Reading: Common Locations of Earthquakes

Earthquakes and Plate Boundaries

Most, but not all, earthquakes occur at or near plate boundaries. A great deal of stress is concentrated and a great deal of strain, much of it in the form of rupture of the earth, takes place at locations where two plates diverge, transform, or converge relative to each other.

Tension is the dominant stress at divergent plate boundaries. Normal faults and rift valleys as the predominant earthquake-related structures at divergent plate boundaries. Earthquakes at divergent plate boundaries are usually relatively shallow, and, though they can be damaging, the most powerful earthquakes at divergent plate boundaries are not nearly as powerful as the most powerful earthquakes at convergent plate boundaries.

Transform plate boundaries are zones dominated by horizontal shear, with strike-slip faults the most characteristic fault type. Most transform plate boundaries cut through relatively thin oceanic crust, part of the structure of the ocean floor, and produce relatively shallow earthquakes that are only rarely of major magnitude. However, where transform plate boundaries and their strike-slip faults cut through the thicker crust of islands or the even thicker crust of continents, more stress may need to build up before the thicker masses of rock will rupture, and so the magnitudes of earthquakes can be higher than in transform plate boundary zones confined to thin oceanic crust. This is evident in such places as the San Andreas fault zone of California, where a transform fault cuts through continental crust and earthquakes there sometimes exceed 7.0 in magnitude.

Convergent plate boundaries are dominated by compression. The major faults found in convergent plate boundaries are usually reverse or thrust faults, including a master thrust fault at the boundary between the two plates and typically several more major thrust faults running roughly parallel to the plate boundary. The most powerful earthquakes that have been measured are subduction earthquakes, up to greater than 9.0 in magnitude. All subduction zones in the world are at risk of subduction earthquakes with magnitudes up to or even greater than 9.0 in extreme cases, and are likely to produce tsunamis. This includes the Cascadia subduction zone of northern California and coastal Oregon and Washington, the Aleutian subduction zone of southern Alaska, the Kamchatka subduction zone of Pacific Russia, the Acapulco subduction zone of southern Pacific Mexico, the Central American subduction zone, the Andean subduction zone, the West Indian or Caribbean subduction zone, and subduction zones of Indonesia, Japan, the Phillipines, and several more subduction zones in the western and southwestern Pacific Ocean.

Intraplate Earthquakes

Some earthquakes take place far away from plate boundaries. Earthquakes can occur wherever there is sufficient stress in the earth’s crust to drive rocks to rupture.

For example, Hawaii is thousands of km (thousands of miles) from any plate boundary, but the volcanoes that compose the islands have built up so rapidly that they are still undergoing gravitational stabilization. Sectors of the Hawaiian islands occasionally slump along normal faults, producing intraplate earthquakes. Most of the earthquakes occur on the big island of Hawaii, which is composed of the youngest, most recently built volcanoes. The geologic record shows that parts of the older islands have undergone major collapses in the last few million years, with sections of the islands sliding out to the seafloor in landslides floored on shallow normal faults.

Another example is the Basin and Range region of the western United States, including Nevada and eastern Utah, where the crust is subjected to tension. Earthquakes occur there on normal faults, far inland from the plate boundaries on the West Coast. The tension in the crust of the Basin and Range province may be partly due to a mid-ocean ridge system that subducted beneath California and is now located beneath the Basin and Range, causing tension in the lithosphere.

The region around Yellowstone National Park also undergoes occasional major earthquakes on normal faults. Earthquakes in that area may be due to the Yellowstone hot spot causing differential thermal expansion of the lithosphere in a broad zone round the hot spot center.

Several East Coast cities, including Boston, New York, and Charleston in South Carolina, have experienced damaging earthquakes in the last two centuries. The faults beneath these cities may date back to the rifting of Pangea and the opening up of the Atlantic Ocean beginning around 200 million years ago.

In the area of the town of New Madrid, along the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri and western Tennessee, great earthquakes occurred in 1811-1812. Minor to moderate earthquakes continue to occur there, keeping active the possibility of damaging earthquakes occurring there again in the future. The fault system beneath that area may date from times of continental collision and continental rifting in the distant geologic past, and recent stress in the crust around New Madrid may be from the massive build-up of sediment in the Mississippi River delta region, which spreads out to the south of that area.

Earthquakes and Volcanoes

The connections between earthquakes and volcanoes are not always obvious. However, when magma is moving up beneath a volcano, and when a volcano is erupting, it produces earthquakes. Volcanic earthquakes are distinct from the more common type of earthquakes that occur by elastic rebound along faults.

Seismologists can use the patterns and signals of earthquakes coming from beneath volcanoes to predict that the volcano is about to erupt, and can use seismic waves to see that a volcano is undergoing an eruption even if the volcano is at a remote location, hidden in darkness, or hidden in storm clouds.

Volcanic vents, and volcanoes in general, are commonly located along faults, or at the intersection of several faults. Major faults that already exist in the crust may be natural paths to channel rising magma. However, on major volcanic edifices, shallower faults are a product of the development of the volcano. There are feedback effects between the upward pressure of magma buoyancy in the crust, the growth of faults in volcanic zones, and the venting of volcanoes, which is not yet completely understood.

As was noted at the beginning of this section, not quite all earthquakes are due to the slippage of solid blocks of rock along faults. When a volcano undergoes a powerful pyroclastic eruption – in other words, when a volcano explodes – it causes the earth to shake. Earthquakes caused by an explosive volcanic eruptions produce a different seismic signal than earthquakes caused by slippage along faults.

Another example of earthquakes that are caused at least in part by magma movement, rather than by slippage of entirely solid rock along faults, is earthquakes set off by the movement of magma upward beneath a volcano, or up to higher levels in the crust whether or not there is a volcano on top. Such upward movement of magma within the crust is sometimes called magma injection. Seismologists are still researching the interactions between movement of magma in the crust, and related slippage along faults that may be caused by the pressure and movement of the magma.


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