What Causes Earthquakes?

Have you ever felt the ground shake as a herd of elephants stampeded by? Has your mom ever told you that you sound (and feel!) like a herd of elephants because you are making the whole house shake? Is that an earthquake? Maybe its just a house quake. Have you ever felt your house shake when a truck drives by? Well, that is a very local earthquake. In all these cases, the earth shakes in response to a local shock. These shakes would show up on a seismograph. In fact, they do show up on seismographs and scientists have to know how to tell the difference between a big truck going by outside (or a herd of elephants stampeding down the hall) and a large earthquake halfway around the world.

How it happens?

The Nuclear Explosion Theory
On a larger scale an explosion can cause the earth to shake for a considerable distance. Scientists use seismographs to monitor nuclear tests. People in Las Vegas could feel the shaking caused by underground nuclear tests in the desert miles away. The government analyzes the shock waves (earthquakes) produced by nuclear explosions to study the effects of nuclear tests and to monitor tests elsewhere in the world.

The Extraterrestrial, or Meteor, Theory
Every day tiny meteors hit the earth, as we move through space. The vast majority of them burn up in the atmosphere, leaving no more trace than a shooting star across the sky. Once in a while, a meteorite will reach the surface of the earth. Very rarely a great meteorite will hit, causing the ground to shake and creating a large crater. The Meteor Crater in Arizona is an excellent example of this type of crater. Imagine how the ground shook for miles around when it was formed!

The moon is full of meteor craters that we can see because they have not eroded away. The earth also has been struck many times over its history. Erosion by wind and rain wear down the craters so we can’t see most of them anymore. Scientists studying the earth have found traces of many meteor impacts around the world. Each impact creates an earthquake.

Earthquakes are one of the indicators of increased volcanic activity leading up to an eruption. As magma forces its way up into a volcano, it pushes aside the rocks in its way, causing bulges in the ground and a flurry of earthquakes. Scientists studying volcanoes watch for an increase in earthquakes to tell them that an eruption may be on the way. Using this and other measures of volcanic activity, they have been able to warn residents to evacuate before eruptions. Although they still cannot predict eruptions with absolute certainty, they are learning more all the time about what to look for to make better predictions. Much of this knowledge comes from studying volcanic earthquakes.

Plate Tectonics

Most Earthquakes are caused by Plate Tectonics. The earth’s crust consists of a number of sections or plates that float on the molten rock of the mantle. These plates move on convection currents caused by heat rising from the center of the earth. The hot magma rises and spreads out on the surface, creating new crust. The crust spreads out forming a new plate until it meets another plate. One of the plates will be pushed down into the interior of the earth and reabsorbed into the mantle. Plates can also be compressed to push up mountains when they collide or move sideways along transform faults.

The plates are the Earth’s crust that float on the molten rock in the center of the Earth. Most of the inside of the Earth is so hot that the rock melts. Just as a pot of hot chocolate on the stove will bubble as it is heated; the molten rock, or magma, very slowly bubbles up in great currents under the surface of the Earth. The crust that floats on the magma moves with it, like the skin that might form on the hot chocolate. The Plates are just pieces of the crust. The part that makes it hard to understand is that it all moves so slowly. Even though the magma is very hot it is also very thick and under tremendous pressure in the middle of the Earth. So it moves only a few centimeters a year. Over millions of years that adds up to a lot of movement. More information from the University of Nevada at Reno explains Plate Tectonics with examples from different parts of the world. There are also good explanations here of the different plate movements and how they result in different kinds of earthquakes. Extensional, Compressional and Transform faults are explained.

This Dynamic Earth is a publication put out by the US Geological Survey that explains the basics of Plate Tectonics. It explains the evidence that brought scientists to accept this theory.

This Dynamic Earth is a publication put out by the US Geological Survey that explains the basics of Plate Tectonics. It explains the evidence that brought scientists to accept this theory.


About Rashid Faridi

I am Rashid Aziz Faridi ,Writer, Teacher and a Voracious Reader.
This entry was posted in earth, interior of the Earth, seismic activities. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to What Causes Earthquakes?

  1. Pingback: Faults | Rashid's Blog: An Educational Portal

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