S, or secondary, waves, which are transverse, i.e., they cause the earth to vibrate perpendicularly to the direction of their motion. Surface waves consist of several major types and are called L, or long, waves. Since the velocities of the P and S waves are affected by changes in the density and rigidity of the material through which they pass, the boundaries between the regions of the earth known as the crust, mantle, and core have been discerned by seismologists, scientists who deal with the analysis and interpretation of earthquake waves (see earth). Seismographs (see seismology) are used to record P, S, and L waves. The disappearance of S waves below depths of 1,800 mi (2,900 km) indicates that at least the outer part of the earth's core is liquid.
Damage Caused by Earthquakes
The effects of an earthquake are strongest in a broad zone surrounding the epicenter. Surface ground cracking associated with faults that reach the surface often occurs, with horizontal and vertical displacements of several yards common. Such movement does not have to occur during a major earthquake; slight periodic movements called fault creep can be accompanied by microearthquakes too small to be felt. The extent of earthquake vibration and subsequent damage to a region is partly dependent on characteristics of the ground. For example, earthquake vibrations last longer and are of greater wave amplitudes in unconsolidated surface material, such as poorly compacted fill or river deposits; bedrock areas receive fewer effects. The worst damage occurs in densely populated urban areas where structures are not built to withstand intense shaking. There, L waves can produce destructive vibrations in buildings and break water and gas lines, starting uncontrollable fires.
Damage and loss of life sustained during an earthquake result from falling structures and flying glass and objects. Flexible structures built on bedrock are generally more resistant to earthquake damage than rigid structures built on loose soil. In certain areas, an earthquake can trigger mudslides, which slip down mountain slopes and can bury habitations below. A submarine earthquake can cause a tsunami, a series of damaging waves that ripple outward from the earthquake epicenter and inundate coastal cities.
On average about 1,000 earthquakes with intensities of 5.0 or greater are recorded each year. Great earthquakes (magnitude 8.0 or higher) occur once a year, major earthquakes (magnitude 7.0–7.9) occur 18 times a year, strong earthquakes (magnitude 6.0–6.9) 10 times a month, and moderate earthquakes (magnitude 5.0–5.9) more than twice a day. Because most of these occur under the ocean or in underpopulated areas, they pass unnoticed by all but seismologists. Moderate to strong earthquakes can cause more significant destruction if they occur closer to the earth's surface. Notable earthquakes have occurred at Lisbon, Portugal (1755); New Madrid, Mo. (1811 and 1812); Charleston, S.C. (1886); Assam, India (1897 and 1950); San Francisco (1906); Messina, Italy (1908); Gansu, China (1920); Tokyo, Japan (1923); Chile (1960); Iran (1962); S Alaska (1964); Managua, Nicaragua (1972); Guatemala (1976); Hebei, China (1976); Mexico (1985); Armenia (1988); Luzon, Philippines (1990); N Japan (1993); Kobe, Japan (1995); Izmit, Turkey (1999); central Taiwan (1999); Oaxaca state, Mexico (1999); Bam, Iran (2003); NW Sumatra, Indonesia (2004); Sichuan, China (2008); S Haiti (2010); Chile (2010); South Island, New Zealand (2010, 2011); and NE Japan (2011). The Lisbon, Chilean, Alaskan, Sumatran, and NE Japan earthquakes were accompanied by significant tsunamis.
Twelve of the twenty largest earthquakes in the United States have occurred in Alaska. Most of the largest in the continental United States have occurred in California or elsewhere along the Pacific Coast, but the three New Madrid earthquakes (1811–12) also were among the largest continental events, as was the Charleston, S.C., earthquake (1886). On Good Friday 1964, one of the most severe North American earthquakes ever recorded struck near Anchorage, Alaska, measuring 8.4 to 8.6 in magnitude. Besides elevating some 70,000 sq mi (181,300 sq km) of land and devastating several cities, it generated a tsunami that caused damage as far south as California. Other recent earthquakes that have affected the United States include the Feb., 1971, movement of the San Fernando fault near Los Angeles. It rocked the area for 10 sec, thrust parts of mountains 8 ft (2.4 m) upward, killed 64 persons, and caused damage amounting to $500 million. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake above Santa Cruz shook for 15 seconds at an magnitude of 7.1, killed 67 people, and toppled buildings and bridges. In Jan., 1994, an earthquake measuring 6.6 with its epicenter in N Los Angeles caused major damage to the city's infrastructure and left thousands homeless.
See C. H. Scholz, The Mechanics of Earthquakes and Faulting (1991); C. Lomnitz, Fundamentals of Earthquake Prediction (1994); D. S. Brumbaugh, Earthquakes: Science and Society (1998); B. A. Bolt, Earthquakes (4th ed. 1999). See also bibliography under seismology.