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Reading: The Nature of Earthquakes


An earthquake is sudden ground movement caused by the sudden release of energy stored in rocks. Earthquakes happen when so much stress builds up in the rocks that the rocks rupture. The energy is transmitted by seismic waves. Each year there are more than 150,000 earthquakes strong enough to be felt by people and 900,000 recorded by seismometers!


The description of how earthquakes occur is called elastic rebound theory (figure 1).

Figure 1. Elastic rebound theory. Stresses build on both sides of a fault, causing the rocks to deform plastically (Time 2). When the stresses become too great, the rocks break and end up in a different location (Time 3). This releases the built up energy and creates an earthquake.

Elastic rebound theory in an animation.

In an earthquake, the initial point where the rocks rupture in the crust is called the focus. The epicenter is the point on the land surface that is directly above the focus. In about 75% of earthquakes, the focus is in the top 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) of the crust. Shallow earthquakes cause the most damage because the focus is near where people live. However, it is the epicenter of an earthquake that is reported by scientists and the media (figure 2).

This animation shows the relationship between focus and epicenter of an earthquake.

Figure 2. In the vertical cross section of crust, there are two features labeled – the focus and the epicenter, which is directly above the focus.


Nearly 95% of all earthquakes take place along one of the three types of plate boundaries, but earthquakes do occur along all three types of plate boundaries.

  • About 80% of all earthquakes strike around the Pacific Ocean basin because it is lined with convergent and transform boundaries (figure 3).
  • About 15% take place in the Mediterranean-Asiatic Belt, where convergence is causing the Indian Plate to run into the Eurasian Plate.
  • The remaining 5% are scattered around other plate boundaries or are intraplate earthquakes.

Figure 3. Earthquake epicenters for magnitude 8.0 and greater events since 1900. The earthquake depth shows that most large quakes are shallow focus, but some subducted plates cause deep focus quakes.

Transform Plate Boundaries

Deadly earthquakes occur at transform plate boundaries. Transform faults have shallow focus earthquakes. Why do you think this is so? The faults along the San Andreas Fault zone produce around 10,000 earthquakes a year. Most are tiny, but occasionally one is massive. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Hayward Fault was the site of a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in 1868. The 1906 quake on the San Andreas Fault had a magnitude estimated at about 7.9 (figure 4).

Figure 4. (a) The San Andreas Fault zone in the San Francisco Bay Area. (b) The 1906 San Francisco earthquake is still the most costly natural disaster in California history. About 3,000 people died and 28,000 buildings were lost, mostly in the fire.

Recent California earthquakes:

  • 1989: Loma Prieta earthquake near Santa Cruz, California. Magnitude 7.1 quake, 63 deaths, 3,756 injuries, 12,000+ people homeless, property damage about $6 billion.
  • 1994: Northridge earthquake on a blind thrust fault near Los Angeles. Magnitude 6.7, 72 deaths, 12,000 injuries, damage estimated at $12.5 billion.

Although California is prone to many natural hazards, including volcanic eruptions at Mt. Shasta or Mt. Lassen, and landslides on coastal cliffs, the natural hazard the state is linked with is earthquakes. In this video, the boundaries between three different tectonic plates and the earthquakes that result from their interactions are explored:

New Zealand also has strike-slip earthquakes, about 20,000 a year! Only a small percentage of those are large enough to be felt. A 6.3 quake in Christchurch in February 2011 killed about 180 people.

Convergent Plate Boundaries

Earthquakes at convergent plate boundaries mark the motions of subducting lithosphere as it plunges through the mantle (Figure 5). Eventually the plate heats up enough deform plastically and earthquakes stop.

Figure 5. This cross section of earthquake epicenters with depth outlines the subducting plate with shallow, intermediate, and deep earthquakes.

Convergent plate boundaries produce earthquakes all around the Pacific Ocean basin. The Philippine Plate and the Pacific Plate subduct beneath Japan, creating a chain of volcanoes and as many as 1,500 earthquakes annually.

In March 2011 an enormous 9.0 earthquake struck off of Sendai in northeastern Japan. This quake, called the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, was the most powerful ever to strike Japan and one of the top five known in the world. Damage from the earthquake was nearly overshadowed by the tsunami it generated, which wiped out coastal cities and towns (figure 6). Two months after the earthquake, about 25,000 people were dead or missing, and 125,000 buildings had been damaged or destroyed. Aftershocks, some as large as major earthquakes, have continued to rock the region.

Figure 6. Destruction in Ofunato, Japan, from the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake.

A map of aftershocks is seen here.

Here is an interactive feature article about the earthquake.

The Pacific Northwest of the United States is at risk from a potentially massive earthquake that could strike any time. Subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate beneath North America produces active volcanoes, but large earthquakes only hit every 300 to 600 years. The last was in 1700, with an estimated magnitude of around 9.

Here is an image of earthquakes beneath the Pacific Northwest and the depth to the epicenter.

Elastic rebound at a subduction zone generates an earthquake in this animation.

Massive earthquakes are the hallmark of the thrust faulting and folding when two continental plates converge (figure 7). The 2001 Gujarat earthquake in India was responsible for about 20,000 deaths, and many more people became injured or homeless.

Figure 7. Damage from the 2005 Kashmir earthquake

In Understanding Earthquakes: From Research to Resilience, scientists try to understand the mechanisms that cause earthquakes and tsunamis and the ways that society can deal with them:

Divergent Plate Boundaries

Earthquakes at mid-ocean ridges are small and shallow because the plates are young, thin, and hot. On land where continents split apart, earthquakes are larger and stronger.

Intraplate Earthquakes

Intraplate earthquakes are the result of stresses caused by plate motions acting in solid slabs of lithosphere. In 1812, a magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck near New Madrid, Missouri. The earthquake was strongly felt over approximately 50,000 square miles and altered the course of the Mississippi River. Because very few people lived there at the time, only 20 people died. Many more people live there today (figure 8). A similar earthquake today would undoubtedly kill many people and cause a great deal of property damage.

Figure 8. The New Madrid Seismic Zone is within the North American plate. Around 4,000 earthquakes have occurred in the region since 1974.


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