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Earthquake epicenters occur mostly along tectonic plate boundaries, and especially on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Quake epicenters 1963-98.png
Earthquake epicenters occur mostly along tectonic plate boundaries, and especially on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Global plate tectonic movement Global plate motion 2008-04-17.jpg
Global plate tectonic movement

An earthquake (also known as a quake, tremor or temblor) is the shaking of the surface of the Earth resulting from a sudden release of energy in the Earth's lithosphere that creates seismic waves. Earthquakes can range in intensity, from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt, to those violent enough to propel objects and people into the air, damage critical infrastructure, and wreak destruction across entire cities. The seismic activity of an area is the frequency, type, and size of earthquakes experienced over a particular time period. The seismicity at a particular location in the Earth is the average rate of seismic energy release per unit volume. The word tremor is also used for non-earthquake seismic rumbling.


At the Earth's surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and displacing or disrupting the ground. When the epicenter of a large earthquake is located offshore, the seabed may be displaced sufficiently to cause a tsunami. Earthquakes can also trigger landslides.

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 its hypocenter or focus. The epicenter is the point at ground level directly above the hypocenter.

Naturally occurring earthquakes

Three types of faults:
A. Strike-slip
B. Normal
C. Reverse Fault types.svg
Three types of faults:
A. Strike-slip
B. Normal
C. Reverse

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, which 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, [2] 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. [3]

Earthquake fault types

There are three main types of fault, all of which may cause an interplate earthquake: normal, reverse (thrust), 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 where movement on them involves a vertical component. Many earthquakes are caused by movement on faults that have components of both dip-slip and strike-slip; this is known as oblique slip. The topmost, brittle part of the Earth's crust, and the cool slabs of the tectonic plates that are descending into the hot mantle, are the only parts of our planet that can store elastic energy and release it in fault ruptures. Rocks hotter than about 300 °C (572 °F) flow in response to stress; they do not rupture in earthquakes. [4] [5] The maximum observed lengths of ruptures and mapped faults (which may break in a single rupture) are approximately 1,000 km (620 mi). Examples are the earthquakes in Alaska (1957), Chile (1960), and 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.

Normal faults

Normal faults occur mainly in areas where the crust is being extended such as a divergent boundary. Earthquakes associated with normal faults are generally less than magnitude 7. 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 six kilometres (3.7 mi). [6] [7]

Reverse faults

Reverse faults occur in areas where the crust is being shortened such as at a convergent boundary. 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. Megathrust earthquakes are responsible for about 90% of the total seismic moment released worldwide. [8]

Strike-slip faults

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. Strike-slip faults, particularly continental transforms, can produce major earthquakes up to about magnitude 8. Strike-slip faults tend to be oriented near vertically, resulting in an approximate width of 10 km (6.2 mi) within the brittle crust. [9] Thus, earthquakes with magnitudes much larger than 8 are not possible.

Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain, northwest of Los Angeles Kluft-photo-Carrizo-Plain-Nov-2007-Img 0327.jpg
Aerial photo of the San Andreas Fault in the Carrizo Plain, northwest of Los Angeles

In addition, there exists a hierarchy of stress levels in the three fault types. Thrust faults are generated by the highest, strike-slip by intermediate, and normal faults by the lowest stress levels. [10] 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, and 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.

Energy released

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 32 times more energy than a 5.0 magnitude earthquake and a 7.0 magnitude earthquake releases 1,000 times more energy than a 5.0 magnitude earthquake. An 8.6 magnitude earthquake releases the same amount of energy as 10,000 atomic bombs of the size used in World War II. [11]

This is so because the energy released in an earthquake, and thus its magnitude, is proportional to the area of the fault that ruptures [12] and the stress drop. Therefore, the longer the length and the wider the width of the faulted area, the larger the resulting magnitude. The most important parameter controlling the maximum earthquake magnitude on a fault, however, is 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. [13] Thus, the width of the plane within the top brittle crust of the Earth can become 50–100 km (31–62 mi) (Japan, 2011; Alaska, 1964), making the most powerful earthquakes possible.

Shallow-focus and deep-focus earthquakes

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

The majority of tectonic earthquakes originate in the ring of fire at depths not exceeding tens of kilometers. Earthquakes occurring at a depth of less than 70 km (43 mi) are classified as "shallow-focus" earthquakes, while those with a focal-depth between 70 and 300 km (43 and 186 mi) 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 to 700 km (190 to 430 mi)). [14] 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. [15]

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. [16] Earthquake swarms can serve as markers for the location of the flowing magma throughout the volcanoes. These swarms can be recorded by seismometers and tiltmeters (a device that measures ground slope) and used as sensors to predict imminent or upcoming eruptions. [17]

Rupture dynamics

A tectonic earthquake begins as an area of initial slip on the fault surface that forms the focus. Once the rupture has initiated, it begins to propagate away from the focus, spreading out along the fault surface. Lateral propagation will continue until either the rupture reaches a barrier, such as the end of a fault segment, or a region on the fault where there is insufficient stress to allow continued rupture. For larger earthquakes, the depth extent of rupture will be constrained downwards by the brittle-ductile transition zone and upwards by the ground surface. The mechanics of this process are poorly understood, because it is difficult either to recreate such rapid movements in a laboratory or to record seismic waves close to a nucleation zone due to strong ground motion. [18]

In most cases the rupture speed approaches, but does not exceed, the shear wave (S-wave) velocity of the surrounding rock. There are a few exceptions to this:

Supershear earthquakes

Supershear earthquake ruptures are known to have propagated at speeds greater than the S-wave velocity. These have so far all been observed during large strike-slip events. The unusually wide zone of damage caused by the 2001 Kunlun earthquake has been attributed to the effects of the sonic boom developed in such earthquakes.

Slow earthquakes

Slow earthquake ruptures travel at unusually low velocities. 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. [18]

Co-seismic overpressuring and effect of pore pressure

During an earthquake, high temperatures can develop at the fault plane so increasing pore pressure consequently to vaporization of the ground water already contained within rock. [19] [20] [21] In the coseismic phase, such increase can significantly affect slip evolution and speed and, furthermore, in the post-seismic phase it can control the Aftershock sequence because, after the main event, pore pressure increase slowly propagates into the surrounding fracture network. [22] [21] From the point of view of the Mohr-Coulomb strength theory, an increase in fluid pressure reduces the normal stress acting on the fault plane that holds it in place, and fluids can exert a lubricating effect. As thermal overpressurization may provide positive feedback between slip and strength fall at the fault plane, a common opinion is that it may enhance the faulting process instability. After the mainshock, the pressure gradient between the fault plane and the neighboring rock causes a fluid flow which increases pore pressure in the surrounding fracture networks; such increase may trigger new faulting processes by reactivating adjacent faults, giving rise to aftershocks. [22] [21] Analogously, artificial pore pressure increase, by fluid injection in Earth's crust, may induce seismicity.

Tidal forces

Tides may induce some seismicity.

Earthquake clusters

Most earthquakes form part of a sequence, related to each other in terms of location and time. [23] 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. [24] Earthquake clustering has been observed, for example, in Parkfield, California where a long term research study is being conducted around the Parkfield earthquake cluster. [25]


Magnitude of the Central Italy earthquakes of August and October 2016 and January 2017 and the aftershocks (which continued to occur after the period shown here) 2016 Central Italy earthquake wide.svg
Magnitude of the Central Italy earthquakes of August and October 2016 and January 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. Rapid changes of stress between rocks, and the stress from the original earthquake are the main causes of these aftershocks, [26] along with the crust around the ruptured fault plane as it adjusts to the effects of the mainshock. [23] An aftershock is in the same region of the main shock but always of a smaller magnitude, however they can still be powerful enough to cause even more damage to buildings that were already previously damaged from the mainshock. [26] If an aftershock is larger than the mainshock, the aftershock is redesignated as the mainshock and the originalmain shock is redesignated as a foreshock. Aftershocks are formed as the crust around the displaced fault plane adjusts to the effects of the mainshock. [23]

Earthquake swarms

Earthquake swarms are sequences of earthquakes striking in a specific area within a short period. 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, so none has a notable higher magnitude than another. An example of an earthquake swarm is the 2004 activity at Yellowstone National Park. [27] In August 2012, a swarm of earthquakes shook Southern California's Imperial Valley, showing the most recorded activity in the area since the 1970s. [28]

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. [29] [30]

Intensity and magnitude of earthquakes

Shaking of the earth is a common phenomenon that has been experienced by humans from the earliest of times. Before the development of strong-motion accelerometers, the intensity of a seismic event was estimated based on the observed effects. Magnitude and intensity are not directly related and calculated using different methods. The magnitude of an earthquake is a single value that describes the size of the earthquake at its source. Intensity is the measure of shaking at different locations around the earthquake. Intensity values vary from place to place, depending on distance from the earthquake and underlying rock or soil makeup. [31]

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. [32]

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. [33]

Frequency of occurrence

The Messina earthquake and tsunami took as many as 200,000 lives on December 28, 1908, in Sicily and Calabria. Comerio, Luca (1878-1940) - Vittime del terremoto di Messina (dicembre 1908).jpg
The Messina earthquake and tsunami took as many as 200,000 lives on December 28, 1908, in Sicily and Calabria.

It is estimated that around 500,000 earthquakes occur each year, detectable with current instrumentation. About 100,000 of these can be felt. [35] [36] 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, the Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, the Azores in Portugal, Turkey, New Zealand, Greece, Italy, India, Nepal and Japan. [37] 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. [38] 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. [39] This is an example of the Gutenberg–Richter law.

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 (USGS) 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. [40] In recent years, the number of major earthquakes per year has decreased, though this is probably a statistical fluctuation rather than a systematic trend. [41] More detailed statistics on the size and frequency of earthquakes is available from the United States Geological Survey. [42] 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. [43]

Most of the world's earthquakes (90%, and 81% of the largest) take place in the 40,000-kilometre-long (25,000 mi), 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. [44] [45] Massive earthquakes tend to occur along other plate boundaries too, such as along the Himalayan Mountains. [46]

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 earthquake may claim the lives of up to three million people. [47]

Induced seismicity

While most earthquakes are caused by movement of the Earth's tectonic plates, human activity can also produce earthquakes. Activities both above ground and below may change the stresses and strains on the crust, including building reservoirs, extracting resources such as coal or oil, and injecting fluids underground for waste disposal or fracking. [48] Most of these earthquakes have small magnitudes. The 5.7 magnitude 2011 Oklahoma earthquake is thought to have been caused by disposing wastewater from oil production into injection wells, [49] and studies point to the state's oil industry as the cause of other earthquakes in the past century. [50] A Columbia University paper suggested that the 8.0 magnitude 2008 Sichuan earthquake was induced by loading from the Zipingpu Dam, [51] though the link has not been conclusively proved. [52]

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. The surface 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 scale not only measures 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 and are related to the intensity of shaking.

Seismic waves

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

Speed of seismic waves

Propagation velocity of the seismic waves through solid rock ranges from approx. 3 km/s (1.9 mi/s) up to 13 km/s (8.1 mi/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 earthquakes and structures within the Earth. Also, the depth of the hypocenter can be computed roughly.

P-wave speed

Upper crust soils and unconsolidated sediments: 2–3 km (1.2–1.9 mi) per second

Upper crust solid rock: 3–6 km (1.9–3.7 mi) per second

Lower crust: 6–7 km (3.7–4.3 mi) per second

Deep mantle: 13 km (8.1 mi) per second.

S-waves speed

Light sediments: 2–3 km (1.2–1.9 mi) per second in

Earths crust:4–5 km (2.5–3.1 mi) per second

Deep mantle: 7 km (4.3 mi) per second

Seismic wave arrival

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. [53] Slight deviations are caused by inhomogeneities of subsurface structure. By such analysis of seismograms, the Earth's core was located in 1913 by Beno Gutenberg.

S-waves and later arriving surface waves do most of the damage compared to P-waves. P-waves squeeze and expand the material in the same direction they are traveling, whereas S-waves shake the ground up and down and back and forth. [54]

Earthquake location and reporting

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, several parameters that are included in USGS earthquake reports (number of stations reporting, number of observations, etc.), and a unique event ID. [55]

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. [56] [57]

Effects of earthquakes

1755 copper engraving depicting Lisbon in ruins and in flames after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which killed an estimated 60,000 people. A tsunami overwhelms the ships in the harbor. 1755 Lisbon earthquake.jpg
1755 copper engraving depicting Lisbon in ruins and in flames after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which killed an estimated 60,000 people. A tsunami overwhelms the ships in the harbor.

The effects of earthquakes include, but are not limited to, the following:

Shaking and ground rupture

Damaged buildings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 2010. Haiti earthquake damage.jpg
Damaged buildings in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 2010.

Shaking and ground rupture are the main effects created by earthquakes, principally resulting in more or less severe damage to buildings and other rigid structures. The severity of the local effects depends on the complex combination of the earthquake magnitude, the distance from the epicenter, and the local geological and geomorphological conditions, which may amplify or reduce wave propagation. [58] The ground-shaking is measured by ground acceleration.

Specific local geological, geomorphological, and geostructural features can induce high levels of shaking on the ground surface even from low-intensity earthquakes. This effect is called site or local amplification. It is principally due to the transfer of the seismic motion from hard deep soils to soft superficial soils and the effects of seismic energy focalization owing to the typical geometrical setting of such deposits.

Ground rupture is a visible breaking and displacement of the Earth's surface along the trace of the fault, which may be of the order of several meters in the case of major earthquakes. Ground rupture is a major risk for large engineering structures such as dams, bridges, and nuclear power stations and requires careful mapping of existing faults to identify any that are likely to break the ground surface within the life of the structure. [59]

Soil liquefaction

Soil liquefaction occurs when, because of the shaking, water-saturated granular material (such as sand) temporarily loses its strength and transforms from a solid to a liquid. Soil liquefaction may cause rigid structures, like buildings and bridges, to tilt or sink into the liquefied deposits. For example, in the 1964 Alaska earthquake, soil liquefaction caused many buildings to sink into the ground, eventually collapsing upon themselves. [60]

Human impacts

Ruins of the Ghajn Hadid Tower, which collapsed during the 1856 Heraklion earthquake Ghajn Hadid Tower closer view.JPG
Ruins of the Għajn Ħadid Tower, which collapsed during the 1856 Heraklion earthquake

Physical damage from an earthquake will vary depending on the intensity of shaking in a given area and they type of population. Undeserved and developing communities frequently experience more severe impacts (and longer lasting) from a seismic event compared to well developed communities. [61] Impacts may include:

With these impacts and others, the aftermath may bring disease, lack of basic necessities, mental consequences such as panic attacks, depression to survivors, [62] and higher insurance premiums. Recovery times will vary based on the level of damage along with the socioeconomic status of the impacted community.


Earthquakes can produce slope instability leading to landslides, a major geological hazard. Landslide danger may persist while emergency personnel are attempting rescue work. [63]


Fires of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake Sfearthquake3b.jpg
Fires of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake

Earthquakes can cause fires by damaging electrical power or gas lines. In the event of water mains rupturing and a loss of pressure, it may also become difficult to stop the spread of a fire once it has started. For example, more deaths in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake were caused by fire than by the earthquake itself. [64]


The tsunami of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake 2004-tsunami.jpg
The tsunami of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake

Tsunamis are long-wavelength, long-period sea waves produced by the sudden or abrupt movement of large volumes of water—including when an earthquake occurs at sea. In the open ocean, the distance between wave crests can surpass 100 kilometres (62 mi), and the wave periods can vary from five minutes to one hour. Such tsunamis travel 600–800 kilometers per hour (373–497 miles per hour), depending on water depth. Large waves produced by an earthquake or a submarine landslide can overrun nearby coastal areas in a matter of minutes. Tsunamis can also travel thousands of kilometers across open ocean and wreak destruction on far shores hours after the earthquake that generated them. [65]

Ordinarily, subduction earthquakes under magnitude 7.5 do not cause tsunamis, although some instances of this have been recorded. Most destructive tsunamis are caused by earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 or more. [65]


Floods may be secondary effects of earthquakes, if dams are damaged. Earthquakes may cause landslips to dam rivers, which collapse and cause floods. [66]

The terrain below the Sarez Lake in Tajikistan is in danger of catastrophic flooding if the landslide dam formed by the earthquake, known as the Usoi Dam, were to fail during a future earthquake. Impact projections suggest the flood could affect roughly 5 million people. [67]

Major earthquakes

Earthquakes (M6.0+) since 1900 through 2017 Map of earthquakes 1900-.svg
Earthquakes (M6.0+) since 1900 through 2017
Earthquakes of magnitude 8.0 and greater from 1900 to 2018. The apparent 3D volumes of the bubbles are linearly proportional to their respective fatalities. USGS magnitude 8 earthquakes since 1900.svg
Earthquakes of magnitude 8.0 and greater from 1900 to 2018. The apparent 3D volumes of the bubbles are linearly proportional to their respective fatalities.

One of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history was the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, which occurred on 23 January 1556 in Shaanxi, China. More than 830,000 people died. [69] Most houses in the area were yaodongs—dwellings carved out of loess hillsides—and many victims were killed when these structures collapsed. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed between 240,000 and 655,000 people, was the deadliest of the 20th century. [70]

The 1960 Chilean earthquake is the largest earthquake that has been measured on a seismograph, reaching 9.5 magnitude on 22 May 1960. [35] [36] Its epicenter was near Cañete, Chile. The energy released was approximately twice that of the next most powerful earthquake, the Good Friday earthquake (27 March 1964), which was centered in Prince William Sound, Alaska. [71] [72] The ten largest recorded earthquakes have all been megathrust earthquakes; however, of these ten, only the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake is simultaneously one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.

Earthquakes that caused the greatest loss of life, while powerful, were deadly because of their proximity to either heavily populated areas or the ocean, where earthquakes often create tsunamis that can devastate communities thousands of kilometers away. Regions most at risk for great loss of life include those where earthquakes are relatively rare but powerful, and poor regions with lax, unenforced, or nonexistent seismic building codes.


Earthquake prediction is a branch of the science of seismology concerned with the specification of the time, location, and magnitude of future earthquakes within stated limits. [73] Many methods have been developed for predicting the time and place in which earthquakes will occur. Despite considerable research efforts by seismologists, scientifically reproducible predictions cannot yet be made to a specific day or month. [74]


While forecasting is usually considered to be a type of prediction, earthquake forecasting is often differentiated from earthquake prediction. Earthquake forecasting is concerned with the probabilistic assessment of general earthquake hazard, including the frequency and magnitude of damaging earthquakes in a given area over years or decades. [75] For well-understood faults the probability that a segment may rupture during the next few decades can be estimated. [76] [77]

Earthquake warning systems have been developed that can provide regional notification of an earthquake in progress, but before the ground surface has begun to move, potentially allowing people within the system's range to seek shelter before the earthquake's impact is felt.


The objective of earthquake engineering is to foresee the impact of earthquakes on buildings and other structures and to design such structures to minimize the risk of damage. Existing structures can be modified by seismic retrofitting to improve their resistance to earthquakes. Earthquake insurance can provide building owners with financial protection against losses resulting from earthquakes. Emergency management strategies can be employed by a government or organization to mitigate risks and prepare for consequences.

Artificial intelligence may help to assess buildings and plan precautionary operations: the Igor expert system is part of a mobile laboratory that supports the procedures leading to the seismic assessment of masonry buildings and the planning of retrofitting operations on them. It has been successfully applied to assess buildings in Lisbon, Rhodes, Naples. [78]

Individuals can also take preparedness steps like securing water heaters and heavy items that could injure someone, locating shutoffs for utilities, and being educated about what to do when the shaking starts. For areas near large bodies of water, earthquake preparedness encompasses the possibility of a tsunami caused by a large earthquake.

Historical views

An image from a 1557 book depicting an earthquake in Italy in the 4th century BCE Lycosthene.jpg
An image from a 1557 book depicting an earthquake in Italy in the 4th century BCE

From the lifetime of the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in the 5th century BCE to the 14th century CE, earthquakes were usually attributed to "air (vapors) in the cavities of the Earth." [79] Thales of Miletus (625–547 BCE) was the only documented person who believed that earthquakes were caused by tension between the earth and water. [79] Other theories existed, including the Greek philosopher Anaxamines' (585–526 BCE) beliefs that short incline episodes of dryness and wetness caused seismic activity. The Greek philosopher Democritus (460–371 BCE) blamed water in general for earthquakes. [79] Pliny the Elder called earthquakes "underground thunderstorms". [79]

In culture

Mythology and religion

In Norse mythology, earthquakes were explained as the violent struggling of the god Loki. When Loki, god of mischief and strife, murdered Baldr, god of beauty and light, he was punished by being bound in a cave with a poisonous serpent placed above his head dripping venom. Loki's wife Sigyn stood by him with a bowl to catch the poison, but whenever she had to empty the bowl the poison dripped on Loki's face, forcing him to jerk his head away and thrash against his bonds, which caused the earth to tremble. [80]

In Greek mythology, Poseidon was the cause and god of earthquakes. When he was in a bad mood, he struck the ground with a trident, causing earthquakes and other calamities. He also used earthquakes to punish and inflict fear upon people as revenge. [81]

In Japanese mythology, Namazu (鯰) is a giant catfish who causes earthquakes. Namazu lives in the mud beneath the earth and is guarded by the god Kashima who restrains the fish with a stone. When Kashima lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes about, causing violent earthquakes. [82]

In modern popular culture, the portrayal of earthquakes is shaped by the memory of great cities laid waste, such as Kobe in 1995 or San Francisco in 1906. [83] Fictional earthquakes tend to strike suddenly and without warning. [83] For this reason, stories about earthquakes generally begin with the disaster and focus on its immediate aftermath, as in Short Walk to Daylight (1972), The Ragged Edge (1968) or Aftershock: Earthquake in New York (1999). [83] A notable example is Heinrich von Kleist's classic novella, The Earthquake in Chile , which describes the destruction of Santiago in 1647. Haruki Murakami's short fiction collection After the Quake depicts the consequences of the Kobe earthquake of 1995.

The most popular single earthquake in fiction is the hypothetical "Big One" expected of California's San Andreas Fault someday, as depicted in the novels Richter 10 (1996), Goodbye California (1977), 2012 (2009) and San Andreas (2015) among other works. [83] Jacob M. Appel's widely anthologized short story, A Comparative Seismology, features a con artist who convinces an elderly woman that an apocalyptic earthquake is imminent. [84]

Contemporary depictions of earthquakes in film are variable in the manner in which they reflect human psychological reactions to the actual trauma that can be caused to directly afflicted families and their loved ones. [85] Disaster mental health response research emphasizes the need to be aware of the different roles of loss of family and key community members, loss of home and familiar surroundings, loss of essential supplies and services to maintain survival. [86] [87] Particularly for children, the clear availability of caregiving adults who are able to protect, nourish, and clothe them in the aftermath of the earthquake, and to help them make sense of what has befallen them has been shown even more important to their emotional and physical health than the simple giving of provisions. [88] As was observed after other disasters involving destruction and loss of life and their media depictions, recently observed in the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it is also important not to pathologize the reactions to loss and displacement or disruption of governmental administration and services, but rather to validate these reactions, to support constructive problem-solving and reflection as to how one might improve the conditions of those affected. [89]

See also

Related Research Articles

Induced seismicity is typically earthquakes and tremors that are caused by human activity that alters the stresses and strains on Earth's crust. Most induced seismicity is of a low magnitude. A few sites regularly have larger quakes, such as The Geysers geothermal plant in California which averaged two M4 events and 15 M3 events every year from 2004 to 2009. The Human-Induced Earthquake Database (HiQuake) documents all reported cases of induced seismicity proposed on scientific grounds and is the most complete compilation of its kind.

Seismic magnitude scales are used to describe the overall strength or "size" of an earthquake. These are distinguished from seismic intensity scales that categorize the intensity or severity of ground shaking (quaking) caused by an earthquake at a given location. Magnitudes are usually determined from measurements of an earthquake's seismic waves as recorded on a seismogram. Magnitude scales vary on what aspect of the seismic waves are measured and how they are measured. Different magnitude scales are necessary because of differences in earthquakes, the information available, and the purposes for which the magnitudes are used.

In seismology, doublet earthquakes – and more generally, multiplet earthquakes – were originally identified as multiple earthquakes with nearly identical waveforms originating from the same location. They are now characterized as single earthquakes having two main shocks of similar magnitude, sometimes occurring within tens of seconds, but sometimes separated by years. The similarity of magnitude – often within 0.4 magnitude – distinguishes multiplet events from aftershocks, which start at about 1.2 magnitude less than the parent shock and decrease in magnitude and frequency according to known laws.

In seismology, an earthquake rupture is the extent of slip that occurs during an earthquake in the Earth's crust. Earthquakes occur for many reasons that include: landslides, movement of magma in a volcano, the formation of a new fault, or, most commonly of all, a slip on an existing fault.

An earthquake occurred in southern Mongolia on December 4, 1957, measuring Mw 7.8–8.1 and assigned XII (Extreme) on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale. Surface faulting was observed in the aftermath with peak vertical and horizontal scarp reaching 9 m (30 ft). Because of the extremely sparse population in the area, this event, despite its magnitude, was not catastrophic. However, 30 people died and the towns of Dzun Bogd, Bayan-leg and Baruin Bogd were completely destroyed.

The 2020 Central Idaho earthquake occurred in the western United States on March 31, 2020, at 5:52 PM MDT, near Ruffneck Peak in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, 72 miles (116 km) northeast of Boise and 19 miles (31 km) northwest of Stanley. It had a magnitude of 6.5 and was felt with a maximum intensity of VIII.

The 1930 Bago (Pegu) earthquake, also known as the Swa earthquake struck Myanmar on 5 May. The moment magnitude (Mw ) 7.4 earthquake had a focal depth of 35 km (22 mi) and maximum Rossi–Forel intensity of IX. The earthquake was the result of rupture along a 131 km (81 mi) segment of the Sagaing Fault–a major strike-slip fault that runs through the country. Extensive damage was reported in the southern part of the country, particularly in Bago and Yangon, where buildings collapsed and fires erupted. At least 550, and possibly up to 7,000 people were killed. A moderate tsunami was generated along the Burmese coast which caused minor damage to ships and a port. It was felt for over 570,000 km2 (220,000 sq mi) and as far as Shan State and Thailand. The mainshock was followed by many aftershocks; several were damaging; additional earthquakes occurred in July and December, killing dozens. The December earthquake was a similarly-sized which also occurred along the Sagaing Fault.

The 1988 Lancang–Gengma earthquakes, also known as the 11.6 earthquakes by the Chinese media were a pair of devastating seismic events that struck Lancang and Gengma counties, Yunnan, near the border with Shan State, Burma. The earthquake measured moment magnitude (Mw ) 7.0 and was followed 13 minutes later by a 6.9 Mw  shock. These earthquakes were assigned a maximum China seismic intensity of IX and X, respectively. Between 748 and 939 people were kille; more than 7,700 were injured. Both earthquakes resulted in US $270 million in damages and economic losses. Moderately large aftershocks continued to rock the region, causing additional casualties and damage.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">1812 Ventura earthquake</span> Magnitude 7.1 earthquake in Alta California on December 21, 1812

The 1812 Ventura earthquake occurred on the morning of December 21 at 11:00 Pacific Standard Time (PST). The 7.1–7.5 magnitude earthquake, with a Modified Mercalli intensity scale rating of X (Extreme), along with its resulting tsunami, caused considerable damage to present-day Santa Barbara and Ventura County, California, which was at the time a territory of the Spanish Empire. One person was killed as a result of the earthquake while another from the aftershock. The earthquake occurred just as the region was recovering from another event on the 8th of December the same year. Both events are thought to have been related.

The 1973 Luhuo earthquake struck near the town of Zhaggo in Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan Province, China on February 6, 1973, with a magnitude of 7.6 Ms. The earthquake had a maximum intensity of X (Extreme) on the Modified Mercalli intensity scale. It resulted in between 2,175 and 2,204 deaths and a further 2,743 injuries. Serious and widespread destruction occurred in Luhuo County.

The 1968 Borrego Mountain earthquake occurred on April 8, at 18:28 PST, near the unincorporated community of Ocotillo Wells in San Diego County. The moment magnitude (Mw ) 6.6 strike-slip earthquake struck with a focal depth of 11.1 km (6.9 mi). Damage was relatively moderate, and the mainshock was assigned a maximum Modified Mercalli intensity (MMI) of VII. Shaking was felt in Nevada, and Arizona. It was the largest earthquake to strike California since 1952, and its display of afterslip became the subject of scientific interest.

The 2021 Maduo earthquake, also known as the 5.22 earthquake struck Madoi County in Qinghai Province, China on 22 May at 02:04 local time. The earthquake had a moment magnitude and surface-wave magnitude of 7.4. Highway bridges, roads and walls collapsed as a result of the earthquake. According to an anonymous source, at least 20 people were killed, 300 were injured, and 13 were missing. Officials stated that there were no deaths but 19 people sustained minor injuries. It was the strongest in China since 2008. It was assigned a maximum intensity of X in Machali, Maduo County on the China seismic intensity scale and Modified Mercalli intensity scale. This earthquake was preceded by another unrelated earthquake that occurred 5 hours earlier in Yunnan.

The 1995 Menglian earthquake or 1995 Myanmar–China earthquake occurred on 12 July at 05:46:43 local time in the Myanmar–China border region. The earthquake had an epicenter on the Myanmar side of the border, located in the mountainous region of Shan State. It registered 7.3 on the Chinese surface wave magnitude scale (Ms ) and 6.8 on the moment magnitude scale (Mw ). With a maximum Mercalli intensity assigned at VIII, the quake killed eleven people and left another 136 injured. Over 100,000 homes in both countries were destroyed and 42,000 seriously damaged. Some damage to structures were also reported in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, Thailand. The low death toll from this earthquake was attributed to an early warning issued prior to it happening. Precursor events including foreshocks and some seismic anomalies led to an evacuation of the area before the mainshock struck. It is thought to be one of the few successfully predicted earthquakes in history.

The 1941 Sa'dah earthquake or the Jabal Razih earthquake occurred on January 11 in the Razih District of Yemen. The earthquake had a surface wave magnitude of 5.8–6.5 and a shallow focal depth. Despite the moderate size of this earthquake, an estimated 1,200 people perished and at least 200 injured. With a maximum MSK-64 intensity assigned at VIII, it destroyed many villages and collapsed homes in the region of North Yemen.

The 1979 Ghaenat earthquakes were a series of large earthquakes in Qaen County, Khorasan Province, northeast Iran, near the Afghanistan border. The first mainshock, known as the Korizan earthquake with a surface wave magnitude (Ms ) of 6.6 and moment magnitude (Mw ) of 6.8, struck on November 14, while the Ms  7.1 or Mw  7.2 Koli-Boniabad earthquake struck on November 27. The two mainshocks were assigned a maximum Modified Mercalli intensity of VIII (Severe) and X (Extreme), respectively. The earthquakes caused extensive damage throughout northeastern Iran, killing an estimated 297 to 440 people and left at least 279 injured.

The 2021 South Sandwich Islands earthquakes were a pair of powerful earthquakes, followed by many strong aftershocks which struck along the South Sandwich Trench in August 2021. The quakes measured 7.5 and 8.1 on the moment magnitude scale, according to the United States Geological Survey. The mainshock is tied with another event in 1929 as the largest earthquake ever recorded in this region and the Atlantic Ocean as a whole, and is tied with the 2021 Kermadec Islands earthquake as the second largest earthquake of 2021.

The 1850 Xichang earthquake rocked Sichuan Province of Qing China on September 12. The earthquake which caused major damage in Xichang county had an estimated moment magnitude of 7.6–7.9 Mw  and a surface wave magnitude of 7.5–7.7 Ms . An estimated 20,650 people died.

The 1955 Zheduotang earthquake, also known as the Kangding earthquake occurred on April 14 at 09:29:02 local time near the city of Kangding in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan. The earthquake had a moment magnitude of 7.0 and a surface wave magnitude of 7.1 and struck at a depth of 10 km. Severe damage occurred in Kangding with the loss of 70 lives.

The 1979 Yapen earthquake occurred on September 12 at 05:17:51 UTC. It had an epicenter near the coast of Yapen Island in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. Measuring 7.5 on the moment magnitude scale and having a depth of 20 km (12 mi), it caused severe damage on the island. At least 115 were killed due to shaking and a moderate tsunami.

The 1979 Saint Elias earthquake occurred near noon local time on the 28th of February. It measured Mw 7.4–7.6. Though the maximum recorded Modified Mercalli intensity was VII, damages were minimal and there were no casualties due to the remoteness of the faulting. The epicenter lies near the Alaskan border between America and Canada.


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Further reading