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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an earthquake?

An Earthquake is a shaking of the ground caused by the sudden breaking and shifting of large sections of Earth’s rocky outer shell. Earthquakes are among the most powerful events on earth, and their results can be terrifying. A severe earthquake may release energy 10,000 times as great as that of the first atomic bomb. Rock movements during an earthquake can make rivers change their course. Earthquakes can trigger landslides that cause great damage and loss of life. Large earthquakes beneath the ocean can create a series of huge, destructive waves called tsunamis (tsoo-NAH-meez) that flood coasts for many miles.

Earthquakes almost never kill people directly. Instead, many deaths and injuries result from falling objects and the collapse of buildings, bridges, and other structures. Fire resulting from broken gas or power lines is another major danger during a quake. Spills of hazardous chemicals are also a concern during an earthquake.

The force of an earthquake depends on how much rock breaks and how far it shifts. Powerful earthquakes can shake firm ground violently for great distances. During minor earthquakes, the vibration may be no greater than the vibration caused by a passing truck.

On average, a powerful earthquake occurs less than once every two years. At least 40 moderate earthquakes cause damage somewhere in the world each year. Scientists estimate that more than 8,000 minor earthquakes occur each day without causing any damage. Of those, only about 1,100 are strong enough to be felt.

How does an earthquake begin?

Most earthquakes occur along a fault — a fracture in Earth’s rocky outer shell where sections of rock repeatedly slide past each other. Faults occur in weak areas of Earth’s rock. Most faults lie beneath the surface of Earth, but some, like the San Andreas Fault in California, are visible on the surface. Stresses in Earth cause large blocks of rock along a fault to strain, or bend. When the stress on the rock becomes great enough, the rock breaks and snaps into a new position, causing the shaking of an earthquake.

Earthquakes usually begin deep in the ground. The point in Earth where the rocks first break is called the focus, also known as the hypocenter, of the quake. The focus of most earthquakes lies less than 45 miles (72 kilometers) beneath the surface, though the deepest known focuses have been nearly 450 miles (700 kilometers) below the surface. The point on the surface of Earth directly above the focus is known as the epicenter of the quake. The strongest shaking is usually felt near the epicenter.

From the focus, the break travels like a spreading crack along the fault. The speed at which the fracture spreads depends on the type of rock. It may average about 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) per second in granite or other strong rock. At that rate, a fracture may spread more than 350 miles (560 kilometers) in one direction in less than three minutes. As the fracture extends along the fault, blocks of rock on one side of the fault may drop down below the rock on the other side, move up and over the other side, or slide forward past the other.

What makes an earthquake spread?

When an earthquake occurs, the violent breaking of rock releases energy that travels through Earth in the form of vibrations called seismic waves. Seismic waves move out from the focus of an earthquake in all directions. As the waves travel away from the focus, they grow gradually weaker. For this reason, the ground generally shakes less farther away from the focus.

There are two chief kinds of seismic waves: (1) body waves and (2) surface waves. Body waves, the fastest seismic waves, move through Earth. Slower surface waves travel along the surface of Earth.

Body waves tend to cause the most earthquake damage. There are two kinds of body waves: (1) compressional waves and (2) shear waves. As the waves pass through Earth, they cause particles of rock to move in different ways. Compressional waves push and pull the rock. They cause buildings and other structures to contract and expand. Shear waves make rocks move from side to side, and buildings shake. Compressional waves can travel through solids, liquids, or gases, but shear waves can pass only through solids.

Compressional waves are the fastest seismic waves, and they arrive first at a distant point. For this reason, compressional waves are also called primary (P) waves. Shear waves, which travel slower and arrive later, are called secondary (S) waves.

Body waves travel faster deep within Earth than near the surface. For example, at depths of less than 16 miles (25 kilometers), compressional waves travel at about 4.2 miles (6.8 kilometers) per second, and shear waves travel at 2.4 miles (3.8 kilometers) per second. At a depth of 620 miles (1,000 kilometers), the waves travel more than 11/2 times that speed.

Surface waves are long, slow waves. They produce what people feel as slow rocking sensations and cause little or no damage to buildings.

There are two kinds of surface waves: (1) Love waves and (2) Rayleigh waves. Love waves travel through Earth’s surface horizontally and move the ground from side to side. Rayleigh waves make the surface of Earth roll like waves on the ocean. Typical Love waves travel at about 23/4 miles (4.4 kilometers) per second, and Rayleigh waves, the slowest of the seismic waves, move at about 21/4 miles (3.7 kilometers) per second. The two types of waves were named for two British physicists, Augustus E. H. Love and Lord Rayleigh, who mathematically predicted the existence of the waves in 1911 and 1885, respectively.

How does an earthquake cause damage?

Earthquakes can damage buildings, bridges, dams, and other structures, as well as many natural features. Near a fault, both the shifting of large blocks of Earth’s crust, called fault slippage, and the shaking of the ground due to seismic waves cause destruction. Away from the fault, shaking produces most of the damage. Undersea earthquakes may cause huge tsunamis that swamp coastal areas. Other hazards during earthquakes include rockfalls, ground settling, and falling trees or tree branches.

Fault Slippage

The rock on either side of a fault may shift only slightly during an earthquake or may move several feet or meters. In some cases, only the rock deep in the ground shifts, and no movement occurs at Earth’s surface. In an extremely large earthquake, the ground may suddenly heave 20 feet (6 meters) or more. Any structure that spans a fault may be wrenched apart. The shifting blocks of earth may also loosen the soil and rocks along a slope and trigger a landslide. In addition, fault slippage may break down the banks of rivers, lakes, and other bodies of water, causing flooding.

Ground shaking causes structures to sway from side to side, bounce up and down, and move in other violent ways. Buildings may slide off their foundations, collapse, or be shaken apart.

In areas with soft, wet soils, a process called liquefaction may intensify earthquake damage. Liquefaction occurs when strong ground shaking causes wet soils to behave temporarily like liquids rather than solids. Anything on top of liquefied soil may sink into the soft ground. The liquefied soil may also flow toward lower ground, burying anything in its path.


An earthquake on the ocean floor can give a tremendous push to surrounding seawater and create one or more large, destructive waves called tsunamis, also known as seismic sea waves. Some people call tsunamis tidal waves, but scientists think the term is misleading because the waves are not caused by the tide. Tsunamis may build to heights of more than 100 feet (30 meters) when they reach shallow water near shore. In the open ocean, tsunamis typically move at speeds of 500 to 600 miles (800 to 970 kilometers) per hour. They can travel great distances while diminishing little in size and can flood coastal areas thousands of miles or kilometers from their source.

Structural Hazards

Structures collapse during a quake when they are too weak or rigid to resist strong, rocking forces. In addition, tall buildings may vibrate wildly during an earthquake and knock into each other. Picture San Francisco earthquake of 1906 A major cause of death and property damage in earthquakes is fire. Fires may start if a quake ruptures gas or power lines. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake ranks as one of the worst disasters in United States history because of a fire that raged for three days after the quake.

Other hazards during an earthquake include spills of toxic chemicals and falling objects, such as tree limbs, bricks, and glass. Sewage lines may break, and sewage may seep into water supplies. Drinking of such impure water may cause cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other serious diseases.

Loss of power, communication, and transportation after an earthquake may hamper rescue teams and ambulances, increasing deaths and injuries. In addition, businesses and government offices may lose records and supplies, slowing recovery from the disaster.

How can earthquake damage be reduced?

In areas where earthquakes are likely, knowing where to build and how to build can help reduce injury, loss of life, and property damage during a quake. Knowing what to do when a quake strikes can also help prevent injuries and deaths.

Can earthquakes be predicted?

Scientists can make fairly accurate long-term predictions of where earthquakes will occur. They know, for example, that about 80 percent of the world’s major earthquakes happen along a belt encircling the Pacific Ocean. This belt is sometimes called the Ring of Fire because it has many volcanoes, earthquakes, and other geologic activity.

Scientists are working to make accurate forecasts on when earthquakes will strike. Geologists closely monitor certain fault zones where quakes are expected. Along these fault zones, they can sometimes detect small quakes, the tilting of rock, and other events that might signal a large earthquake is about to occur.

What is California Building Code, Title 24?

Section 1613A “Lateral Force on Elements of Structures, Nonstructural Components and Equipment Supported by Structures”

“Elements of structures and their attachments, permanent nonstructural components and their attachments, and the attachments for permanent equipment supported by a structure shall be designed to resist the total design seismic forces prescribed in Section 1632.A.2. Attachments shall include anchorages and required bracing.”

Non-Structural Items Requiring Proper Bracing (partial list):

  1. Movable items (storage racks, etc.) that are 5 feet and taller must be seismically braced. Anything less than 5 feet in height must be braced if the supporting base  is less than two-thirds of the overall height of the unit. All such items shall be restrained to prevent movement when not in use.
  2. Permanent floor-supported items (cabinets, bookcases, etc.) that are more than 6 feet in height (including contents).
  3. All equipment greater than 400 lbs, and greater than 4 feet in height need to be properly braced for lateral loads. (ASCE 7-05 Section 13.1.4)
  4. Temporary containers with flammable or hazardous materials.
  5. Vessels, including tanks and pressurized spheres on braced or un-braced legs.
  6. Bins or hoppers on braced or un-braced legs.
  7. Batteries on racks shall be restrained against movement in all directions due to earthquake forces.
  8. All other self-supporting structures not otherwise covered.
Is there an Early Warning Earthquake site or app? (MyShake)

Yes. There is…

An Earthquake Early Warning app is now available publicly in California and Oregon. Have earthquake information at your fingertips, see damage reports shared by citizen scientists like you, help us build a global seismic network.

It’s called MyShake, and MyShake delivers ShakeAlert™ across California and Oregon

Click here for more information!

More From QHI

Earthquake Safety Tips

Indoors: Drop, cover, and hold on. If you are not near a desk or table, drop to the floor against the interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. Avoid exterior walls, windows, hanging objects, mirrors, tall furniture, large appliances, and kitchen cabinets with heavy objects or glass. Do not go outside!

Outdoors: Move to a clear area if you can safely do so; avoid power lines, trees, signs, buildings, vehicles, and other hazards.

In bed: If you are in bed, hold on and stay there, protecting your head with a pillow. You are less likely to be injured staying where you are. Broken glass on the floor has caused injury to those who have rolled to the floor or tried to get to doorways.

In a high-rise: Drop, cover, and hold on. Avoid windows and other hazards. Do not use elevators. Do not be surprised if sprinkler systems or fire alarms activate.

Driving: Pull over to the side of the road, stop, and set the parking brake. Avoid overpasses, bridges, power lines, signs and other hazards. Stay inside the vehicle until the shaking is over. If a power line falls on the car, stay inside until a trained person removes the wire.

In a stadium or theater: Stay at your seat and protect your head and neck with your arms. Don’t try to leave until the shaking is over. Then walk out slowly watching for anything that could fall in the aftershocks.

Near the beach: Drop, cover and hold on until the shaking stops. Estimate how long the shaking lasts. If severe shaking lasts 20 seconds or more, immediately evacuate to high ground as a tsunami might have been generated by the earthquake. Move inland 3 kilometers (2 miles) or to land that is at least 30 meters (100 feet) above sea level immediately. Don’t wait for officials to issue a warning. Walk quickly, rather than drive, to avoid traffic, debris and other hazards.

More About Seismic Waves

Most of what is known about the internal structure of the Earth has come from studies of seismic waves. Such studies have shown that rock density increases from the surface of Earth to its center. Knowledge of rock densities within Earth has helped scientists determine the probable composition of Earth’s interior.

Scientists have found that seismic wave speeds and directions change abruptly at certain depths. From such studies, geologists have concluded that Earth is composed of layers of various densities and substances. These layers consist of the crust, mantle, outer core, and inner core. Shear waves do not travel through the outer core. Because shear waves cannot travel through liquids, scientists believe the outer core is liquid. Scientists believe the inner core is solid because of the movement of compressional waves when they reach the inner core.