# Digging for Earthquakes

September 1, 2010

Geophysicists are drilling into an earthquake and tsunami origination zone below the ocean floor off the coast of Japan to learn more about what triggers these events. In the largest scientific drilling operation to date, scientists hope to collect samples from the dig to study any changes in tectonic plates that occur as an earthquake starts. Experts will also monitor activity up close with sensors placed deep below the ocean floor.

## Science Insider

WHAT CAUSES EARTHQUAKES? An earthquake is the result of a sudden release of stored energy in the Earth's crust triggered by shifting tectonic plates. The Earth's lithosphere is an elaborate network of interconnected plates that move constantly -- far too slow for us to be aware of them, but moving, nonetheless. Occasionally they lock up at the boundaries, and this creates frictional stress. When that gets to be too large a strain, the rocks give way and break and slide along fault lines. This can give rise to a violent displacement of the Earth's crust, which we feel as vibrations or tremors as the pent-up energy is released. However, only 10% or so of the total energy is released in the seismic waves. However, the rest is converted into heat, used to crush and deform rock, or released as friction.

HOW DO SCIENTISTS RATE EARTHQUAKES? An earthquake's magnitude describes how much the ground moves. The scale is logarithmic, which means that when the magnitude increases by one (say from 3 to 4, or from 4 to 5) the amount of ground motion increases by ten times. That is, a magnitude 3 quake leads to ten times as much ground motion as a magnitude 2 quake, and a magnitude 2 leads to ten times as much motion as a magnitude 1. This means that a magnitude 3 is a hundred times as violent as a magnitude 1, and a hundred times less violent than a magnitude 5.

The magnitude scale also tells us just how much energy an earthquake released. For example, a magnitude 1 earthquake releases the same amount of energy as 30 pounds of TNT exploding. Although a magnitude 2 earthquake makes the ground move ten times as much as a magnitude 1, it releases 32 times as much energy -- or roughly as much as a ton of TNT. A magnitude 5 earthquake packs the punch of a moderate nuclear weapon, and a magnitude 12 quake would be enough to put a crack all the way through the center of the Earth.

The American Geophysical Union, and the American Physical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

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Looking for Earthquake Warning Signs

To Go Inside This Science:
Harold J. Tobin
(608)265-5796
Email: htobin@geology.wisc.edu

Peter Weiss
American Geophysical Union
Washington, DC 20009-1277
pweiss@agu.org
202-777-7507

James Riordon, Media Relations
American Physical Society
College Park, MD
301-209-3238
Riordon@aps.org

AGU is a worldwide scientific community that advances, through unselfish cooperation in research, the understanding of Earth and space for the benefit of humanity.