What Causes Earthquakes – Revealing Key Factors and Reasons

Natural phenomenon that have shaped the Earth for millions of years are what causes earthquakes. They occur when there is a sudden release of energy stored in the Earth’s crust, resulting in the generation of seismic waves. The movement and interactions of tectonic plates are responsible for most earthquakes.

Tectonic plates continuously transform under immense pressure and force. As they shift, they sometimes break or slip, triggering a massive release of pent-up energy which causes the ground to shake. Depending on the magnitude, the shaking can be extremely violent. It can cause the ground to split open and cause severe damage to human-made structures. In simple terms this is what makes earthquakes happen.

The type of fault, location, and depth of an earthquake directly influence the intensity and impact of seismic events. Along with the major earthquake zones around the world, scientists have identified regions that are susceptible to earthquakes. Understanding the science, and the causes and effects of earthquakes is crucial for implementing effective prevention and mitigation strategies.

Key Takeaways

  • What causes earthquakes is the sudden release of energy stored in the Earth’s crust and the movement of tectonic plates.
  • Several factors, including fault types and location, influence the intensity and impact of seismic events.
  • Understanding the causes and effects of earthquakes is vital for developing prevention and mitigation strategies.

What Makes Earthquakes Happen

Earthquakes occur when the Earth’s crust experiences sudden movements, primarily due to the shifting of tectonic plates. These movements cause stress to build up along the edges of the plates, creating faults in the rock. When the stress levels surpass the friction holding the plates together, an earthquake takes place. This releases energy in seismic waves that travel through the Earth’s crust. They produce the shaking of the ground that is familiar to those who experience it often and unnerving to those who don’t.

Tectonic Plates

Tectonic plates move continuously, albeit slowly, due to the convection currents in the Earth’s mantle. As these plates interact, they can either slide past each other, collide or move apart. This movement is responsible for the formation and movement of faults. The 3 major plate boundaries are:

  • convergent,
  • divergent, and
  • transform.

Each one contributes to the creation of earthquakes.

Convergent Plate Boundaries

In convergent plate boundaries, one plate is forced beneath another in a process called subduction. The immense pressure can cause rock to fracture and slip, producing seismic waves. The motion of the subducting plate may drag the upper plate downwards. This creates further stress and increases the potential for earthquakes.

Divergent Plate Boundaries

Divergent boundaries, typified by the movement of plates away from each other, can also generate earthquakes. As new molten rock emerges from beneath the Earth’s crust to fill the gap between the plates, it solidifies and forms part of the crust. The resulting forces at divergent boundaries can create rifts and normal faults that lead to earthquakes.

Transform Plate Boundaries

A common occurrence at transform plate boundaries is the formation of strike-slip faults. This is where two plates slide past one another horizontally. An example of this interaction occurs at the famous San Andreas Fault in California. There the Pacific Plate is moving northwest relative to the North American Plate. This side-to-side motion generates stress, which when released, results in earthquakes.


What makes earthquakes happen, primarily, is the constant movement of tectonic plates and the resulting stress that accumulates along their boundaries. At these faults, the release of built-up stress generates powerful seismic waves. They travel through the Earth’s crust, producing ground-shaking associated with earthquakes.

Types of Faults

Faults are fractures in the Earth’s crust, where the movement of the rock on one side of the fracture differs from the movement on the other side. These fractures can vary in length from a few millimetres to thousands of kilometres. Their movement is primarily responsible for earthquakes. When stress is applied to the Earth’s crust, strain accumulates as sections of the crust are pushed, pulled, or sheared past one another. When the strain overcomes the friction between the two blocks of rock on either side of a fault, slip occurs, and an earthquake is generated.

There are three primary types of faults, categorised by the type of movement that takes place along the fault. These different types include normal faults, reverse faults, and strike-slip faults.

Normal Faults

Normal faults result from extensional forces that pull the crust apart. This creates a distinct angle between the fault plane and the Earth’s surface. As rocks are forced apart, one block of rock slips down relative to the other, leading to the formation of faults with a steep angle. In this type of fault, the hanging wall block moves downwards in relation to the footwall block.

Reverse Faults

Reverse faults are the opposite of normal faults, formed when compressional forces push the crust together. In this case, the angle between the fault plane and the Earth’s surface is flatter than in normal faults. So, the hanging wall block moves upwards relative to the footwall block. Thrust faults are a type of reverse fault with a significantly low angle that makes them difficult to detect.

Strike-Slip Faults

Strike-slip faults occur when two blocks of rock slide past one another in a horizontal fashion, with no significant vertical movement. These faults are formed due to shearing forces that act parallel to the plane of the fault. The most famous example of a strike-slip fault is the San Andreas Fault in California.


The types of faults are determined by the relative movement between rock sections and the forces that act on them. Earthquakes occur primarily along fault lines or fault zones. That’s where the accumulated strain eventually overcomes the friction between the two blocks of rock. This leads to slip and the release of seismic energy. Understanding these different types of faults is crucial for identifying potential earthquake risk areas and implementing appropriate measures to minimise the impact of such events.

Seismic Waves

Seismic waves are essentially vibrations generated and propagated within the Earth or along its surface. They play a crucial role in the occurrence of earthquakes, as they result from the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates or other energetic sources such as volcanoes, explosions, or landslides.

There are two primary types of seismic waves: body waves and surface waves. Body waves travel within the Earth, while surface waves travel along its surface. Seismic waves are further classified into P waves and S waves.

P waves (Primary waves)

P waves are longitudinal waves which are the fastest type of seismic waves, travelling through both solid and liquid materials in Earth’s interior. As P waves move, they generate compressions and rarefactions along the direction of travel.

S waves (Secondary waves)

S waves are transverse waves that travel slower than P waves and only through solid material. The movement of S waves is perpendicular to the direction of travel, causing an oscillation in the ground as they pass.

The point where seismic waves originate below the Earth’s surface, is referred to as the hypocentre. The point directly above it on the surface is called the epicentre. The release of energy, converted into waves, generally radiates from these points in all directions.

Seismic waves are crucial for seismologists as they record the amount of time it takes them to travel through different layers of the Earth. This data gives a better understanding of the internal structure of the Earth. And includes the location of fault lines, the depth, and What makes earthquakes happen.

Major Earthquake Zones

The world’s major earthquake zones are primarily located along the boundaries of tectonic plates, which continually shift across the Earth’s surface. There are two areas that frequently experience earthquakes: the Ring of Fire and the Alpide Belt.

Ring of Fire

There is a part of the Pacific Ocean where there are many earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It is called the Ring of Fire. This zone spans 40,000 kilometres and follows the outline of the Pacific plate, which includes the Circum-Pacific belt. The Ring of Fire is home to about 90% of the world’s earthquakes, making it the most seismically active region. The western coast of the Americas, particularly Chile and California, are part of this zone, as is the San Andreas Fault. Similarly, the Asian region, including Japan, experiences numerous earthquakes due to its location within the Ring of Fire.

Alpide Belt

In contrast, the Alpide Belt stretches from the Atlantic Ocean through southern Europe and Asia, forming the second most seismically active region. This belt encompasses multiple tectonic plate boundaries and covers highly populated areas such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Himalayas. Earthquakes in this region can have devastating impacts on large populations, as seen in the 2015 Nepal earthquake.

While most earthquakes occur in these major zones, it is essential to note that earthquakes can take place in many regions. For example, the Atlantic Ocean’s mid-Atlantic ridge and the East African Rift Valley also experience seismic activities. But they are on a smaller scale compared to the Ring of Fire and the Alpide Belt.

Understanding the locations of major earthquake zones and their causes can help communities prepare for and mitigate the effects of seismic events. By studying the movements and interactions of tectonic plates, scientists can monitor seismic activities. Then provide early warnings in regions prone to potentially devastating earthquakes.

Earthquake Magnitude and Intensity

Earthquakes occur due to the sudden release of energy stored in the Earth’s crust, causing the ground to shake. This shaking can be measured using two different scales: magnitude and intensity. These scales are essential in understanding the strength of an earthquake, the potential damage it may cause, and ultimately, providing a better understanding of temblors and what makes earthquakes happen .


Magnitude refers to the quantitative measure of an earthquake’s size, which estimates the amount of energy released during the Earth tremor. The most widely known scale for measuring earthquake magnitude is the Richter Scale, developed by Charles Richter in 1935. The Richter Scale measures the amplitude of seismic waves produced by an earthquake, with values typically ranging from 1 to 9. Higher numbers on the scale indicate stronger earthquakes that release more energy.


Intensity describes the qualitative effects of an earthquake on people, structures, and the environment, essentially measuring the level of damage it causes. One such scale used to measure intensity is the PHIVOLCS Earthquake Intensity Scale (PEIS), which describes the perceptibility of an earthquake and the reaction of objects like hanging objects and water in containers. Intensity scales include descriptions of how people and objects behave during earthquakes.


It is crucial to understand the difference between magnitude and intensity when discussing earthquakes. While magnitude reflects the amount of energy released during a temblor, intensity describes its impact on people, buildings, and the environment. Although high-magnitude earthquakes generally cause more damage, the intensity of an earthquake is influenced by many factors, such as the distance from its epicentre, local geological conditions, and building construction standards.

The use of quantitative and qualitative scales like the Richter Scale and the PHIVOLCS Earthquake Intensity Scale ensures a comprehensive understanding of the forces involved in these natural phenomena and aids in better earthquake preparedness and response.

Aftershocks, Foreshocks, and Tsunamis

Earthquakes occur when there is a sudden release of energy in the Earth’s crust, causing the ground to shake. This seismic activity is often associated with the movement of tectonic plates along faults or fault planes. There are typically three types of earthquake sequences: foreshocks, main shocks, and aftershocks.


Foreshocks are smaller earthquakes that precede a larger, main earthquake. These can arise from rough faults and are caused by an acceleration of slipping movements along a fault, known as aseismic slip. Scientists have been studying foreshocks for decades to better understand the physical processes that drive their occurrences and why some earthquake sequences have foreshocks while others do not.


Smaller earthquakes called aftershocks follow the main earthquake. They can continue for days, weeks, or even months following the main event, and they usually decrease in size and frequency over time. Aftershocks are typically caused by the Earth’s crust adjusting to the stress changes caused by the main earthquake. It is important to note that aftershocks can still cause considerable damage, especially to structures that have been weakened by the main earthquake.


Tsunamis are large ocean waves that can be generated by earthquakes, with the most destructive tsunamis occurring when an earthquake happens at the seafloor near a coastline. When an earthquake displaces large volumes of water, this can create a series of waves that travel across the ocean’s surface at high speeds. Upon reaching the shore, these waves can cause massive destruction, inundating coastal areas and resulting in loss of life and property.


In general, the movement of tectonic plates and the complex geometry of faults disrupt the Earth’s surface. Thus causing a range of seismic events. Understanding the relationship between these events and the mechanism behind earthquakes is crucial for predicting and preparing for future seismic events. Ultimately this helps to reduce their impact on human lives and infrastructure.

Measurement and Monitoring

Earthquakes are a natural phenomenon caused by the sudden release of energy in the Earth’s crust, creating seismic waves. To effectively study earthquakes and anticipate their impact, it is essential to measure and monitor these seismic events. Seismology is the science of studying earthquakes and their propagation through the Earth. It relies on the use of seismometers and seismographs to record the ground motions caused by earthquakes.


A seismometer is an instrument that detects and records the varying ground motion caused by seismic waves. Operating on the principle of inertia, a seismometer typically consists of a suspended mass that remains still when the ground moves. Thus, allowing for the measurement of seismic activity. Seismometers can detect even the slightest tremors in the earth and are invaluable tools for seismologists.


Seismographs are instruments that record seismometer data over time, producing a visual representation called a seismogram. A seismogram displays the ground motion of the seismic waves detected by the seismometer. Thus enabling scientists to study them in more detail. This information is vital in understanding the magnitude and location of earthquakes.

In seismology, two crucial aspects of an earthquake are measured: its magnitude and intensity. Magnitude measures the seismic energy released at the source of the earthquake. The intensity quantifies the shaking effect on the Earth’s surface and the resulting impact on people and structures. These measurements help seismologists to assess the potential damage caused by earthquakes and devise strategies to mitigate such risks.

The accurate location of an earthquake is vital for understanding its causes and predicting future seismic activity. To find the location, scientists triangulate the earthquake’s hypocentre, or starting point, using the data from multiple seismometer stations. They can also determine the epicentre, the point on the Earth’s surface directly above the hypocentre, to better understand the earthquake’s impact on the land.

Seismology has come a long way since the invention of the first seismograph, with the development of advanced technologies and improved measuring techniques. Monitoring seismic activity is now carried out on a global scale, enabling scientists to collect valuable data and develop models to predict and prepare for future earthquakes. The continued improvement and implementation of these monitoring methods plays a pivotal role in safeguarding lives and property from the destructive effects of earthquakes.

Earthquake-Prone Regions

Earthquakes primarily occur along the boundaries of tectonic plates, which make up the Earth’s lithosphere. These tectonic earthquakes are the result of the release of energy stored in the Earth’s crust when there is a sudden slip on a fault or plates move against each other. Some of the most earthquake-prone regions include California in North America, New Zealand in the Pacific. Also several areas along the coastlines of South America are vulnerable.


California, situated on the North American Plate, is highly prone to earthquakes because it is bordered by the Pacific Plate and the San Andreas Fault. The San Andreas Fault is a significant boundary between these two plates, wherein they move in opposite directions. This movement results in a build-up of stress, which can lead to earthquakes when released.

New Zealand

New Zealand is another region with frequent earthquakes, as it lies on the boundary of the Pacific Plate and the Australian Plate. The two plates converge, collide, and sometimes even slide past each other. This makes New Zealand a country with high seismic activity. Earthquakes in these areas are caused by the movement and interaction of the tectonic plates.

South America

South America, particularly along the western coast, is vulnerable to earthquakes due to the subduction of the Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate. This convergence causes intense friction and stress, leading to earthquakes and the formation of the Andes mountain range.

The Artic

In addition to these regions, the Arctic also witnesses seismic activities. But it is generally not as earthquake prone as California, South America, and New Zealand. The lithosphere in the Arctic moves slower than in other regions. This allows the heat to dissipate, reducing the risk of significant earthquakes.


Overall, the distribution of earthquake occurrences depends on the interaction and movement of tectonic plates at fault zones. Regions such as California, New Zealand, and parts of South America are among the most prone due to their proximity to active boundaries and the dynamics of the Earth’s lithosphere.

Prevention and Mitigation

Earthquake prevention and mitigation measures aim to reduce the risks associated with these natural disasters, including damage to structures, ground and surface disturbances, and potential deaths. By understanding What makes earthquakes happen and implementing preventative strategies, it is possible to minimise the effects of these destructive events.

One significant aspect of earthquake mitigation involves the proper design and construction of buildings and infrastructure. Building safer structures can significantly reduce the damage caused by earthquakes. Engineers and architects use seismic-resistant design principles to ensure that structures can withstand the forces generated by earthquakes. Retrofitting existing buildings with earthquake-resistant features is another important strategy for reducing structural damage.

Earthquake prevention efforts focus on identifying hazards, such as fault lines and areas prone to ground movement. Detailed geological surveys and regular monitoring are essential to gather vital information about the Earth’s crust and potential seismic activity. This knowledge allows authorities to implement zoning regulations and land-use planning to prevent the construction of vulnerable infrastructure in high-risk regions.

Another area of interest in earthquake prevention and mitigation is underground explosions. While we cannot prevent natural earthquakes, we can reduce the risk of human-induced earthquakes caused by activities such as mining, hydraulic fracturing, and reservoir impoundment. By monitoring and regulating these activities, it is possible to minimise their potential to trigger earthquakes.

Education plays a vital role in earthquake mitigation and prevention. Providing the public with information about earthquake safety and what actions to take during an event can save lives and prevent unnecessary injuries. This includes designing and implementing earthquake drills and training programmes in schools, workplaces, and communities.


In summary, earthquake prevention and mitigation efforts involve a combination of engineering solutions, hazard identification, regulation of human-induced activities, and education. These measures can help to reduce the damage and potential loss of life associated with earthquakes, ensuring that communities remain safe and resilient in the face of these destructive natural phenomena.

Final Thoughts

Earthquakes occur mainly due to the sudden release of energy within the Earth’s rocks. This energy release is primarily caused by the release of elastic strain resulting from the movements of the Earth’s plates on the surface. These movements are driven by various forces, such as the movement of molten rock (magma) and gas inside the Earth.

Another significant cause of earthquakes includes volcanic eruptions. During these eruptions, the molten rock and ash can lead to nearby plates moving and causing earthquakes. Thousands of earthquakes occur each day, most of which are too minor to be felt. However, strong earthquakes can lead to massive destruction and severe damage.

As the understanding of plate tectonics and the forces that drive them continues to evolve, it is essential to remain vigilant in monitoring and researching earthquake activity. Advancements in geological knowledge and technology can help to further identify the root causes, allowing for better preparedness and mitigation of the hazards associated with earthquakes.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do tectonic plates contribute to earthquakes?

Tectonic plates are large sections of the Earth’s crust that move constantly due to convection currents in the mantle. They can interact in three main ways: converging, diverging, or sliding past each other. These interactions generate stress along the fault lines where the plates meet, and when the stress overcomes friction, an earthquake occurs.

What are the primary natural factors behind earthquakes?

The primary natural factors behind earthquakes are the movement of tectonic plates and the build-up of stress at fault lines. When the strain between the plates exceeds the frictional force holding them together, they can suddenly slip, releasing energy in the form of seismic waves.

What role does human activity play in what makes earthquakes happen?

Human activities, such as hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) and underground nuclear or chemical explosions, can also contribute to earthquake occurrence. Fracking involves injecting high-pressure fluid into the ground to break up rock and extract oil or gas, and it has been linked to several small-scale earthquakes.

How does stress build up in fault lines lead to earthquakes?

Stress builds up in fault lines due to the constant movement and interaction of tectonic plates. Over time, the friction between the plates causes them to become locked together. As the plates continue to move, stress builds up at the fault lines. When the stress overcomes the friction, the plates suddenly slip, causing an earthquake.

Can volcanic activity trigger earthquakes?

Because of the connection between them, volcanic activity can trigger earthquakes. When magma rises up through the Earth’s crust, it causes pressure changes that can result in earthquakes. In addition, the collapse of volcanic structures can generate earthquakes as material moves and interacts.

Do seismic waves contribute to the occurrence of earthquakes?

Seismic waves are a consequence of earthquakes rather than a cause. What makes earthquakes happen is when energy is released in the form of seismic waves, which travel through the Earth’s crust, causing ground shaking. The severity of shaking depends on the earthquake’s magnitude, the depth of its focus, and the geological composition of the area it affects.

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