Welcome to coolgeography.co.uk
Back to main page Back to GCSE Back to Restless Earth


Earthquake damage

Earthquakes are vibrations in the Earth's crust that cause shaking at the surface.  They are highly unpredictable and often occur suddenly without warning.  As yet, we have no way of fully and accurately predicting when an earthquake will occur.  Earthquakes are common events on the Earth, with around 50,000 occurring every year around the globe, mainly on the plate margins(see a map of latest British Isles Earthquakes). A lot of these earthquakes will be imperceptible to people and will be only picked up on the most sensitive of seismometers.  We do know where most earthquakes will occur, and they tend to coincide with destructive, conservative, collisional and constructive plate margins

Reasons for Earthquakes happening


1. Earthquakes occur because stresses build up between the plates as one plate passes another.

2. As the plates move past one another they don't do so smoothly, rather, they snag and grind, allowing energy to build up. 

3. When the plates eventually move again this energy is released as shock or seismic waves through the Earth's crust. 


The point at which this slippage occurs is called the FOCUS, whilst the point on the ground surface above the earthquake FOCUS is called the EPICENTRE.  Seismic shock waves will emanate radially outwards from these points and their energy will reduce with distance.  This is typical of destructive margins (which account for 90% of the World's earthquakes) where the Oceanic plate grinds under a Continental plate (as on the East coast of Japan -see Kobe case study).  They also occur at conservative margins, such as the San Andreas Fault line, where the North American plate and Pacific plate are grinding past one another. 

Earthquakes can also occur at constructive plate margins.  Here, the earthquake is the result of magmas forcing its way between the plates, causing the earth to tremble.  Collisional margins, where continental crust meets continental crust, can also have earthquakes as a result of the pressures generated by collision.

Earthquake waves

Block Diagram of Major Earthquake features

The first waves in an earthquake will shake the ground UP then Down in a longitudinal movement.  These waves are called P or PRIMARY waves  They travel fastest, and can also cause back and forth movement. These waves are relatively weak and cause the surface to move in a back and forth motion.  The next waves to arrive are S or Secondary waves, which travel slower through the crust.  These waves cause the crust to move from side to side at right angles to the outward motion of the main wave.  They are also called TRANSVERSE waves and are known to cause the most damage.

Earthquakes Block Diagram

How Earthquakes are measured

Earthquakes can be measured using 2 scales -the Richter scale or the  Mercalli scale.  The Mercalli scale measures the effects of the earthquake and runs from 1 to 12.  The higher up the scale the more damage is experienced by people and building structures.  The first 6 levels on the scale reflect mainly the impacts on people, whilst the top 6 levels reflect impacts on buildings and infrastructure.

The Richter scale is different in that it measures the energy of an earthquake.  The scale is logarithmic, which means that for every jump up the scale you get a tenfold increase in SHAKING AMPLITUDE of an earthquake.  Therefore a magnitude 6 is 10 times more powerful than a magnitude 5, and 100 times more powerful than a magnitude 4.  The higher the magnitude of an earthquake the less frequent its occurrence.  There is also 31.6 times the energy released for EVERY single jump up the scale.

The largest ever recorded  was in Valvidia in Chile in 1960 and recorded 9.5 on the scale.

Reasons why Earthquake damage varies

Population Density - the more densely populated an area the more potential there is for loss of life and damage to property.  One of the reasons for the huge extent of the damage caused by the earthquake which hit Kobe was the fact that the area is very densly populated.

Earthquake depth - generally, the deeper the focus of the earthquake in the Earth's crust the less damage that is caused. This is because the waves lose energy as they travel through the crust, so by the time they reach the surface the damage can be minimised.


Building design - Buildings can be designed to withstand the shaking of the earth and to limit the loss of life and damage caused.  Some examples of such modifications can be seen below;

The Transamerica Pyramid
The Transamerica pyramid has a shape that can withstand seismic waves and withstood the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which struck San Francisco
Beijing National stadium
To earthquake-proof the stadium, the bowl and roof were split into two separate elements and the bowl split into eight zones, each with its own stability system and effectively its own building.
Features of an earthquake proof buidling
The cross steel bracing offers stability the building, and a rubber core and deep foundations in the base isolator offer support against seismic waves.
Earthquake proof building in Wellington, New Zealand
The building above is in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand - it has 3 sections that are allowed to move independently of one another during an Earthquake.
Other strategies include rolling weights on the roofs of buildings, shatterproof glass to prevent scattering glass during a quake, emergency shutters for glass, gas shut off valves and identification numbers on buildings.

Earthquake strength - the stronger the earthquake the more damage would be caused.  This is explained in how we measure earthquakes above.

Geology - the rock type of the area in which the earthquake occurs.  If the area is solid rock there is generally less damage than on sands and clays.  On clays, liquefaction can occur, where water penetrates between the clay particles creating a quick sand like substance into which buildings can sink.

Think about it

Look at the strategies for designing buildings against earthquakes.  Research the web and draw your own earthquake proof building.  Annotate the building to explain your earthquake proof features.

Complete the diamond rankling exercise at the base of the page for the Sichuan and Kobe Earthquakes

Listen to a podcast on why we should monitor earthquakes

Complete this match up exercise

Click here for full screen version

Creative Commons License

Coolgeography.co.uk by Rob Gamesby is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.  

Contact - robert.gamesby@st-marys.newcastle.sch.uk