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Types of Earthquake Waves

Observant people have noticed for centuries that many earthquakes arrive as a distinct series of shakings that feel
different. The different types of shaking are a result of the different types of earthquake waves (FIGURE 3-18). The
first event is the arrival of P waves, the primary or compressional waves, which come as a sudden jolt. People indoors
might wonder for a moment whether a truck just hit the house. P waves consist of a train of compressions and
expansions. P waves travel roughly 5 to 6 km/s in the less-dense continental crust and 8 km/s in the dense, less
compressible rocks of the upper mantle. People sometimes hear the low rumbling of the P waves of an earthquake.
Sound waves are also compressional and closely comparable to P waves, but they travel through the air at only 0.34
After the P waves comes a brief interval of quiet while the cat heads under the bed and plaster dust sifts down
from cracks in the ceiling. Then come the S waves (secondary, or shear, waves), moving with a wiggling motion—
like that of a rhythmically shaking rope— and making it hard to stand. Chimneys may snap off and fall through floors
to the basement. Streets and sidewalks twist and turn. Buildings jarred by the earlier P waves distort and may
collapse.S waves are slower than P waves, traveling at speeds of 3.5 km/s in the crust and 4.5 km/s in the upper mantle.
Their wiggling motions make them more destructive than P waves. The P and S waves are called body waves because
they travel through the body of Earth.
After the body waves, the surface waves arrive as a long series of rolling motions. Surface waves travel
along Earth’s surface and fade downward. Surface waves include Love and Rayleigh waves, which move in
perpendicular planes. Love waves move from side to side, and Rayleigh waves move up and down in a motion that
somewhat resembles ocean swells.
Surface waves generally involve the greatest ground motion, so they cause a large proportion of all
earthquake damage. Surface waves find buildings of all kinds loosened and weakened by the previous body waves,
vulnerable to a final blow. Inertia tends to keep people and loose furniture in place as ground motion yanks the building
back and forth beneath them. Shattering windows spray glass shrapnel as plaster falls from the ceiling. If the building
is weak or the ground loose, it may collapse. Although there are more complex, internal refractions of waves as they
pass between different Earth layers, those complications do not much affect the damage that earthquakes inflict
because the direct waves are significantly stronger.
The differences people feel during this series of earthquake waves can be explained by the different
characteristics of those waves. To describe the vibrations of earthquake waves, we use a variety of terms (FIGURE
3-19). The time for one complete cycle between successive wave peaks to pass is the period; the distance between
wave crests is the wavelength; and the amount of positive or negative wave motion is the amplitude. The number of
peaks per second is the frequency in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz).
When you bend a stick until it breaks, you hear the snap and feel the vibration in your hands. When Earth
breaks along a fault, it vibrates back and forth with the frequencyof a low rumble, although the frequencies of
earthquake waves are generally too low to be heard with the human ear. P and S waves generally cause vibrations in
the frequency range between 1 and 30 cycles per second (1 to 30 Hz). Surface waves generally cause vibrations at
much lower frequencies, which dissipate less rapidly than thoseassociated with body waves. That is why they
commonly damage tall buildings at distances as great as 100 km from an epicenter.

A seismograph records the shaking of earthquake waves on a record called a seismogram. When recording
seismographs finally came into use during the early part of the twentieth century, it became possible to see those
different shaking motions as a series of distinctive oscillations that arrive in a predictable order (FIGURE 3-20).
Imagine the seismograph as an extremely sensitive mechanical ear clamped firmly to the ground, constantly listening
for noises from the depths. It is essentially the geologist’s stethoscope.
We normally stand firmly planted on solid ground to watch things move, but how do we stand still and watch
Earth move? Seismographs consist of a heavy weight suspended from a rigid column that is firmly anchored to the
ground. The whole system moves with the earthquake motion, except the suspended weight, which stays relatively
still due to its inertia. In seismographs designed to measure horizontal motion, the weight is suspended from a wire,
whereas in those designed for vertical motion, it is suspended from a weak spring (FIGURE 3-21).
The first seismograph used in the United States was at UC Berkeley in 1887. It used a pen attached to the
suspended weight to make a record on a sheet of paper that was attached to the moving ground. Most modern
seismographs work on the same basic principle but detect and record ground motion electronically.
Seismograms can help scientists understand more about how a fault slipped, as well as where it slipped and
how much. Faults with different orientations and directions of movement generate various patterns of motion.
Specialized seismographs are designed to measure those various directions of earthquake vibrations— north to south,
east to west, and vertical motions. Knowing the directions of ground motion makes it possible to infer the direction of
fault movement from the seismograph records.

Locating Earthquakes
The time interval between the arrivals of P and S waves recorded by a seismograph can also help scientists locate the
epicenter of an earthquake. Imagine the P and S waves as two cars that start at the same place at the same time, one
going 100 km/h, the other 90 km/h. The faster car gets farther and farther ahead with time. An observer who knows
the speeds of the two cars could determine how far they are from their starting point simply by timing the interval
between their passage. In exactly the same way, because we know the velocity of the waves, the time interval between
the arrivals of the P and S waves reveals the approximate distance between the s eismograph and the place where the
earthquake struck (FIGURE 3-22). This calculation is explained in greater detail in By the N umbers 3-2:
Earthquake-Wave Velocities.
The arrival times of P and S waves at a single seismograph indicate how far from the seismograph an
earthquake originated, but it does not indicate in which direction the earthquake occurred. This means the earthquake
could have happened anywhere on the perimeter of a circle drawn with the seismograph at its center and the distance
to the earthquake as its radius. In order to better pinpoint the location of the earthquake, this same type of data is
needed from at least three different seismograph stations. The three circles will intersect at only one location, and that
is where the earthquake struck. In fact, because earthquake waves travel at slightly different velocities through
different rocks on their way to a seismograph, their apparent distances are slightly different, and the circles intersect
in a small triangle of error.
In practice, seismograph stations communicate the basic data to a central clearinghouse that locates the
earthquake, evaluates its magnitude, and issues a bulletin to report when and where it happened. The bulletin is often
the first news of the event. That is why we so often find the news media reporting an earthquake before any information
arrives from the scene of the earthquake itself.

Earthquake Size and Characteristics

A question that comes to mind when people feel an earthquake or see the wild scribbling of a seismograph recording
its ground motion is, “How big is it?” This question can be answered by describing its perceived effects— its
intensity— or by measuring the amount of energy released—its magnitude.

Earthquake Intensity
After the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, the archbishop of Portugal sent a letter to every parish priest in the country
asking each to report the type and severity of damage in his parish. Then the archbishop had the replies assembled
into a map that clearly displayed the pattern of damage in the country. Jesuit priests have been prominent in the study
of earthquakes ever since.
Italian scientist Giuseppe Mercalli formalized the system of reporting in 1902 with his development of the
Mercalli Intensity Scale. It is based on how strongly people feel the shaking and the severity of the damage it causes.
The original Mercalli Scale was later modified to adapt it to construction practices in the United States.
The Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale is still in use. The USGS sends questionnaires to people it considers
qualified observers who live in an earthquake area and then assembles the returns into an earthquake intensity map,
on which the higher Roman numerals record greater intensities (Table 3-2). Mercalli Intensity Scale maps reflect
both the subjective observations of people who felt the earthquake and an objective description of the level of damage.
They typically show the strongest intensities in areas near the epicenter and areas where ground conditions cause the
strongest shaking (FIGURE 3-23).
The map shown in FIGURE 3-23 is an example of recently developed computer-generated maps of ground
motion called ShakeMaps, which show the distribution of maximum acceleration for many potential earthquakes.
Such maps are useful in land-use planning because they help forecast the pattern of shaking in future earthquakes
along the same fault, so they can be used to infer the likely level of damage. A realtime ShakeMap can help send
emergency-response teams quickly to areas that have likely suffered the greatest damage.

Earthquake Magnitude
Suppose you were standing on the shore of a lake on a perfectly still evening admiring the flawless reflection of a
mountain on the opposite shore. Then a ripple arrives, momentarily marring the reflection. Did a minnow jump nearby,
or did a deranged elephant take a flying leap into the lake from the distant opposite shore? Nothing in the ripple as
you would see it could answer that question. You need to know how far it traveled and spread before you saw it,
because the size of the wave decreased with distance. Useful as it is, the Mercalli Intensity Scale measures only how
an earthquake is experienced (like the ripple), not the actual size of the event (minnow or elephant). That is the problem
that Charles Richter of the California Institute of Technology addressed when he first devised a new earthquake
magnitude scale in 1935.
RichteR Magnitude Richter developed an empirical scale, called the Richter Magnitude Scale, based on the
maximum amplitude of earthquake waves measured on a seismograph of a specific type, the Wood-Anderson
seismograph. Although wave amplitude decreases with distance, Richter designed the magnitude scale as though
the seismograph were 100 km from the epicenter.
Seismograms vary greatly in amplitude for earthquakes of different sizes. To make that variation more
manageable, Richter chose to use a logarithmic scale to compare earthquakes of different sizes. At a given distance
from an earthquake, an amplitude 10 times as great on a seismograph indicates a magnitude difference of 1.0— an
earthquake of magnitude 6 sends the seismograph needle swinging 10 times as far as one of magnitude 5 (FIGURE
Seismographs, like buildings and people, sense shaking at different frequencies. Tall buildings, for example,
sway back and forth more slowly than short ones— they have longer periods of oscillation. P waves, S waves, and
surface waves have different amplitudes and different periods. With this variability in earthquake waves, Richter chose
to use as the standard waves with periods, or back-and-forth sway times, of 0.1 to 3.0 seconds. The Richter magnitude
is now known as ML, for local magnitude.
Distant earthquakes travel through Earth’s interior at higher velocities and frequencies. To work with distant
earthquakes, Beno Gutenberg and Charles Richter developed two morespecific magnitude scales in 1954. M S, the
surface-wave magnitude, is calculated in a similar manner to that described for M L. The number quoted in the news
media is generally the surface-wave magnitude, as it is in this book, unless specified otherwise. Surface waves with a
period of 20 seconds or so generally provide the largest amplitudes on seismograms. Specialseismographs record
earthquake waves with such long periods. MB, the body-wave magnitude, is measured from the amplitudes of P waves.
To estimate the magnitude of an earthquake, we need the amplitude (from the S wave or surface wave).
Because the amplitude of shaking decreases with distance, we also need the distance to the epicenter (from the P minus
S time). These calculations can be made using a graphical method, the earthquake nomograph, on which a straight
line is plotted between the P − S time and the S-wave amplitude (FIGURE 3-25). This line intersects the central line
at the approximate magnitude of the earthquake.
For earthquakes with ML above 6.5, the strongest earthquake oscillations, which have a lower frequency, may
lie below the frequency range of the seismograph. This may cause saturation of earthquake records, which occurs
when the ground below the seismograph is still going in one direction while the seismograph pendulum, which swings
at a higher frequency, has begun to swing back the other way. Then the seismograph does not record the maximum
amplitude. So the Richter magnitude becomes progressively less accurate above M L 6.5, anda different scale becomes
more appropriate.
An earthquake of magnitude 6 indicates ground motion or seismograph swing 10 times as large as that for an
earthquake of magnitude 5, but the amount of energy released in the earthquakes differs by a factor of about 32 (By
the Numbers 3-3: Energy of Different Earthquakes). Below ML 6 or 6.5, the various measures of magnitude differ
little; but above that, the differences increase with magnitude. Forlarger earthquakes, the energy released is a better
indicator of earthquake magnitude than ground motion.

MOMENT MAGNITUDE Moment magnitude, M W, is essentially a measure of the total energy expended during an
earthquake. It is determined from long-period waves taken from broadband seismic records that are controlled by three
major factors that affect the energy expended in breaking the rocks. Calculation of MW depends on the seismic moment,
which is determined from the shear strength of the displaced rocks multiplied by both the surface area of earthquake
rupture and the average slip distance on the fault. The largest of these variables, and the one most easily measured, is
the offset or slip distance.
Small offsets of a fault release small amounts of energy and generate small earthquakes. If the length of fault
and the area of crustal rocks broken is large, then it will cause a large earthquake. Because the relationships are
consistent, it is possible to estimate the magnitude of an ancient earthquake from the total surface rupture length. For
typical rupture thicknesses, a fault offset of 1 m would generate an earthquake of approximately MW 6.5, whereas a
fault offset of 13 m would generate an earthquake of a pproximately MW 9. If you find a fault with a measurable offset
that occurred in a single earthquake, then you can infer the approximate magnitude of the earthquake it caused
(FIGURE 3-26).
MAGNITUDE AND FREQUENCY In 1954, Gutenberg and Richter worked out the relationship between frequency
of occurrence of a certain size of earthquake and its magnitude. Recall from Chapter 1 that there are many small
events, fewer large ones, and only rarely a giant event. Quantitatively, that translates as a power law. Plotted on a
graph of earthquake frequency versus magnitude, the power law can be plotted as a log scale: 10 1 or 10 to the power
of 1 is 10; 102 or 10 to the second power is 10 × 10 = 100; 103 = 10 × 10 × 10 = 1,000; and so on.
The Gutenberg-Richter frequency– magnitude relationship tells us that if we plot all known earthquakes of a
certain size against their frequency of occurrence (on a logarithmic axis), we get a more or less straight line that we
can extrapolate to events larger than those on record ( FIGURE 3-27). Small earthquakes are far more numerous than
large earthquakes, and giant earthquakes are extremely rare, which is why we have not had many in the historical
Most of the total energy release for a fault occurs in the few largest earthquakes (FIGURE 3-28). Each whole
number increase in magnitude corresponds to an increase in energy release of approximately 32 times. Thus 32
magnitude 6 earthquakes would be necessary to equal the total energy release of 1 magnitude 7 earthquake. And more
than 1000 earthquakes of magnitude 6 would release energy equal to a single earthquake of magnitude 8 (32 × 32 =
Ground Motion and Failure during Earthquakes
How much and how long the ground shakes during an earthquake is related to how much and where the fault moves.
Table 3-3 summarizes the relationship between earthquake magnitude and ground motion. Local conditions can also
amplify shaking and increase damage.
Ground Acceleration and Shaking Time
Sometimes it helps to think of ground motion during an earthquake as a matter of acceleration, that is, the strength
of the shaking. Acceleration is normally designated as some proportion of the acceleration of gravity (g); 1 g is the
acceleration felt by a freely falling body, such as what you feel when you step off a diving board. Most earthquake
accelerations are less than 1 g; a few are more. A famous photograph taken after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
shows a statue of the eminent nineteenth-century scientist Louis Agassiz stuck headfirst in a courtyard on the campus
of Stanford University, its feet in the air. Perhaps the statue was tossed off its pedestal at a moment when the vertical
ground acceleration was greater than 1 g. It is commonplace after a strong earthquake to find boulders tossed a meter
or more.
The duration of strong shaking in an earthquake depends on the size of the earthquake. The time that the
ground moves in one direction during an earthquake, before the oscillation moves back in the other direction, is similar
to the time of initial fault slip in one direction. The total duration of motion is longer because the ground oscillates
back and forth.
An increase in magnitude above 6 does not cause much stronger shaking; rather, it increases the area and
total time of shaking. Earthquakes of magnitude 5 generally last only 2 to 5 seconds; those of magnitude 7 from 20 to
30 seconds; and those of magnitude 8 almost 50 seconds (see Table 3-3). A magnitude 6 earthquake, shaking only
10– 15 seconds, provides only a short time to evacuate. A magnitude 7 earthquake provides more time, but evacuation
is harder to do, with accelerations approaching 1 g. The longer shaking lasts, the more damage occurs; structures
weakened or cracked in the first few seconds of an earthquake are commonly destroyed with continued shaking.
Because there is almost no time to evacuate, and because running outside can result in death by falling debris, it is
generally best to duck under a sturdy desk or lie next to a very sturdy piece of furniture for protection.
The amount of shaking also relates to distance from an earthquake’s focus. Waves radiating outward from
an earthquake source show a significant decrease in violence of shaking with distance, especially in bedrock and
firmly packed soil. For this reason, earthquakes that occur deep underground may cause less property damage than
smaller earthquakes that occur near Earth’s surface. The focus for most earthquakes is generally at depths shallower
than 100 km, because rocks at greater depths behave plastically and slip continuously.
Shaking severity is also affected by the type of material waves are traveling through. For example, upon
reaching an area of loose, water-saturated soils, such as old lakebed clay or artificial fill at the edge of bays, earthquake
waves are strongly amplified to accelerations many times greater than nearby waves in bedrock (FIGURE 3-29). The
violence of shaking depends on the frequency of the earthquake waves compared with the frequency of the ground
oscillation. The lowerfrequency oscillations of surface waves often correspond to the natural oscillation frequency of
loose, water-saturated ground.
Secondary Ground Effects
Earthquakes often trigger landslides (see Chapter 8). If you place a pile of loose, dry sand on a table, then sharply
whack the side of the table, some of the sand will immediately slide down the pile. In nature, if sand or soil in the
ground is saturated with water, the quick back-andforth acceleration from a quake has a pumping effect on the water
between the grains. Water is forced into spaces between the grains with each pulse of an earthquake. This sudden
increase in water pressure in the pore spaces can effectively push the grains apart and permit the mass to slide
Earthquakes can also cause liquefaction— in which soils that ordinarily seem perfectly stable become almost
liquid when shaken and then solidify again when the shaking stops. Many soft sediment deposits consist of extremely
loose sand or silt grains with water-filled pore spaces between them. An earthquake can shake these deposits down to
a much tighter grain packing, expelling water from the pore spaces (FIGURE 3-30). The escaping water carries
sediment along as it rapidly flows to the surface, creating sand boils and mud volcanoes that are typically a few meters
across and several centimeters high.
Liquefaction can cause significant damage to buildings and roads on soft sediment (FIGURE 3-31). During
the 1964 Alaska earthquake, the ground in Anchorage, 100 km from the epicenter, began to shake and continued for
72 s. Clays liquefied in the Turnagain Heights district, causing bluffs up to 22 m high to collapse along 2.8 km of
coastline. The swiftly f lowing liquid clay carried away many modern frame houses that were as much as 300 m inland.
The $3.8 billion in property damage (2010 dollars) included roads, bridges, railroad tracks, and harbor facilities.
Shaking of the 1971 San Fernando Valley earthquake near Los Angeles induced liquefaction of the upper
face of the Van Norman Dam, nearly causing its failure just upstream from the homes of tens of thousands of people.
The deep fill of soft sediments and high groundwater levels in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah, have a significant likelihood
of liquefaction during earthquakes. Together, these factors may also amplify ground motion more than 10 times. The
ground is saturated with water only a few meters below the surface in Salt Lake City. Liquefaction of wet clays would
cause loss of bearing capacity and downslope flow. In the next chapter, we use the principles and related discussions
from Chapter 3 to consider the possibilities of earthquake forecasts and prediction, and we discuss how to avoid or
minimize damages caused by earthquakes. A few prominent examples illustrate results of some of those effects.