10 Things to Know About Earthquakes

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While we in earthquake-prone places like California tend to get blase about the ground shaking ( aw hell, my coffee spilled! ), even the most unaffected of us feel that little niggle of fear whenever the walls start to shake... will this be a big one? These are some of the most basic things about earthquakes: what we know about them, why they happen and what they can do. This is not a safety list, but more of a list of facts about the most basic elements of an earthquake... what kinds there are, what causes them, the types of faults, etc.

Something to note is that it really is only recently (within the last 30-40 years) that we have really even begun to understand these dangerous natural events. Imagine what it must have been like 3,000 years ago when you had to not only deal with your hut collapsing on top of you, but having to wonder what you did that made your gods get so pissed off. Peruse this fascinating stuff about earthquakes, many of which are great earthquake facts for kids, and learn up! That Cascadia fault isn't going to stay put for long!

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    There are several different kinds of quakes:

    -Volcanic eruptions
    -Meteor impacts
    -Underground explosions
    -Collapsing structures

    Obviously, the one we are really talking about is the first kind... tectonic... which is the movement of the earth's plates.

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    Our Lithosphere is comprised of many plates that slide over the lubricating athenosphere layer. At the boundaries between these huge plates of soil and rock, three different things can happen:

    1. Plates can move apart If two plates are moving apart from each other, hot, molten rock flows up from the layers of mantle below the lithosphere. This magma comes out on the surface (mostly at the bottom of the ocean), where it is called lava. As the lava cools, it hardens to form new lithosphere material, filling in the gap. This is called a divergent plate boundary.

    2. Plates can push together If the two plates are moving toward each other, one plate typically pushes under the other one. This subducting plate sinks into the lower mantle layers, where it melts. At some boundaries where two plates meet, neither plate is in a position to subduct under the other, so they both push against each other to form mountains. The lines where plates push toward each other are called convergent plate boundaries.

    3. Plates slide against each other At other boundaries, plates simply slide by each other -- one moves north and one moves south, for example. While the plates don't drift directly into each other at these transform boundaries, they are pushed tightly together. A great deal of tension builds at the boundary.

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    Normal fault. These are described as being nearly vertical and occur in areas where earth's plates are pulled apart because of a divergent plate boundary nearby. On this fault, the hanging wall pushes down on the footwall. For reference, the hanging wall is the rock pushed above the fault plane and the footwall is the rock below the plane. The fault plane is the flat surface representing the fracture line of the fault.

    Reverse fault. These are created when the earth's crust is compressed when two plates collide. Here the hanging wall pushes up and the footwall pushes down.

    Strike-slip fault is a horizontal fault where the areas of rock slide past one another. These occur in areas where there is a transform plate boundary. The San Andreas fault in California is an example of a strike-slip fault

    Thrust Fault When thrust faults are exposed on the surface overburdened material lies over the main block. They are normally associated with areas of folded surfaces and or mountainous regions. The dip angles of thrust faults are normally not as steep as a normal fault.

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    When you boil it down, despite the simplicity of classification, earthquakes are all about three basic types of elastic waves.

    Two of the three propagate within a body of rock. The faster of these body waves is called the primary or P wave. As it spreads out, it alternately pushes (compresses) and pulls (dilates) the rock. These P waves are able to travel through both solid rock, such as granite mountains, and liquid material, such as volcanic magma or the water of the oceans.

    The slower wave through the body of rock is called the secondary or S wave. As an S wave moves, it shears the rock sideways at right angles to the direction of travel. If a liquid is sheared sideways or twisted, it will not spring back, hence S waves can only move through solids like rock.

    (In most earthquakes, the P waves are felt first. The effect is similar to a sonic boom that bumps and rattles windows. Some seconds later, the S waves arrive with their up-and-down and side-to-side motion, shaking the ground surface vertically and horizontally. This is the wave motion that is so damaging to structures.)

    The third type of wave is called a surface wave, because its motion is restricted to near the ground surface. Just like the ripples of water that travel across a lake.bThese kinds of waves can be divided into two types. The first is called a Love wave. It moves the ground from side to side in a horizontal plane but at right angles to the direction of propagation. The horizontal shaking of Love waves is particuly damaging to the foundations of structures. The second type of surface wave is known as a Rayleigh wave. Like rolling ocean waves, Rayleigh waves wave move both vertically and horizontally in a vertical plane pointed in the direction in which the waves are travelling.

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    The Epicenter

    The epicenter is directly above the point where the fault begins to rupture, and in most cases, it is the area of greatest damage. However, in larger events, the length of the fault rupture is much longer, and damage can be spread across the rupture zone.

    The point where the energy is released is called the focus and the focal depth is the depth beneath the earth's surface where the energy release originates. The epicenter is the point on the earth's surface directly above the focus. From here, the energy released spreads out in rings moving across the surface - not unlike those caused when a rock hits still water.

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    From what we know from recorded history, earthquakes occur in the same general patterns year after year, principally in three large zones of the earth.

    The world's greatest earthquake belt, the circum-Pacific seismic belt, is found along the rim of the Pacific Ocean, where about 81 percent of the world's largest earthquakes occur. It has earned the nickname "Ring of Fire". The belt extends from Chile, northward along the South American coast through Central America, Mexico, the West Coast of the United States, and the southern part of Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands to Japan, the Philippine Islands, New Guinea, the island groups of the Southwest Pacific, and to New Zealand. This is a region of young, growing mountains and deep ocean trenches which invariably parallel mountain chains. Earthquakes necessarily accompany elevation changes in mountains, the higher part of the earth's crust, and changes in the ocean trenches, the lower part.

    The second important belt, the Alpide, extends from Java to Sumatra through the Himalayas, the Mediterranean, and out into the Atlantic. This belt accounts for about 17 percent of the world's largest earthquakes, including some of the most destructive.

    The third prominent belt follows the submerged mid-Atlantic Ridge, which, you know... middle of the ocean.

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    Richter MagnitudeTypical Maximum
    Modified Mercalli Intensity
    1.0 - 3.0I
    3.0 - 3.9II - III
    4.0 - 4.9IV - V
    5.0 - 5.9VI - VII
    6.0 - 6.9VII - IX
    7.0+VIII or higher
    Two different but equally important types of scales are commonly used to describe earthquakes. The original force or energy of an earthquake is measured on a magnitude scale, while the intensity of shaking occurring at any given point is measured on an intensity scale.

    The Richter Scale is used to rate the magnitude of an earthquake -- the amount of energy it released. This is calculated using information gathered by a seismograph. The Richter Scale is logarithmic, meaning that whole-number jumps indicate a tenfold increase. In this case, the increase is in wave amplitude. That is, the wave amplitude in a level 6 earthquake is 10 times greater than in a level 5 earthquake, and the amplitude increases 100 times between a level 7 earthquake and a level 9 earthquake. The amount of energy released increases 31.7 times between whole number values. Generally, you won't see much damage from earthquakes that rate below 4 on the Richter Scale. Major earthquakes generally register at 7 or above.

    The Mercalli intensity scale is used for measuring the intensity of an earthquake. The scale quantifies the effects of an earthquake on the Earth's surface, humans, objects of nature, and man-made structures on a scale of I through XII, with I meaning "not felt", and XII meaning "total destruction". Data is gathered from individuals who have experienced the quake, and an intensity value will be given to their location.

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    The strongest earthquakes that occur can result in ground rupture, causing damage to bridges, dams, roads, railroad tracks, and the foundations of buildings. They can also cause landslides and avalanches as a result of the shaking.

    Intense shaking can also cause liquification of ground built on landfill when water mains break. The shaking of an earthquake is increased in areas of landfill when the density of the ground is loose.

    Another major cause of damage is the fires that ignite when power lines fall and gas lines rupture. In addition, undersea earthquakes can generate tsunamis that are capable of traveling great distances from the epicenter and cause significant damage to coastal communities.

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    The Worst

    By Magnitude - Not deaths.

    1. May 22, 1960 Valdivia, Chile 1960 Valdivia earthquake 9.5
    2. March 27, 1964 Prince William Sound, USA 1964 Alaska earthquake 9.2
    3. December 26, 2004 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake 9.1
    4. November 4, 1952 Kamchatka earthquakes 9.0
    5. August 13, 1868 1868 Arica earthquake 9.0
    6. January 26, 1700 1700 Cascadia earthquake 8.9
    7. March 11, 2011 2011 Sendai earthquake 8.9
    8. February 27, 2010 2010 Chile earthquake 8.8
    9. January 31, 1906 1906 Ecuador-Colombia earthquake 8.8
    10. November 25, 1833 1833 Sumatra earthquake 8.8

    The worst earthquakes listed by death toll

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    What To Do

    You Should:
    DROP down onto your hands and knees (before the earthquakes knocks you down). This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
    COVER your head and neck (and your entire body if possible) under a sturdy table or desk. If there is no shelter nearby, only then should you get down near an interior wall (or next to low-lying furniture that won't fall on you), and cover your head and neck with your arms and hands.
    HOLD ON to your shelter (or to your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.

    You Should NOT:
    RUN OUTSIDE or to other rooms during shaking: The area near the exterior walls of a building is the most dangerous place to be. Windows, facades and architectural details are often the first parts of the building to collapse. To stay away from this danger zone, stay inside if you are inside and outside if you are outside. Also, shaking can be so strong that you will not be able to move far without falling down, and objects may fall or be thrown at you that you do not expect. Injuries can be avoided if you drop to the ground before the earthquake drops you.

    DO NOT stand in a doorway. True- if you live in an old, unreinforced adobe house or some older woodframe houses, maybe. But in modern houses, doorways are no stronger than any other part of the house, and the doorway does not protect you from the most likely source of injury- falling or flying objects. You also may not be able to brace yourself in the door during strong shaking. You are safer under a table.

    DO NOT READ THE "TRIANGLE OF LIFE" email and believe it. If you get it, please refer the sender to www.earthquakecountry.info/dropcoverholdon/. In recent years, this e-mail has been circulating which describes an alternative to the long-established "Drop, Cover, and Hold On" advice. The so-called "triangle of life" and some of the other actions recommended in the e-mail are potentially life threatening. The "triangle of life" advice (always get next to a table rather than underneath it) is based on several wrong assumptions:

    -buildings always collapse in earthquakes (wrong- especially in developed nations, and flat "pancake" collapse is rare anywhere);
    -when buildings collapse they always crush all furniture inside (wrong- people DO survive under furniture or other shelters);
    -people can always anticipate how their building might collapse and anticipate the location of survivable void spaces (wrong- the direction of shaking and unique structural aspects of the building make this nearly impossible)
    -during strong shaking people can move to a desired location (wrong- strong shaking can make moving very difficult and dangerous).

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