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Earthquake facts for kids

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San Francisco Bay earthquake prediction
Damage from the San Francisco, California earthquake in 1906

An earthquake (or quakes, tremors) is shaking of the surface of earth, caused by sudden movement in the Earth's crust. They can be extremely violent.

Earthquakes are usually quite brief, but may repeat. They are the result of a sudden release of energy in the Earth's crust. This creates seismic waves, which are waves of energy that travel through the Earth. The study of earthquakes is called seismology. Seismology studies the frequency, type and size of earthquakes over a period of time.

There are large earthquakes and small earthquakes. Large earthquakes can take down buildings and cause death and injury. Earthquakes are measured using observations from seismometers. The magnitude of an earthquake, and the intensity of shaking, is usually reported on the Richter scale. On the scale, 3 or less is scarcely noticeable, and magnitude 7 (or more) causes damage over a wide area.

An earthquake under the ocean can cause a tsunami. This can cause just as much death and destruction as the earthquake itself. Landslides can happen, too. Earthquakes are part of the Earth's rock cycle.


Replica of ancient seismometer with pendulum sensitive to ground tremors. In Luoyang in 133 AD, it detected an earthquake 400 to 500 km (250 to 310 mi) away

The ancient Chinese used a device that looked like a jar with dragons on the top surrounded by frogs with their mouths open. When an earthquake occurred, a ball fitted into each dragon's mouth would drop out of the dragon's mouth into the frog's. The position of the frog which received a ball indicated the direction of the earthquake. This was one of the first tools to help figure out where an earthquake originated from.

Causes of an earthquake

Earthquakes are caused by tectonic movements in the Earth's crust. The main cause is that when tectonic plates collide, one rides over the other, causing orogeny (mountain building), earthquakes and volcanoes.

The boundaries between moving plates form the largest fault surfaces on Earth. When they stick, relative motion between the plates leads to increasing stress. This continues until the stress rises and breaks, suddenly allowing sliding over the locked portion of the fault, releasing the stored energy.

Earthquake fault types

Fault types
Fault types

There are three main types of geological fault that may cause an earthquake: normal, reverse (thrust) and strike-slip. Normal faults occur mainly in areas where the crust is being extended. Reverse faults occur in areas where the crust is being shortened. Strike-slip faults are steep structures where the two sides of the fault slip horizontally past each other.

Earthquake clusters

Most earthquakes form part of a sequence, related to each other in terms of location and time. Most earthquake clusters consist of small tremors which cause little to no damage, but there is a theory that earthquakes can recur in a regular pattern.

A foreshock is an earthquake that occurs before a larger earthquake, called the mainshock. A foreshock is in the same area of the main shock but always of a smaller magnitude.

An aftershock is an earthquake that occurs after a previous earthquake, the mainshock. An aftershock is in the same region of the main shock but always of a smaller magnitude. Aftershocks are formed as the crust adjusts to the effects of the main shock.

Earthquake swarms are sequences of earthquakes striking in a specific area within a short period of time. They are different from earthquakes followed by a series of aftershocks by the fact that no single earthquake in the sequence is obviously the main shock, therefore none have notably higher magnitudes than the other. An example of an earthquake swarm is the 2004 activity at Yellowstone National Park.

Sometimes a series of earthquakes occur in a sort of earthquake storm, where the earthquakes strike a fault in clusters, each triggered by the shaking or stress redistribution of the previous earthquakes. Similar to aftershocks but on adjacent segments of fault, these storms occur over the course of years, and with some of the later earthquakes as damaging as the early ones. Such a pattern occurred in the North Anatolian fault in Turkey in the 20th century.


Tsunami or a chain of fast moving waves in the ocean caused by powerful earthquakes is a very serious challenge for people's safety and for earthquake engineering. Those waves can inundate coastal areas, destroy houses and even swipe away whole towns.

Unfortunately, tsunamis can not be prevented. However, there are warning systems which may warn the population before the big waves reach the land to let them enough time to rush to safety.


Some places, such as Japan or California, have many earthquakes and many inhabitants. There, it is good practice to construct houses and other buildings which will resist collapse in an earthquake. This is called seismic design or "earthquake-proofing".

Haiti National Palace damaged
The Haitian National Palace after at the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

Earthquake-proof buildings are constructed to withstand the destructive force of an earthquake. This depends upon its type of construction, shape, mass distribution, and rigidity. Different combinations are used. Square, rectangular, and shell-shaped buildings can withstand earthquakes better than skyscrapers. To reduce stress, a building's ground floor can be supported by extremely rigid, hollow columns, while the rest of the building is supported by flexible columns inside the hollow columns. Another method is to use rollers or rubber pads to separate the base columns from the ground, allowing the columns to shake parallel to each other during an earthquake.

To help prevent a roof from collapsing, builders make the roof out of light-weight materials. Outdoor walls are made with stronger and more reinforced materials such as steel or reinforced concrete. During an earthquake flexible windows may help hold the windows together so they don’t break.

Major examples

Map of earthquakes 1900-
Earthquakes (M6.0+) since 1900 through 2017
USGS magnitude 8 earthquakes since 1900
Earthquakes of magnitude 8.0 and greater from 1900 to 2018. The apparent 3D volumes of the bubbles are linearly proportional to their respective fatalities.

One of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history was the 1556 Shaanxi earthquake, which occurred on 23 January 1556 in Shaanxi, China. More than 830,000 people died. Most houses in the area were yaodongs—dwellings carved out of loess hillsides—and many victims were killed when these structures collapsed. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which killed between 240,000 and 655,000 people, was the deadliest of the 20th century.

The 1960 Chilean earthquake is the largest earthquake that has been measured on a seismograph, reaching 9.5 magnitude on 22 May 1960. Its epicenter was near Cañete, Chile. The energy released was approximately twice that of the next most powerful earthquake, the Good Friday earthquake (27 March 1964), which was centered in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The ten largest recorded earthquakes have all been megathrust earthquakes; however, of these ten, only the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake is simultaneously one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.

Earthquakes that caused the greatest loss of life, while powerful, were deadly because of their proximity to either heavily populated areas or the ocean, where earthquakes often create tsunamis that can devastate communities thousands of kilometers away. Regions most at risk for great loss of life include those where earthquakes are relatively rare but powerful, and poor regions with lax, unenforced, or nonexistent seismic building codes.

Human impacts

Ghajn Hadid Tower closer view
Ruins of the Għajn Ħadid Tower, which collapsed during the 1856 Heraklion earthquake

Physical damage from an earthquake will vary depending on the intensity of shaking in a given area and the type of population. Undeserved and developing communities frequently experience more severe impacts (and longer lasting) from a seismic event compared to well-developed communities. Impacts may include:

  • Injuries and loss of life
  • Damage to critical infrastructure (short and long-term)
    • Roads, bridges, and public transportation networks
    • Water, power, sewer and gas interruption
    • Communication systems
  • Loss of critical community services including hospitals, police, and fire
  • General property damage
  • Collapse or destabilization (potentially leading to future collapse) of buildings

With these impacts and others, the aftermath may bring disease, lack of basic necessities, mental consequences such as panic attacks, and depression to survivors, and higher insurance premiums. Recovery times will vary based on the level of damage along with the socioeconomic status of the impacted community.



Earthquake prediction is a branch of the science of seismology concerned with the specification of the time, location, and magnitude of future earthquakes within stated limits. Many methods have been developed for predicting the time and place in which earthquakes will occur. Despite considerable research efforts by seismologists, scientifically reproducible predictions cannot yet be made to a specific day or month.


While forecasting is usually considered to be a type of prediction, earthquake forecasting is often differentiated from earthquake prediction. Earthquake forecasting is concerned with the probabilistic assessment of general earthquake hazards, including the frequency and magnitude of damaging earthquakes in a given area over years or decades. For well-understood faults the probability that a segment may rupture during the next few decades can be estimated.

Earthquake warning systems have been developed that can provide regional notification of an earthquake in progress, but before the ground surface has begun to move, potentially allowing people within the system's range to seek shelter before the earthquake's impact is felt.


The objective of earthquake engineering is to foresee the impact of earthquakes on buildings and other structures and to design such structures to minimize the risk of damage. Existing structures can be modified by seismic retrofitting to improve their resistance to earthquakes. Earthquake insurance can provide building owners with financial protection against losses resulting from earthquakes. Emergency management strategies can be employed by a government or organization to mitigate risks and prepare for consequences.

Artificial intelligence may help to assess buildings and plan precautionary operations: the Igor expert system is part of a mobile laboratory that supports the procedures leading to the seismic assessment of masonry buildings and the planning of retrofitting operations on them. It has been successfully applied to assess buildings in Lisbon, Rhodes, Naples.

Individuals can also take preparedness steps like securing water heaters and heavy items that could injure someone, locating shutoffs for utilities, and being educated about what to do when the shaking starts. For areas near large bodies of water, earthquake preparedness encompasses the possibility of a tsunami caused by a large earthquake.

How to stay safe during an earthquake

In most situations, you can protect yourself if you immediately:

  • DROP down onto your hands and knees before the earthquake knocks you down. This position protects you from falling but allows you to still move if necessary.
  • COVER your head and neck (and your entire body if possible) underneath a sturdy table or desk. If there is no shelter nearby, get down near an interior wall or next to low-lying furniture that won’t fall on you, and cover your head and neck with your arms and hands.
  • HOLD ON to your shelter (or to your head and neck) until the shaking stops. Be prepared to move with your shelter if the shaking shifts it around.
  • If you are in a car, pull over and stop. Set your parking brake.
  • If you are in bed, turn face down and cover your head and neck with a pillow.
  • If you are inside, stay inside until the shaking stops and you're sure it's safe to exit.
  • Avoid doorways, as they do not provide protection from falling or flying objects. You are safer under a table.
  • If you are in a high-rise building, do not use elevators.
  • Find an open spot if you're outside.
  • If you're trapped, stay calm, protect your mouth, nose, and eyes from dust, and call or text for help. Make noise by whistling or shouting to get responders' attention.

In culture

Historical views

An image from a 1557 book depicting an earthquake in Italy in the 4th century BCE

From the lifetime of the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras in the 5th century BCE to the 14th century CE, earthquakes were usually attributed to "air (vapors) in the cavities of the Earth." Thales of Miletus (625–547 BCE) was the only documented person who believed that earthquakes were caused by tension between the earth and water. Other theories existed, including the Greek philosopher Anaxamines' (585–526 BCE) beliefs that short incline episodes of dryness and wetness caused seismic activity. The Greek philosopher Democritus (460–371 BCE) blamed water in general for earthquakes. Pliny the Elder called earthquakes "underground thunderstorms".

Mythology and religion

In Norse mythology, earthquakes were explained as the violent struggle of the god Loki. When Loki, god of mischief and strife, murdered Baldr, god of beauty and light, he was punished by being bound in a cave with a poisonous serpent placed above his head dripping venom. Loki's wife Sigyn stood by him with a bowl to catch the poison, but whenever she had to empty the bowl the poison dripped on Loki's face, forcing him to jerk his head away and thrash against his bonds, which caused the earth to tremble.

In Greek mythology, Poseidon was the cause and god of earthquakes. When he was in a bad mood, he struck the ground with a trident, causing earthquakes and other calamities. He also used earthquakes to punish and inflict fear upon people as revenge.

In Japanese mythology, Namazu (鯰) is a giant catfish who causes earthquakes. Namazu lives in the mud beneath the earth and is guarded by the god Kashima who restrains the fish with a stone. When Kashima lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes about, causing violent earthquakes.

Outside of earth

Phenomena similar to earthquakes have been observed in other planets (e.g., marsquakes on Mars) and on the Moon (see moonquakes).

Related pages

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Terremoto para niños

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