What is an earthquake? What causes an earthquake?

Earthquake Disaster

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 size from those that are so weak that they cannot be felt to those violent enough to propel objects and people into the air, and wreak destruction across entire cities. The seismicity, or seismic activity, of an area, is the frequency, type, and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time. 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 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 its hypocenter or focus. The epicenter is the point at ground level directly above the hypocenter.

What causes earthquakes?

Earthquakes are caused by tectonic movements in the Earth’s crust. The main cause is that when tectonic plates collide, one rides over the other, causing orogeny (mountain building), earthquakes, and volcanoes.

The boundaries between moving plates form the largest fault surfaces on Earth. When they stick, relative motion between the plates leads to increasing stress. This continues until the stress rises and breaks, suddenly allowing sliding over the locked portion of the fault, releasing the stored energy as shock waves.

What causes earthquakes

The earthquakes are caused by the vibrations set up in the earth’s crust which spread outwards in all directions from the source of disturbance.

On the basis of such disturbances produced in the solid body of the earth, many causes have been assigned for causing earthquakes, minor as well as major.

Some of the earthquakes are artificial, while others are natural. But it is undoubtedly true that all the earthquakes are caused due to the disequilibrium in the earth’s crust.

Causes of the earthquakes fall into the following broad categories:

1. Volcanic activities

2. Folding and faulting

3. Plate tectonics

4. Human interference with nature (anthropogenic factors)

Volcanic activities

Volcanic explosions are certainly the most common cause of earthquakes in the neighborhood of active volcanoes. Such earthquakes are, therefore, known as volcanic earthquakes.

This type of earthquake is caused either under the influence of the increasing pressure of volcanic gases or the subterranean movement of molten lava trying to come upon the earth’s surface.

Such earthquakes are common in the area near the volcanoes. They may occur before the volcanoes actually erupt which are, in fact, due to the intrusion of dikes and other movements of lava.

Moreover, a great and violent earthquake may be caused in the region about the volcanoes when the final eruption occurs. However, such earthquakes of volcanic origin are generally less violent and more limited in extent than those called tectonic earthquakes.

But there are exceptions too, for example, the violent earthquake associated with the great eruption of Krakatoa in the Straits of Sunda in 1883, which caused 35 meters high waves that destroyed 163 villages and killed more than 36000 people. The explosion was so violent that its noise was heard almost all round for a distance of about 3200 km.

Folding and Faulting

A fault is defined as a fracture plane along which the rocks have been displaced. There are vertical as well as horizontal displacements. Earthquakes are caused due to sudden movements of rocks along faults. Such earthquakes are called tectonic earthquakes.

Remember that the horizontal, as well as vertical movements of rocks, resulting from the operation of endogenetic forces beneath the earth’s surface. It is due to such movements that folds and faults are created.

The fracture of the rock causing a tectonic earthquake is due to elastic strains, which are greater than the strength of the rock can withstand produced by the relative displacement of nearby portions of the earth’s crust.

However, the displacements of rocks are not sudden at the time of fracture but attain their maximum amounts slowly during a long period of time.

In fact, the mass movements of blocks of rocks that take place at the time of the earthquake are the sudden elastic rebounds of the sides of the fracture towards positions of non-elastic strain.

The energy liberated at the time of an earthquake was present there in the form of energy of the elastic strain of the rock. This is what is known as the elastic rebound theory of tectonic earthquakes.

Faults occur in rocks of all ages and of all types. Moreover, if a fault is located in a zone where one plate moves against another, the possibility of damage and destruction is great.

The most destructive Californian earthquake of 1906 was caused by the movement of rocks along the great San Andreas Fault. It is interesting to note that the visible displacements were traceable along the fault line for about 480 km, and its shock was felt over a distance of more than 11200 km in the direction of the fault.

Typical examples are present in various parts of the globe where most destructive earthquakes were caused due to the movement of rocks along the fault planes. One of the most destructive earthquake occurred in 1755 at Lisbon, Portugal.

The Calabrian earthquakes, south of Naples, were far more widespread and destructive where great tectonic shocks have been recorded on many occasions.

A great earthquake occurred in Assam in India in June 1897, which laid in ruins a large area. The ground was fissured, and rock movements occurred along fault lines. Similarly, the Kangra earthquake devastated a very large area in northern India in 1905.

Japan is the most notable centre of seismic activity and this country suffers most from earthquakes. Sagami Bay earthquake of 1923 wrecked Tokyo and Yokohama and caused at least 143000 deaths. Surveys carried out after this earthquake showed that the surrounding mainland had been twisted round in clockwise directions.

The magnitude of the Sagami Bay earthquake on the Richter scale was 8.2. The magnitude of the Alaska earthquake which played havoc was 8.6. In 1975, the Guatemala earthquake in Central America v/as caused due to the movement of rocks along the Motagua fault located between the American and Caribbean plates.

Plate Tectonics

According to the theory of plate tectonics, the surface of the earth consists of 15 plates comprising the rigid upper mantle, and the oceanic and continental crust. Out of the total number of plates, 6 are major plates and 9 are minor plates.

These plates are always moving. Now, it is an established fact that practically all the tectonic, seismic and volcanic activities take place at the plate margins. That is why must of the earthquakes and volcanoes are found in narrow and semi-continuous belts mostly confined to the plate boundaries.

It may be noted that the plate boundaries are placed into three distinct categories: constructive, destructive and conservative plate boundaries, each with different characte­ristics. Constructive plate boundaries represent such plates which move in opposite directions from the mid-oceanic ridges.

The destructive plate boundaries are those where two plates moving in opposite directions collide with each other. As the collision takes place, the heavier plate boun­dary undergoes subduction into the mantle beneath another plate which is made of lighter geometrical.

This is called Subduction Zone. This one is characterised by most widespread and disastrous earthquakes. Most of such earthquakes are confined to a narrow dipping zone known as Benioff Zone, after the scientist Hugo Benioff.

On the contrary, the conservative plate boundaries do not collide, rather the two plates slip past each other. The above named plate boundaries are charac­terised by different types of folds and faults. Needless to say those earthquakes of varying degrees of intensity are caused by different types of plate motions.

Because of certain characteristics of the constructive plate boundaries, only moderate earthquakes are associated with them. That is why only shallow focus earthquakes occur along the mid-oceanic ridges, the depth of their focus varying from 25 to 35 km.

On the other hand, at the destructive plate boundaries the most disastrous and deep focus earthquakes are caused. The Ring of Fire surrounding the Pacific basin represents the subduction edge of the Pacific plate thrusting deep into the crust and upper mantle.

Due to plate collision and subduction of one plate beneath another a lot of molten lava that comes up towards the earth’s surface is produced. This is the main cause of the presence of active volcanoes along the Pacific Rim. Volcanic eruptions also cause earthquakes.

Such processes produce volcanoes and volcanic earthquakes wherever there is convergence and collision of plate boundaries throughout the world.

Despite the fact that most of the earthquakes occur along the moving plate boundaries, the continental platforms, contrary to general expectations, are also shaken by a few shallow focus earthquakes.

Koyna earthquake in India offers a typical example of such an earthquake. Similarly East Africa, Western U.S.A. and other parts of Peninsular India experience infrequent and shallow-focus earthquakes.

Human interference with nature (Anthropogenic factor)

Sometimes human interference with nature causes artificial earthquakes. The underground testing of H-bombs produces shock waves through overlying rocks which results in an artificial earthquake. Such earthquakes can be compared with a shallow volcanic earthquake.

On certain occasions a munitions factory explodes causing an earthquake of small magnitude. Blasting of rocks by dynamites for the construction of roads in mountainous regions, deep underground mining for the extraction of minerals, blasting for the construction of dams and reservoirs and similar other human activities may also cause mild tremors.

Construction of high dams and big reservoirs storing huge volume of water disturb the equilibrium of underlying strata of rocks which cause small earthquakes in the surrounding area.

There are many other minor causes like landslides in mountainous areas, submarine slides, collapse of cavern roofs, and avalanches which cause perceptible tremors in the earth’s crust. However, such earthquakes are of very small magnitude and do not cause any damage to life and property.

However, there are certain exceptions. Due to the construction of Marathon dam in 1929, there was a severe earthquake in Greece in 1931. Koyna reservoir was constructed in 1962 in Maharashtra.

In 1967 there was a destructive earthquake in Satara district of the state which is attributed to the construction of a dam and reservoir at Koyna. The seismologists were taken by surprise as to why there could be an earthquake in this stable block of the country.

Investigations and researches that followed discovered the presence of two rift faults in Maharashtra beneath the Deccan Plateau. Similar examples of earthquakes caused due to the construction of dams and reservoirs may be found in various parts of the world.

Hoover Dam in the United States of America, Mangla dam in Pakistan, Monteynard and Grandvale in France, Kariba (Zambia), Manic dam (Canada) and Kurobe dam in Japan etc. have caused minor earthquakes of small magnitude in the past.

However, all the earthquakes which are caused by human activities are not as terrifying and disastrous as the tectonic earthquakes. All of these earthquakes can be placed in the category of shallow ones.

How do scientists measure the size of earthquakes?

The size of an earthquake depends on the size of the fault and the amount of slip on the fault, but that’s not something scientists can simply measure with a measuring tape since faults are many kilometers deep beneath the earth’s surface. So how do they measure an earthquake? They use the seismogram recordings made on the seismographs at the surface of the earth to determine how large the earthquake was (figure 5). A short wiggly line that doesn’t wiggle very much means a small earthquake, and a long wiggly line that wiggles a lot means a large earthquake. The length of the wiggle depends on the size of the fault, and the size of the wiggle depends on the amount of slip.

The size of the earthquake is called its magnitude. There is one magnitude for each earthquake. Scientists also talk about theintensity of shaking from an earthquake, and this varies depending on where you are during the earthquake.

How is an earthquake’s location determined?

Seismologists use the difference in arrival time between P and S waves to calculate the distance between the earthquake source and the recording instrument (seismograph).

Seismograph sites need to be on hard rock and well away from traffic and other sources of artificial ground noise. Scientists need recordings from at least three seismographs to accurately locate the depth and magnitude of an earthquake.

For a detailed explanation of how we calculate earthquake locations and magnitudes check out this video:

Types of earthquake

There are 5 types of earthquake:

  • The most common ones are tectonic earthquakes. These are generated due to the sliding of rocks along with a fault plate.
 tectonic earthquakes
  • A special class of tectonic earthquake is sometimes recognised as volcanic earthquake. However, these are confined to areas of active volcanoes.
volcanic earthquake
  • In the areas of intense mining activity. Sometimes the roofs of the underground mines collapse causing minor tremors, these are called collapse earthquakes.
collapse earthquakes
  • Ground shaking may also occur due to the explosion of chemical or nuclear devices. Such Tremors are called explosion earthquakes.
  • The earthquakes that occur in the areas of large reservoirs are referred to as reservoir induced earthquakes.

Types of earthquake waves

There are multiple types of waves. There are the P waves, compression, like sound waves. There are S waves which are shear waves. Those two types travel internally through the planet. There are at least two different T waves which travel along the surface, Rayleigh waves and Love waves. Here is a graphic explaining them:

Types of earthquake waves

P wave

The first kind of body wave is the P wave or primary wave. This is the fastest kind of seismic wave, and, consequently, the first to ‘arrive’ at a seismic station. The P wave can move through solid rock and fluids, like water or the liquid layers of the earth. It pushes and pulls the rock it moves through just like sound waves push and pull the air. Have you ever heard a big clap of thunder and heard the windows rattle at the same time? The windows rattle because the sound waves were pushing and pulling on the window glass much like P waves push and pull on rock. Sometimes animals can hear the P waves of an earthquake. Dogs, for instance, commonly begin barking hysterically just before an earthquake ‘hits’ (or more specifically, before the surface waves arrive). Usually people can only feel the bump and rattle of these waves.

P waves are also known as compressional waves, because of the pushing and pulling they do. Subjected to a P wave, particles move in the same direction that the the wave is moving in, which is the direction that the energy is traveling in, and is sometimes called the ‘direction of wave propagation’. Click here to see a P wave in action.

S wave

In seismology, S-waves, secondary waves, or shear waves (sometimes called elastic S-waves) are a type of elastic wave and are one of the two main types of elastic body waves, so named because they move through the body of an object, unlike surface waves.

S-waves are transverse waves, meaning that the oscillations of an S-wave’s particles are perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation, and the main restoring force comes from shear stress. Therefore, S-waves can’t propagate in liquids with zero (or very low) viscosity; However, they may propagate in liquids with high viscosity.

The shadow zone of a P-wave. S-waves don’t penetrate the outer core, so they’re shadowed everywhere more than 104° away from the epicenter (from USGS).

The name secondary wave comes from the fact that they are the second type of wave to be detected by an earthquake seismogram, after the compressional primary wave, or P-wave, because S-waves travel slower in rock. Unlike P-waves, S-waves cannot travel through the molten outer core of the Earth, and this causes a shadow zone for S-waves opposite to their origin. They can still propagate through the solid inner core: when a P-wave strikes the boundary of molten and solid cores[inconsistent] at an oblique angle, S-waves will form and propagate in the solid medium. When these S-waves hit the boundary again at an oblique angle, they will in turn create P-waves that propagate through the liquid medium. This property allows seismologists to determine some physical properties of the Earth’s inner core.

Effects of Earthquakes

The effects from earthquakes include ground shaking, surface faulting, ground failure, and less commonly, tsunamis.

Ground Shaking

Ground shaking is both a hazard created by earthquakes and the trigger for other hazards such as liquefaction and landslides. Ground shaking describes the vibration of the ground during an earthquake. Most earthquake damage results from the shaking caused by seismic waves passing beneath buildings, roads, and other structures. For example, ground shaking may cause a store’s exterior building walls to crumble, injuring people, blocking sidewalks and streets and bringing down utility lines.About all in Ground shaking.

Surface Faulting

Surface faulting is displacement that reaches the earth’s surface during slip along a fault. Commonly occurs with shallow earthquakes, those with an epicenter less than 20 km. Surface faulting also may accompany aseismic creep or natural or man-induced subsidence.About Surface faulting.

Ground Failure

An effect of seismic activity, such as an earthquake, where the ground becomes very soft, due to the shaking, and acts like a liquid, causing landslides, spreading, and settling.About all in Ground Failure.


The Earth’s crust and the outer mantle layer beneath it are made up of seven massive plates and many smaller ones that fit together like puzzle pieces and are constantly moving above the molten core. When these tectonic plates slip over, under, or past each other at the fault lines where they meet, energy builds up and is released as an earthquake. Undersea earthquakes sometimes cause ocean waves called tsunamis.

Sabik Al Mahmud

There was a fascination with technology from a very young age, and perhaps that fascination is a little more than other ordinary people. From Nokia's button phones to infinity display bezel-less smartphones, everything is my favorite. Technology has never been more impressive in my life. And writing started with an interest in this technology .....

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  1. July 10, 2020

    […] just for you. If you take a closer look at the various natural disasters, you will see that they (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, floods, etc.) do a lot of damage to our common […]

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