You are on page 1of 10

Understanding Earthquake Oscillations

Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh

Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, 1/AF Bidhannagar, Kolkata-700064, India,

1 Introduction

Do earthquakes have anything to do with oscillations? The question naturally arises since the phenomenon of earthquake appears to be a random, chaotic and unpredictable one, while the term oscillation seems to indicate more to- wards a periodic and hence predictable event. But we shall presently see that in spite of this apparent contradiction, earthquakes can indeed be understood in terms of a particular type of oscillation known as relaxation oscillation. Un- derstanding the dynamics of any system is the primary condition for making any prediction about the system. The efforts to explain tectonic plate move- ment in terms of oscillations is not absolutely new [1] as we shall soon see, but the present approach is a new effort in this direction with the help of some simple table-top experiments. We all know that the term earthquake covers any vibration of the earth’s surface due to natural causes. Presently, earthquakes are classified with re- spect to their origin into three different types: tectonic, volcanic and colluese or denudation. Of these, the last mentioned type represents the earthquakes occurring due to the collapse of considerable amount of mass like a large land- slide occurring in mountain region. The earthquakes associated with volcanic activity are also understandable from a similar approach, but a clear picture about the first type i.e. the dynamics of tectonic movement which lead to earthquakes and associated devastations, is yet to come out. There is one most prevalent hypothesis on the primary cause of tectonic movement, which is known as the convection cell hypothesis. According to this, unequal heat distribution in the mantle may produce convection cells driven by heat from radioactive decay in the earth’s interior below the lithosphere. Hot material rises, spreads laterally, cools and sinks deeper into the mantle to be reheated. While the Shallow Convection Cell Model claims that the convection cells are restricted to the asthenosphere, the Deep Convection Cell Model is based on the assumption that the entire mantle is involved in convection. This move- ment in the mantle is of the order of a few centimeters per year. However,


Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh

these models are not adequate to explain some observed phenomena like:

  • (a) Development of stress with time on tectonic plate and subsequent break-


  • (b) A major earthquake is associated with pre-shaking and post-shaking.

  • (c) The possibility of major earthquakes is to recur with time.

Wesson [2] has also pointed out as many as 74 objections to gradualist plate tectonics. He has shown that there is no convection in mantle at all. Beloussov [3], Meyerhoff and Meyerhoff [4] have also pointed out similar inconsistencies in the thery of tectonic plate movement based on convection cell hypothesis. The tussle between the oscillatory model and the gradualist model has got a long and chequered history in tectonic movement understanding. For exam- ple the elevation hypothesis advanced in the eighteenth century by Lomonosov and Hutton or the contraction hypothesis put forward by L. Elie de Beuamont in the middle of the nineteenth century based on the cosmogenic hypothesis of Kant-Laplace were two very strong gradualist models [1]. The challenge to these gradualist ideas came from the pulsation hypothesis which was intro- duced by W. H. Butcher in 1920. It is interesting to note that although this hypothesis falls in the oscillatory line, it in fact utilized the basic principles of the contraction hypothesis[1]. As a matter of fact the modern convection cell hypothesis, in its turn also tries to take into cognizance alternate regions of stretching and contraction due to alternately oriented convection currents [1]. The model proposed here, is a new oscillatory model through which we shall try to answer the inadequacies of the convection cell hypothesis, mentioned above.

  • 2 Earthquakes and Relaxation Oscillation

Whenever we speak of an oscillation, probably the first thing that comes to our mind is a sinusoidal oscillation shown in Figure 1(a). However, it is also well-known to us that there are other type of oscillations where unlike the sine or cosine wave, the functional form changes its state in an abrupt manner. Two such examples, one of a square wave and the other a saw tooth wave, have been shown in Figures 1(b) and 1(c). Such waveforms may represent a system, which when energized by a time-independent source, produces an output that is not only time-dependent and periodic, but also one that changes its state in an abrupt manner as shown in these examples. such a system is termed as a relaxation oscillation based system.

2.1 Relaxation Oscillation in Pressure Cooker

In Figure 2, we see the picture of a pressure cooker, seen in our everyday life. The maximum pressure at which the jet starts operating may be termed as

Understanding Earthquake Oscillations


Understanding Earthquake Oscillations 3 Fig. 1. (a)A sine wave (b)A square wave (c)A sawtooth wave the

Fig. 1. (a)A sine wave (b)A square wave (c)A sawtooth wave

the barrier height of the cooker. This height, it is easy to understand, is deter- mined by the weight placed at the top. On the other hand, the frequency of steam ejection through the jet will be a function of both the weight as well as the rate of heating by the heating system. In other words if we change the rate of heating, the frequency of ejection will only change and not the maximum amplitude in the pressure meter. But if the weight is adjusted then both fre- quency as well as the maximum amplitude reached, will undergo changes. This is a typical example of relaxation oscillation comparable with many natural events, relevant to our discussion [5]. In Figure 3 (a), we show the experimen-

Understanding Earthquake Oscillations 3 Fig. 1. (a)A sine wave (b)A square wave (c)A sawtooth wave the

Fig. 2. A schematic diagram of the pressure cooker used for conducting the exper- iment

tal results of the variation of pressure as measured in the pressure meter. It is clear from the figure that maximum pressure at which the weight gets lifted and the jet flow begins, is retained as long as the flow continues and then then when the weight drops back to its original position, the pressure meter shows a different (lower) reading. This means that the system is associated with a hysteresis loop as is evident from Figure 3(b). The position of the weight is binary, i.e. either 0 (rest position)or 1 (ejection position). Next we present the


Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh

4 Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh Fig. 3. (a)The Pressure-time profile (b) The corresponding hysteresis loop

Fig. 3. (a)The Pressure-time profile (b) The corresponding hysteresis loop (c) The Temperature-time profile

experimental results of temperature variation with time, in the thermometer shown in Figure 2. We find from Figure 3(c), that this variation also follows the pattern of relaxation oscillation. The sudden fall in both temperature and pressure, in these graphs, is only natural because of the drop in particle num- ber inside the pressure cooker with each jet emission. The situation may be compared to the phenomenon of volcanic eruption (Figure 4). The change of pressure and temperature inside the volcano is understandable from such an experiment. There should be a similar sharp fall in temperature and pressure inside, following a burst of eruption as indicated by Figures 3(a) and 3(c). Moreover, in this case the amplitude of volcanic activity will depend upon the barrier height that is to be exceeded in order that the volcanic activity may start. This barrier height can be studied from the history of earlier eruption in the same place and the nature of the sediment settled on the mouth of the volcano, at the end of its last eruption.

4 Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh Fig. 3. (a)The Pressure-time profile (b) The corresponding hysteresis loop

Fig. 4. A typical volcanic eruption

Understanding Earthquake Oscillations


2.2 Relaxation Oscillation in Pop-pop Boat

We shall now try to understand tectonic plate movement that is responsible for earthquakes, in the light of relaxation oscillation as exhibited by a pop-pop boat. In Figure 5, we see the schematic diagram of a pop-pop boat, a childhood toy of many of us. As the name indicates the boat does not actually move continually, but doe so in discrete steps with a pop-pop sound. Water enters

Understanding Earthquake Oscillations 5 2.2 Relaxation Oscillation in Pop-pop Boat We shall now try to understand

Fig. 5. The schematic diagram of a pop-pop boat

into the reactor through one of the nozzles (marked with the same shade as water), gets heated and the resultant steam forms a bubble at the outlet of the other nozzle, also under water. Once the pressure developed within the bubble exceeds the pressure exerted by water at that height (hdg-where ’h’ is the depth of the outlet nozzle and ’d’ the specific gravity of water), the bubble is released [5] and the boat moves forward under its impact. Water enters through the previous nozzle and the cycle continues. The barrier height (hdg) ensures that this phenomenon is another instance of relaxation oscillation The tectonic plate movement can be explained through this approach as is evident from Figure 6. Here the liquid is the fluid magma on which the plates are floating. The two openings emanating as shown from plate 1 act as the nozzles, so that plate 1 moves forward due to reasons explained above in case of the pop-pop boat. Due to such sudden intermittent movement, as opposed to a continuous one, it can even place itself over plate 2. In course of time this will develop a stress on plate 2 that may result in plate subduction, as happened with the Indian and Burma plate when the devastating Tsunami was generated on December 26, 2004.

3 Earthquake Prediction

We shall first discuss the phenomenon of pre-shaking and post-shaking asso- ciated with earthquake occurrences and explain their possible causes in the


Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh

6 Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh Fig. 6. Movement of tectonic plate in the light of

Fig. 6. Movement of tectonic plate in the light of pop-pop model

light of the present model. From such an approach, we shall also try to predict the nature of earthquake in a region. Let us recapitulate our pressure cooker model again and have a look at Figure 7(a). We find that instead of one there are two weights one of which is double the mass of the other. When such a system is heated which of the two weights will be lifted? Clearly, the lower weight will always act as the barrier height and the more massive one will in fact never come into picture. The analogy

6 Bijay Bal and Kuntal Ghosh Fig. 6. Movement of tectonic plate in the light of

Fig. 7. (a) The pressure cooker with two different weights (b) The same pressure cooker with a partition in between

in case of tectonic plates however, may not be always that simple. This is evident in Figure 7(b), where the same pressure cooker is separated within by a partition. In such a case prediction about which weight will come into picture and when, becomes more complicated and as a matter of fact, both these weights may get lifted from time to time. We now come to the phenomenon of pre-shaking associated with earthquakes. When a lid is placed on a bowl of water that is placed on a heating system (Figure 8a), as the steam accumulates within the bowl, it gives the lid small pushes in order to find an outlet. Such small amplitude movements are compa- rable to the pre-shakings associated with earthquakes. They are also observ- able in pressure cookers as short intermittent hissing sounds just before the final ejection of steam through the jet. Now, in a real situation, once a severe earthquake occurs, the plate (lid in our analogy) is likely to rapture at many places due to the impact. Now if we place such a fractured lid atop the bowl

Understanding Earthquake Oscillations


Understanding Earthquake Oscillations 7 Fig. 8. (a) A vessel of water covered by a lid (b)

Fig. 8. (a) A vessel of water covered by a lid (b) The vessel is covered by fractures of the same lid placed carefully over a net

with the help of a net (Figure 8b), then the new frequency of oscillation of such a fractured lid will be governed by the path of minimum impedance,i.e. the smallest fractured portion of the lid. This is how we can explain the lower amplitude aftershocks that follow a high magnitude earthquake. So a major earthquake will probably be associated with a number of new fractures in the plate, the number being of course dependent upon the com- position as well as the morphology of the plate at that position. If a large number of such fractures are created, then the possibility of another major earthquake in that region diminishes, although small magnitude earthquakes will occur more frequently. The exact amplitude and frequency of such oc- currences will be governed by how the trapping arrangement of fluid magma within the new tectonic pieces after the formation of the fractures changes. The new movements of the tectonic pieces due to such new arrangement may in turn lead to the accumulation of new stresses that may again usher in the possibility of another major earthquake there in course of time.


  • 1. A.F. Yakushova: Factors Conditioning the Tectonic Movements and Develop- ment of the Earth’s Crust. Tectonic Hypotheses. In: Geology with the elements of Geomorphology, translated by G. C. Egorov (Mir Publishers, Moscow 1986) pp 370–385

  • 2. P. S. Wesson: Journal of Geology 80, pp. 185–197 (1972)

  • 3. V. V. Beloussov: EOS, American Geophysical Union 60, pp. 207–210 (1979)

  • 4. A. A. Meyerhoff and H. A. Meyerhoff: American Association of Petroleum Ge- ologists (AAPG) Bulletin 56, pp. 269–336 (1972)

  • 5. Madhuri Katti and Bijay Bal: Physica D 112, pp. 451–458 (1998)


paragraph, 7