Skip to main content
Geosciences LibreTexts

6.1: Earthquake Geometry and Process

  • Page ID
  • Generally speaking, it is the movement of faults that leads to earthquakes. A fault is a plane with localized displacement separating two blocks of rock. As you might already know from your intro to geology class, there are three basic types of faults; strike slip, normal, and reverse. The figures below show the three types of faults.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Normal and Reverse Faults (CC BY-SA 3.0; Cferrero at en.wikipedia, transferred by Adrignola, via Wikimedia)

    A thrust fault is a low angle reverse fault.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Strike Slip Faults (CC BY-SA 3.0; Cferrero at en.wikipedia, transferred to Commons, via Wikimedia)


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): 3D Fault View: A. Strike-slip, B. Normal, C. Reverse (Public Domain; Karta24, via Wikimedia)

    On a fault plane, there are several main locations that help us qualify earthquakes.

     6.1 Fault plane.png


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Fault Plane

    The focus is the location where the earthquake initiates. The epicenter is the projection of the focus to the surface. On the surface, the rupture above the focus is visible. 

    6.1 Fault Scarp.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Fault Scarp

    Looking at the area from a different view, we can see that the fault scarp is separated from the epicenter. If we look at the area from yet another different angle (map view), we can develop a model of stick-slip faulting. 

    6.2 Stick Slip Faulting.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Model of Stick-slip Faulting

    Tectonic forces are moving in opposite directions and cause applied shear stress, \(\sigma_s\).

    6.1 Graph Friction.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Frictional Strength 

    The equation for frictional strength is 


    If \(\sigma_s>\sigma_f\), then failure (an earthquake) occurs. 

    6.1 Stick slip Graph.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Stick-slip Graph 

    The top part of the graph, above the \(\sigma_f\) line, shows where the force overshoots 'average \(\sigma_s\)' because some places will be stronger/weaker and \(\sigma_s\) is heterogeneous. There needs to be a 'large enough' area above \(\sigma_f\) to trigger a rupture. 

    6.1 High Stress Region.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): High Stress Regions 

    The above figure shows that if there is a large enough region with high enough stress, this will trigger an earthquake. Now that we know a bit about where earthquakes occur, let's go through how they actually happen. 

    In a fault rupture, the earthquake initiates at the focus. 

    6.1 Rupture.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10a}\): Rupture at t=0 

    6.1 Rupture 5 seconds.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10b}\): Rupture at t=5 

    At 5 seconds, the rupture continues to expand as a crack along the fault plane. When the rupture front reaches the surface, displacements occur along the surface trace, and rocks at the surface begin to rebound from their deformed state.

    Rupture 10 seconds.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10c}\): Rupture at t=10 

    At 10 seconds, the rupture front progresses down the fault plane, reducing the stress and allowing the rocks on either side to rebound. Seismic waves continue to be emitted in all directions as the fault propagates. 

    Rupture 20 seconds.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{10d}\): Rupture at t=20 

    At 20 seconds, the rupture has progressed along the entire length of the fault. The fault has reached its maximum displacement, and the earthquake stops. 

    In general, backtracking seismic energy allows us to see its source on the fault. We can also get total slip this way.

    6.1 Step by step Rupture with t.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Rupture with Time 

    Only a finite width behind the rupture front is slipping. So slipping stops at the focus while regions further away are still slipping.

    This slip movement can also be visualized graphically. 

    Step by step rupture graph.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Graph of Rupture with Time

    Another useful tool for tracking earthquakes are seismograms.

    6.1 Seismogram.png

    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): Interpreting a Seismogram 

    We can get lots of information from seismograms. They are used for determining:

    1. Time of an earthquake and distance to epicenter
    2. Earthquake location 
    3. Magnitude (energy release) of the quake
    4. Type of fault (normal, reverse, strike slip)
    5. Distribution of slip on the fault surface
    6. Structure of the interior of the Earth

    We can infer the distribution of slip on a fault surface from seismograms.  

     6.1 Seismogram with slip .png


    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Distribution of Slip 

    In the above figure, contours indicate location of the rupture front. The star indicates where the earthquake started.