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Types of earthquakes

Naturally occurring earthquakes

Most naturally occuring earthquakes are related to the tectonic nature of the Earth. Such earthquakes are called tectonic earthquakes. The Earth's lithosphere is a patch work of plates in slow but constant motion caused by the heat in the Earth's mantle and core. Plate boundaries glide past each other, creating frictional stress. When the frictional stress exceeds a critical value, called local strength, a sudden failure occurs. The boundary of tectonic plates along which failure occurs is called the fault plane. When the failure at the fault plane results in a violent displacement of the Earth's crust, the elastic strain energy is released and elastic waves are radiated, thus causing an earthquake. It is estimated that only 10 percent or less of an earthquake's total energy is ultimately radiated as seismic energy, while most of the earthquake's energy is used to power the earthquake fracture growth and is eventually converted into heat. Therefore, earthquakes lower the Earth's available potential energy and thermal energy, though these losses are negligible. To describe the physical process of occurrence of an earthquake, seismologists use the Elastic-rebound theory.

The majority of tectonic earthquakes originate at depths not exceeding a few tens of kilometers. Earthquakes occurring at boundaries of tectonic plates are called interplate earthquakes, while the less frequent events that occur in the interior of the lithospheric plates are called intraplate earthquakes.

Where the crust is thicker and colder, earthquakes occur at greater depths of hundreds of kilometers along subduction zones where plates descend into the Earth's mantle. These types of earthquakes are called deep focus earthquakes. They are possibly generated when subducted lithospheric material catastrophically undergoes a phase transition (e.g., olivine to spinel), releasing stored energy—such as elastic strain, chemical energy or gravitational energy—that cannot be supported at the pressures and temperatures present at such depths.

Earthquakes may also occur in volcanic regions and are caused by the movement of magma in volcanoes. Such quakes can be an early warning of volcanic eruptions.

A recently proposed theory suggests that some earthquakes may occur in a sort of earthquake storm, where one earthquake will trigger a series of earthquakes each triggered by the previous shifts on the fault lines, similar to aftershocks, but occurring years later, and with some of the later earthquakes as damaging as the early ones. Such a pattern was observed in the sequence of about a dozen earthquakes that struck the Anatolian Fault in Turkey in the 20th Century, the half dozen large earthquakes in New Madrid in 1811-1812, and has been inferred for older anomalous clusters of large earthquakes in the Middle East and in the Mojave Desert.


Induced earthquakes

Some earthquakes have anthropogenic sources, such as extraction of minerals and fossil fuel from the Earth's crust, the removal or injection of fluids into the crust, reservoir-induced seismicity, massive explosions, and collapse of large buildings. Seismic events caused by human activity are referred to by the term induced seismicity. They however are not strictly earthquakes and usually show a different seismogram than earthquakes that occur naturally.

A rare few earthquakes have been associated with the build-up of large masses of water behind dams, such as the Kariba Dam in Zambia, Africa, and with the injection or extraction of fluids into the Earth's crust (e.g. at certain geothermal power plants and at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal). Such earthquakes occur because the strength of the Earth's crust can be modified by fluid pressure. Earthquakes have also been known to be caused by the removal of natural gas from subsurface deposits, for instance in the northern Netherlands. The world’s largest reservoir-induced earthquake occurred on December 10, 1967 in the Koyna region of western Maharashtra in India. It had a magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale. However, the U.S. geological survey reported the magnitude of 6.8. [1]

The detonation of powerful explosives, such as nuclear explosions, can cause low-magnitude ground shaking. Thus, the 50-megaton nuclear bomb code-named Ivan detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961 created a seismic event comparable to a magnitude 7 earthquake, producing the seismic shock so powerful that it was measurable even on its third passage around the Earth. In an effort to promote nuclear non-proliferation, the International Atomic Energy Agency uses the tools of seismology to detect illicit activities such as nuclear weapons tests. The nuclear nations routinely monitor each other's activities through networks of interconnected seismometers, which allow to precisely locate the source of an explosion.

Sports games have been known to inadvertently produce micro earthquakes. This phenomenon was first seen with the Earthquake Game at Louisiana State University, in which fans stamped their feet and jumped up and down vigorously enough to have the effect register on the campus seismograph.