A sudden shaking or trembling of the Earth that is volcanic or tectonic in origin.
Earthquakes typically result from the movement of faults, quasi-planar zones of deformation within its uppermost layers. The word earthquake is also widely used to indicate the source region itself. The solid earth is in slow but constant motion (see plate tectonics) and earthquakes occur where the resulting stress exceeds the capacity of Earth materials to support it.
Earthquakes may occur naturally or as a result of human activities. In its most generic sense, the word earthquake is used to describe any seismic event-whether a natural phenomenon or an event caused by humans-that generates seismic waves.
Most naturally occurring earthquakes are related to the tectonic nature of the Earth. Such earthquakes are called tectonic earthquakes. The Earth`s lithosphere is a patch work of plates (see plate tectonics) in slow but constant motion caused by the heat in the Earth`s mantle and core. Plate boundaries glide past each other, creating frictional stress. When the frictional stress exceeds a critical value, called local strength, a sudden failure occurs. The boundary of tectonic plates along which failure occurs is called the fault plane. When the failure at the fault plane results in a violent displacement of the Earth`s crust, the elastic strain energy is released and elastic waves are radiated, thus causing an earthquake. It is estimated that only 10 percent or less of an earthquake`s total energy is ultimately radiated as seismic energy, while most of the earthquake`s energy is used to power the earthquake fracture growth and is eventually converted into heat. Therefore, earthquakes lower the Earth`s available potential energy and thermal energy, though these losses are negligible. To describe the physical process of occurrence of an earthquake, seismologists use the Elastic-rebound theory.
The majority of tectonic earthquakes originate at depths not exceeding a few tens of kilometers. Earthquakes occurring at boundaries of tectonic plates are called interplate earthquakes, while the less frequent events that occur in the interior of the lithospheric plates are called intraplate earthquakes.
Where the crust is thicker and colder, earthquakes occur at greater depths of hundreds of kilometers along subduction zones where plates descend into the Earth`s mantle. These types of earthquakes are called deep focus earthquakes. They are possibly generated when subducted lithospheric material catastrophically undergoes a phase transition (e.g., olivine to spinel), releasing stored energy-such as elastic strain, chemical energy or gravitational energy-that cannot be supported at the pressures and temperatures present at such depths.
Earthquakes may also occur in volcanic regions and are caused by the movement of magma in volcanoes. Such quakes can be an early warning of volcanic eruptions.
The intensity of an earthquake can be measured. One measurement is called the Richter scale. Earthquakes below 4.0 on the Richter scale usually do not cause damage, and earthquakes below 2.0 usually can`t be felt. Earthquakes over 5.0 on the scale can cause damage. A magnitude 6.0 earthquake is considered strong and a magnitude 7.0 is a major earthquake. The Northridge Earthquake, which hit Southern California in 1994, was magnitude 6.7.
Thousands of quakes occur every day around the globe, most of them too weak to be felt. Every year about 10,000 people, on average, die as a result of earthquakes.
Earthquakes are sometimes called temblors, quakes, shakers or seismic activity. The most important thing to remember during an earthquake is to DROP, COVER and HOLD ON. So remember to DROP to the floor and get under something for COVER and HOLD ON during the shaking.