What Is an Earthquake?

An earthquake is an intense shaking of Earth’s surface. The shaking is caused by movements in Earth’s outermost layer.


Why Do Earthquakes Happen?

Although the Earth looks like a pretty solid place from the surface, it’s actually extremely active just below the surface. The Earth is made of four basic layers: a solid crust, a hot, nearly solid mantle, a liquid outer core and a solid inner core.

A diagram of the layers of the Earth.

A diagram of Earth's layers. Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the outer layers of Earth—a region called the lithosphere.

The solid crust and top, stiff layer of the mantle make up a region called the lithosphere. The lithosphere isn’t a continuous piece that wraps around the whole Earth like an eggshell. It’s actually made up of giant puzzle pieces called tectonic plates. Tectonic plates are constantly shifting as they drift around on the viscous, or slowly flowing, mantle layer below.

Map of the Earth's tectonic plates.

Earth's crust is fractured into tectonic plates that have been moving very slowly over the Earth's surface for millions of years. Credit: USGS

This non-stop movement causes stress on Earth’s crust. When the stresses get too large, it leads to cracks called faults. When tectonic plates move, it also causes movements at the faults. An earthquake is the sudden movement of Earth’s crust at a fault line.

An aerial photograph of the San Andreas Fault.

This photograph shows the San Andreas Fault, a 750-mile-long fault in California. Credit: Public Domain

The location where an earthquake begins is called the epicenter. An earthquake’s most intense shaking is often felt near the epicenter. However, the vibrations from an earthquake can still be felt and detected hundreds, or even thousands of miles away from the epicenter.

How Do We Measure Earthquakes?

The energy from an earthquake travels through Earth in vibrations called seismic waves. Scientists can measure these seismic waves on instruments called seismometer. A seismometer detects seismic waves below the instrument and records them as a series of zig-zags.

Scientists can determine the time, location and intensity of an earthquake from the information recorded by a seismometer. This record also provides information about the rocks the seismic waves traveled through.

A photograph of a seismometer recording seismic waves as a series of zig-zag lines.

A seismometer records seismic waves as a series of zig-zags. Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Z22, CC BY-SA 3.0

Do Earthquakes Only Happen on Earth?

Earthquake is a name for seismic activity on Earth, but Earth isn’t the only place with seismic activity. Scientists have measured quakes on the Earth’s moon, and see evidence for seismic activity on Mars, Venus and several moons of Jupiter, too!

NASA’s InSight mission will carry a seismometer to Mars to study seismic activity there, known as marsquakes. On Earth, we know that different materials vibrate in different ways. By studying the vibrations from marsquakes, scientists hope to figure out what materials are found on the inside of Mars.

An artist's renduring of the Mars InSight lander operating on the surface of Mars

An artist's illustration of the Mars InSight lander operating on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

InSight will collect tons of information about what Mars is like under the surface. These new discoveries will help us understand more about how planets like Mars—and our home, Earth—came to be.

article last updated April 10, 2018
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