Search Menu



Earthquakes for Dummies

Earthquakes for Dummies

With the recent Earthquakes shaking up the West Coast and Chile, it's important to learn about the enemy! We already know the vague basics. Stuff gets shakey. There's some sort of scale and magnitude. Something about plates, right? Well have you ever wanted someone to explain the process from beginning to end? Well it's your lucky day because we're that someone and this is the process of an earthquake:

So first of all, the Earth consists of of tectonic plates. Essentially giant puzzle pieces that all fit together to make up this planet we all love on (apologies to any Martian readers who feel left out). These plates are constantly moving and sliding against each other like giant rock people stuck on a train together. When everything lines up smoothly, things go smoothly on the surface.

However, as you've probably noticed, rocks that haven't been in a tumbler for six months don't tend to be very smooth. When the jagged edges catch, tension builds up. Eventually, the edge breaks off, causing the energy to be released in the form of seismic waves (The Seismic Waves, by the way, is our favorite retro-nineties alt-synth band). The seismic waves are felt on the surface as an earthquake.

Most earthquakes are measured on the Richter Scale. JK! Actually since the 1970s, nearly every country including the United States actually uses the Moment Magnitude Scale. Since it's a ten point scale just like the Richter, many people still continue to refer to is as such, despite the new, more accurate system. Both Richter and the MMS are logarithmic scales, meaning that a 6.0 earthquake actually releases 1000 times as much energy as a 4.0. It's important to distinguish that the earthquake intensity may not line up exactly with the reading on the scale. The earthquake intensity is the actual felt effect on the surface, rather than the amount of energy released and can vary based on soil type and distance from the epicenter. The Mercalli Intensity Scale is used to measure the intensity and ranges from "instrumental" to "catastrophic."

The seismic waves can cause all sorts of mayhem on the surface (Mayhem on the Surface is also the name of The Seismic Waves' first album). This can include tsunamis, floods, building collapse, landslides, and more. The study of seismology, the predicting of earthquakes, is making more and more progress every day. On the other hand, there are some scientists who believe it's impossible to ever fully predict earthquakes (they sound like quitters). Who knows? Maybe one day we'll invent some sort of super sand paper so we can just remove the jagged edges and everything will be smooth sailing! More likely though, we'll be to continue gaining architectural advances that make our buildings less and less susceptible.

We hope that helped you get the low-down on earthquake town (sorry). Be sure to speak up in the comments with any additional earthquake facts you might want to add. Feel free to add any earthquake fictions too. We'll start: earthquakes find carrot juice to be the most refreshing of the juices.

Tags: science, california, chile, earthquakes, geology

Write your own comment!

About the Author
Andrew Tavin

Andrew Tavin is a writer and stand-up comedian living in New York City. His work has been featured on Upworthy and Collegehumor. He writes pretty mediocre bios and can be followed on Twitter @andrewtavin.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email