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-Cite This Sourceearthquake, trembling or shaking movement of the earth's surface. Most earthquakes areminor tremors. Larger earthquakes usually begin with slight tremors but rapidly take theform of one or more violent shocks, and end in vibrations of gradually diminishing forcecalled aftershocks. The subterranean point of origin of an earthquake is called its focus;the point on the surface directly above the focus is the epicenter. The magnitude andintensity of an earthquake is determined by the use of scales, e.g., the Richter scaleand the Mercalli scale.
Causes of Earthquakes
Most earthquakes are causally related to compressional or tensional stresses built up atthe margins of the huge moving lithospheric plates that make up the earth's surface (seelithosphere
). The immediate cause of most shallow earthquakes is the sudden release of stress along afault, or fracture in the earth's crust, resulting in movement of the opposing blocks of rock past one another. These movements cause vibrations to pass through andaround the earth in wave form, just as ripples are generated when a pebble is dropped intowater. Volcanic eruptions, rockfalls, landslides, and explosions can also cause a quake, but most of these are of only local extent. Shock waves from a powerful earthquake cantrigger smaller earthquakes in a distant location hundreds of miles away if the geologicconditions are favorable.See also plate tectonics.
Seismic Waves
There are several types of earthquake waves including P, or primary, waves, which arecompressional and travel fastest; and S, or secondary, waves, which are transverse, i.e.,they cause the earth to vibrate perpendicularly to the direction of their motion. Surfacewaves consist of several major types and are called L, or long, waves. Since the velocitiesof the P and S waves are affected by changes in the density and rigidity of the materialthrough which they pass, the boundaries between the regions of the earth known as thecrust, mantle, and core have been discerned by seismologists, scientists who deal with theanalysis and interpretation of earthquake waves (see earth). Seismographs (see seismology
) are used to record P, S, and L waves. The disappearance of S waves belowdepths of 1,800 mi (2,900 km) indicates that at least the outer part of the earth's core isliquid.
Damage Caused by Earthquakes
The effects of an earthquake are strongest in a broad zone surrounding the epicenter.Surface ground cracking associated with faults that reach the surface often occurs, withhorizontal and vertical displacements of several yards common. Such movement does nothave to occur during a major earthquake; slight periodic movements called fault creepcan be accompanied by microearthquakes too small to be felt. The extent of earthquakevibration and subsequent damage to a region is partly dependent on characteristics of theground. For example, earthquake vibrations last longer and are of greater waveamplitudes in unconsolidated surface material, such as poorly compacted fill or river deposits; bedrock areas receive fewer effects. The worst damage occurs in densely populated urban areas where structures are not built to withstand intense shaking. There,L waves can produce destructive vibrations in buildings and break water and gas lines,starting uncontrollable fires.Damage and loss of life sustained during an earthquake result from falling structures andflying glass and objects. Flexible structures built on bedrock are generally more resistantto earthquake damage than rigid structures built on loose soil. In certain areas, anearthquake can trigger mudslides, which slip down mountain slopes and can buryhabitations below. A submarine earthquake can cause atsunami, a series of damagingwaves that ripple outward from the earthquake epicenter and inundate coastal cities.
Major Earthquakes
On average about 1,000 earthquakes with intensities of 5.0 or greater are recorded eachyear. Great earthquakes (intensity 8.0 or higher) occur once a year, major earthquakes(intensity 7.0-7.9) occur 18 times a year, strong earthquakes (intensity 6.0-6.9) 10 times amonth, and moderate earthquakes (intensity 5.0-5.9) more than twice a day. Because mostof these occur under the ocean or in underpopulated areas, they pass unnoticed by all butseismologists. Notable earthquakes have occurred at Lisbon, Portugal (1755); NewMadrid, Mo. (1811 and 1812); Charleston, S.C. (1886); Assam, India (1897 and 1950);San Francisco (1906); Messina, Italy (1908); Gansu, China (1920); Tokyo, Japan (1923);Chile (1960); Iran (1962); Managua, Nicaragua (1972); Guatemala (1976); Hebei, China(1976); Mexico (1985); Armenia (1988); Luzon, Philippines (1990); N Japan (1993);Kobe, Japan (1995); Izmit, Turkey (1999); central Taiwan (1999); Oaxaca state, Mexico(1999); Bam, Iran (2003); and NW Sumatra, Indonesia (2004). The Lisbon, Chilean, andSumatran earthquakes were accompanied bytsunamis. On Good Friday 1964, one of themost severe North American earthquakes ever recorded struck Alaska, measuring 8.4 to8.6 in intensity. Besides elevating some 70,000 sq mi (181,300 sq km) of land anddevastating several cities, it generated a tsunami that caused damage as far south asCalifornia.Ten of the fifteen largest earthquakes in the United States have occurred in Alaska, andeight of the fifteen largest in the continental United States have occurred in California.Recent earthquakes that affected the United States include the Feb., 1971, movement of the San Fernando fault near Los Angeles. It rocked the area for 10 sec, thrust parts of mountains 8 ft (2.4 m) upward, killed 64 persons, and caused damage amounting to $500million. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake above Santa Cruz shook for 15 seconds at
an intensity of 7.1, killed 67 people, and toppled buildings and bridges. In Jan., 1994, anearthquake measuring 6.6 with its epicenter in N Los Angeles caused major damage tothe city's infrastructure and left thousands homeless.
See C. H. Scholz,
The Mechanics of Earthquakes and Faulting 
(1991); C. Lomnitz,
 Fundamentals of Earthquake Prediction
(1994); D. S. Brumbaugh,
 Earthquakes: Scienceand Society
(1998); B. A. Bolt,
(4th ed. 1999). See also bibliography under seismology.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia Copyright © 2004, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press
-Cite This SourceA series of shock waves generated at a point (
) within the Earth, and caused by themovement of rocks on a fault plane releasing stored strain energy. The point on thesurface of the Earth above the focus is the
. Major earthquakes are associatedwith the edges of plates that make up the Earth's crust, and along mid-oceanic ridgeswhere new crust is forming. The greatest concentration of earthquakes is in a belt aroundthe Pacific Ocean (the ‘ring of fire’), and along a zone from the Mediterranean E to theHimalayas and China. The magnitude of an earthquake is measured on the Richter scale.Major earthquakes, such as in San Francisco in 1906 and Japan in 1923, can cause muchdamage to property and loss of life. Further dangers arise from associated effects,especially tsunamis.
See also
Major Earthquakes
 All magnitudes on the Richter Scale
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