What Is an Earthquake?

For people who live on or near an active fault line – such as the San Andreas Fault in California, the Median Tectonic Line in Japan, or the Sunda Megathrust of southeast Asia – earthquakes are a regular part of life. Oftentimes, they can take the form of minor tremors that come and go without causing much damage.

But at other times, they are cataclysmic, causing widespread destruction and death tolls in the thousands or more. But what exactly is an earthquake? What geological forces lead to this destructive force? Where do they typically happen, and how many different types are there? And most importantly, how can we be better prepared for them?

Definition:

An earthquake is defined as a perceptible tremor in the surface of the Earth, which is caused by seismic waves resulting from the sudden release of energy in the Earth’s crust. Sometimes, they are detected because of the transfer of this energy to structures, causing noticeable shaking and noise. At other times, they can be violent enough to throw people and level entire cities.

Global earthquake epicenters, 1963–1998. Credit: NASA/DTAM
Global earthquake epicenters, 1963–1998. Credit: NASA/DTAM

Generally, the term is used to describe any seismic event that generates seismic waves. An earthquake’s point of initial rupture is called its focus or hypocenter, while the point on the Earth directly above it (i.e. the most immediately-effected area) is called the epicenter.

Causes:

The structure of the Earth’s crust, which is divided into several “tectonic plates”, is responsible for most earthquakes. These plates are constantly in motion due to convection in the Earth’s semi-viscous upper mantle. Over time, these plates will separate and crash into each other, creating visible boundaries called faults.

When plates collide, they remain locked until enough pressure builds that one of them is forced under the other (a process known as subduction). This process occurs over the course of millions of years, and occasionally results in a serious release of energy, frictional heating and cracking along the fault lines (aka. an earthquake).

The energy waves that result are divided into two categories  – surface waves and body waves. Surface waves are so-named because they are the energy that reaches the surface of the Earth, while body waves refer to the energy that remains within the planet’s interior.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
Map of the Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

It is estimated that only 10% or less of an earthquake’s total energy is radiated as seismic energy, while the rest is used to power the fracture growth or is converted into friction heat. However, what reaches the surface triggers all of the effects that we humans associate with earthquakes – i.e. tremors that vary in duration and intensity.

Occasionally, earthquakes can happen away from fault lines. These are due to some plate boundaries being located in regions of continental lithosphere, where deformation is spread out over a much larger area than the plate boundary. Under these conditions, earthquakes are related to strains developed within the broader zone of deformation.

Earthquakes within a plate (called “intraplate earthquakes”) can also happen as a result of internal stress fields, which are caused by interaction with neighboring plates, as well as sedimentary loading or unloading.

Aside from naturally occurring earthquakes (aka. tectonic earthquakes) that occur along tectonic plate lines (fault lines), there are also those that fall under the heading of “human-made earthquakes”. These are all the result of human activity, which is most often the result of nuclear testing.

A 23 kiloton tower shot called BADGER, fired on April 18, 1953 at the Nevada Test Site, as part of the Operation Upshot–Knothole nuclear test series. Credit: NNSA
Earthquakes can also be caused by human-made factors, such as nuclear testing. Credit: NNSA

This type of earthquake can been felt all from considerable distance after the detonation of a nuclear weapon. There is very little actual data that is readily available on this type of earthquake, but, compared to tectonic activity, it can be easily predicted and controlled.

Measurements:

Scientists measure earthquakes using seismometers, which measures sound waves through the Earth’s crust. There is also a method of measuring the intensity of an earthquake. It is known as the Richter Scale, which grades earthquakes from 1 to 10 based on their intensity.

Although there is no upper limit to the scale, most people set ten as the upper limit because no earthquakes equal to or greater than ten have been recorded. Scientist hypothesize that level 10 earthquakes were probably more common in prehistoric times, especially as the result of meteor impacts.

Effects of Earthquakes:

Earthquakes can happen on land or at sea, and can therefore trigger other natural disasters. In the case of those that take place on land, displacement of the ground is often the result, which can cause landslides or even volcanoes. When they take place at sea, the displacement of the seabed often results, causing a tsunami.

Map of major earthquakes around the world. Credit: USGS / Google Maps / AJAX / SODA
Map of earthquakes around the world in a seven day period. Credit: USGS / Google Maps / AJAX / SODA

Even though major earthquakes do not happen that often, they can cause substantial damage. In addition to the aforementioned natural disasters they can cause, earthquakes can also trigger fires when gas or electrical lines are damaged and floods when dams are destroyed.

Some of the most devastating earthquakes in history include the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, which occurred on January 1556 in China. This quake resulted in widespread destruction of housing in the region – most of the housing being dwellings carved directly out of the silt stone mountain – and led to over 830,000 deaths.

The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which took place in north-eastern China, was the deadliest of the 20th century, leading to he deaths of between 240,000 and 655,000 people. The 1960 Chilean earthquake is the largest earthquake that has been measured on a seismograph, reaching 9.5 magnitude on May 22nd, 1960.

And then there was the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, a seismic event that also triggered a massive tsunami that caused devastation throughout southeast Asia. This quake reached 9.1 – 9.3 on the Richter Scale, struck coastal communities with waves measuring up to 30 meters (100 ft) high, and caused the deaths of 230,000 people in 14 countries.

 A village near the coast of Sumatra that was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. Credit: US Navy
A village near the coast of Sumatra that was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/US Navy

Warning Systems:

More than 3 million earthquakes occur each year, which works out to about 8,000 earthquakes each day. Most of these occur in specific regions, mainly because they usually happen along the borders of tectonic plates. Despite being difficult to predict (except where human agency is the cause) some early warning methods have been devised.

For instance, using seismological data obtained in well-understood fault regions, earthquakes can be reasonably predicted weeks or months in advance. Regional notifications are also used whenever earthquakes are in progress, but before the shocks have struck, allowing people time to seek shelter in time.

Much like volcanoes, tornadoes, and debris flows, earthquakes are a force of nature that is not to be taken lightly. While they are a regular feature of our planet’s geological activity, they have had a considerable impact on human societies. And just like the eruption that buried Pompeii or the Great Flood, they are remembered long after they strike!

We have written many interesting articles about earthquakes here at Universe Today. Here’s Famous Earthquakes, What Causes Earthquakes?, What are Earthquake Fault Lines?, What are the Different Types of Earthquakes? and The Sun Doesn’t Cause Earthquakes,

For more information, you should check out earthquakes and how earthquakes work.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject – Episode 51: Earth

Sources:

How Do Volcanoes Erupt?

Cleveland Volcano Eruption

Volcanoes come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from common cinder cone volcanoes that build up from repeated eruptions and lava domes that pile up over volcanic vents to broad shield volcanoes and composite volcanoes. Though they differ in terms of structure and appearance, they all share two things. On the one hand, they are all awesome forces of nature that both terrify and inspire.

On the other, all volcanic activity comes down to the same basic principle. In essence, all eruptions are the result of magma from beneath the Earth being pushed up to the surface where it erupts as lava, ash and rock. But what mechanisms drive this process? What is it exactly that makes molten rock rise from the Earth’s interior and explode onto the landscape?

To understand how volcanoes erupt, one first needs to consider the structure of the Earth. At the very top is the lithosphere, the outermost layers of the Earth that consists of the upper mantle and crust. The crust makes up a tiny volume of the Earth, ranging from 10 km in thickness on the ocean floor to a maximum of 100 km in mountainous regions. It is cold and rigid, and composed primarily of silicate rock.

The Earth's layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com
The Earth’s layers, showing the Inner and Outer Core, the Mantle, and Crust. Credit: discovermagazine.com

Beneath the crust, the Earth’s mantle is divided into sections of varying thickness based on their seismology. These consist of the upper mantle, which extends from a depth of 7 – 35 km (4.3 to 21.7 mi)) to 410 km (250 mi); the transition zone, which ranges from 410–660 km (250–410 mi); the lower mantle, which ranges from 660–2,891 km (410–1,796 mi); and the core–mantle boundary, which is ~200 km (120 mi) thick on average.

In the mantle region, conditions change drastically from the crust. Pressures increase considerably and temperatures can reach up to 1000 °C, which makes the rock viscous enough that it behaves like a liquid. In short, it experiences elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. This viscous, molten rock collects into vast chambers beneath the Earth’s crust.

Since this magma is less dense than the surrounding rock, it ” floats” up to the surface, seeking out cracks and weaknesses in the mantle. When it finally reaches the surface, it explodes from the summit of a volcano. When it’s beneath the surface, the molten rock is called magma. When it reaches the surface, it erupts as lava, ash and volcanic rocks.

The Earth's Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org
The Earth’s Tectonic Plates. Credit: msnucleus.org

With each eruption, rocks, lava and ash build up around the volcanic vent. The nature of the eruption depends on the viscosity of the magma. When the lava flows easily, it can travel far and create wide shield volcanoes. When the lava is very thick, it creates a more familiar cone volcano shape (aka. a cinder cone volcano). When the lava is extremely thick, it can build up in the volcano and explode (lava domes).

Another mechanism that drives volcanism is the motion the crust undergoes. To break it down, the lithosphere is divided into several plates, which are constantly in motion atop the mantle. Sometimes the plates collide, pull apart, or slide alongside each other; resulting in convergent boundaries, divergent boundaries, and transform boundaries. This activity is what drives geological activity, which includes earthquakes and volcanoes.

In the case of the former, subduction zones are often the result, where the heavier plate slips under the lighter plate – forming a deep trench. This subduction changes the dense mantle into buoyant magma, which rises through the crust to the Earth’s surface. Over millions of years, this rising magma creates a series of active volcanoes known as a volcanic arc.

Cross-section of a volcano. Credit: 3dgeography.co.uk/#!
Cross-section of a volcano. Credit: 3dgeography.co.uk

In short, volcanoes are driven by pressure and heat in the mantle, as well as tectonic activity that leads to volcanic eruptions and geological renewal. The prevalence of volcanic eruptions in certain regions of the world – such as the Pacific Ring of Fire – also has a profound impact on the local climate and geography. For example, such regions are generally mountainous, have rich soil, and periodically experience the formation of new landmasses.

We have written many articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s What are the Different Types of Volcanoes?, What are the Different Parts of a Volcano?, 10 Interesting Facts About Volcanoes?, What is the Pacific Ring of Fire?, Olympus Mons: The Largest Volcano in the Solar System.

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about Earth, as part of our tour through the Solar System – Episode 51: Earth.

What Are The Different Parts Of A Volcano?

Without a doubt, volcanoes are one of the most powerful forces of nature a person can bear witness to. Put simply, they are what results when a massive rupture takes place in the Earth’s crust (or any planetary-mass object), spewing hot lava, volcanic ash, and toxic fumes onto the surface and air. Originating from deep within the Earth’s crust, volcanoes leave a lasting mark on the landscape.

But what are the specific parts of a volcano? Aside from the “volcanic cone” (i.e. the cone-shaped mountain), a volcano has many different parts and layers, most of which are located within the mountainous region or deep within the Earth. As such, any true understanding of their makeup requires that we do a little digging (so to speak!)

While volcanoes come in a number of shapes and sizes, certain common elements can be discerned. The following gives you a general breakdown of a volcanoes specific parts, and what goes into making them such a titanic and awesome natural force.

Magma Chamber:

A magma chamber is a large underground pool of molten rock sitting underneath the Earth’s crust. The molten rock in such a chamber is under extreme pressure, which in time can lead to the surrounding rock fracturing, creating outlets for the magma. This, combined with the fact that the magma is less dense than the surrounding mantle, allows it to seep up to the surface through the mantle’s cracks.

Lava cooling after an eruption, Credit: kalapanaculturaltours.com
Lava cooling after an eruption from Kilauea, a shield volcano near Kalapana, Hawaii Credit: kalapanaculturaltours.com

When it reaches the surface, it results in a volcanic eruption. Hence why many volcanoes are located above a magma chamber. Most known magma chambers are located close to the Earth’s surface, usually between 1 km and 10 km deep. In geological terms, this makes them part of the Earth’s crust – which ranges from 5–70 km (~3–44 miles) deep.

Lava:

Lava is the silicate rock that is hot enough to be in liquid form, and which is expelled from a volcano during an eruption. The source of the heat that melts the rock is known as geothermal energy – i.e. heat generated within the Earth that is leftover from its formation and the decay of radioactive elements. When lava first erupted from a volcanic vent (see below), it comes out with a temperature of anywhere between 700 to 1,200 °C (1,292 to 2,192 °F). As it makes contact with air and flows downhill, it eventually cools and hardens.

Main Vent:

A volcano’s main vent is the weak point in the Earth’s crust where hot magma has been able to rise from the magma chamber and reach the surface. The familiar cone-shape of many volcanoes are an indication of this, the point at which ash, rock and lava ejected during an eruption fall back to Earth around the vent to form a protrusion.

Throat:

The uppermost section of the main vent is known as the volcano’s throat. As the entrance to the volcano, it is from here that lava and volcanic ash are ejected.

 Thurston lava tube is located on Kilauea in Hawaii. Credit: P. Mouginis-Mark, LPI
Thurston lava tube is located on Kilauea in Hawaii. Credit: P. Mouginis-Mark, LPI

Crater:

In addition to cone structures, volcanic activity can also lead to circular depressions (aka. craters) forming in the Earth. A volcanic crater is typically a basin, circular in form, which can be large in radius and sometimes great in depth. In these cases, the lava vent is located at the bottom of the crater. They are formed during certain types of climactic eruptions, where the volcano’s magma chamber empties enough for the area above it to collapse, forming what is known as a caldera.

Pyroclastic Flow:

Otherwise known as a pyroclastic density current, a pyroclastic flow refers to a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock that is moving away from a volcano. Such flows can reach speeds of up to 700 km/h (450 mph), with the gas reaching temperatures of about 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). Pyroclastic flows normally hug the ground and travel downhill from their eruption site.

Their speeds depend upon the density of the current, the volcanic output rate, and the gradient of the slope. Given their speed, temperature, and the way they flow downhill, they are one of the greatest dangers associated with volcanic eruptions and are one of the primary causes of damage to structures and the local environment around an eruption site.

Ash Cloud:

Volcanic ash consists of small pieces of pulverized rock, minerals and volcanic glass created during a volcanic eruption. These fragments are generally very small, measuring less than 2 mm (0.079 inches) in diameter. This sort of ash forms as a result of volcanic explosions, where dissolved gases in magma expand to the point where the magma shatters and is propelled into the atmosphere. The bits of magma then cool, solidifying into fragments of volcanic rock and glass.

Volcanoes
View of volcanic ash spewing from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland. Credit: ©Snaevarr Gudmundsson.

Because of their size and the explosive force with which they are generated, volcanic ash is picked up by winds and dispersed up to several kilometers away from the eruption site. Due to this dispersal, ash an also have a damaging effect on the local environment, which includes negatively affecting human and animal health, disrupting aviation, disrupting infrastructure, and damaging agriculture and water systems. Ash is also produced when magma comes into contact with water, which causes the water to explosively evaporate into steam and for the magma to shatter.

Volcanic Bombs:

In addition to ash, volcanic eruptions have also been known to send larger projectiles flying through the air. Known as volcanic bombs, these ejecta are defined as those that measure more than 64mm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and which are formed when a volcano ejects viscous fragments of lava during an eruption. These cool before they hit the ground, are thrown many kilometers from the eruption site, and often acquire aerodynamic shapes (i.e. streamlined in form).

While the term applies to any ejecta larger than a few centimeters, volcanic bombs can sometimes be very large. There have been recorded instances where objects measuring several meters were retrieved hundreds of meters from an eruptions. Small or large, volcanic bombs are a significant volcanic hazard and can often cause serious damage and multiple fatalities, depending on where they land. Luckily, such explosions are rare.

Secondary Vent:

On large volcanoes, magma can reach the surface through several different vents. Where they reach the surface of the volcano, they form what is referred to as a secondary vent. Where they are interrupted by accumulated ash and solidified lava, they become what is known as a Dike. And where these intrude between cracks, pool and then crystallize, they form what is called a Sill.

Cross-section through a stratovolcano (vertical scale is exaggerated): 1. Large magma chamber 2. Bedrock 3. Conduit (pipe) 4. Base 5. Sill 6. Dike 7. Layers of ash emitted by the volcano 8. Flank 9. Layers of lava emitted by the volcano 10. Throat 11. Parasitic cone 12. Lava flow 13. Vent 14. Crater 15. Ash cloud MesserWoland
Cross-section of a stratovolcano: 1. Magma chamber 2. Bedrock 3. Vent 4. Base 5. Sill 6. Dike 7. Layers of ash 8. Flank 9. Layers of lava 10. Throat 11. Parasitic cone 12. Lava flow 13. Vent 14. Crater 15. Ash cloud. Credit: MesserWoland

Secondary Cone:

Also known as a Parasitic Cone, secondary cones build up around secondary vents that reach the surface on larger volcanoes. As they deposit lava and ash on the exterior, they form a smaller cone, one that resembles a horn on the main cone.

Yes indeed, volcanoes are as powerful as they are dangerous. And yet, without these geological phenomena occasionally breaking through the surface and reigning down fire, smoke, and clouds of ash, the world as we know it would be a very different place. More than likely, it would be a geologically dead one, with no change or evolution in its crust. I think we can all agree that while such a world would be much safer, it would also be painfully boring!

We have written many interesting articles about volcanoes here at Universe Today. Here’s is one about the different types of volcanoes, one about composite volcanoes, and here’s one on the famous volcanic belt, the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

Astronomy Cast also has a lovely episodes about volcanoes and geology, titled Episode 307: Pacific Ring of Fire and Episode 51: Earth

Want more resources on the Earth? Here’s a link to NASA’s Human Spaceflight page, and here’s NASA’s Visible Earth.