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Often causing massive destruction and costing governments countless fortunes, earthquakes are an amazing natural disaster. Humanity's drive to understand them comes from the need to reduce their impact on our world.
The surface of the earth is made up of huge (and a few smaller) plates of land known as tectonic plates. These plates move freely on the surface of the planet. This happens because the crust layer of the earth sits afloat on a softer layer underneath.
As these plates bump into one another, they cause enormous cracks in the surface (whether underwater or on the land) called faults. The movement of the tectonic plates around these faults can cause a range of phenomena including the seismic activity we call an earthquake.
But what exactly is an earthquake? Below are four key features that make up an earthquake.
1. A sudden burst of energy.
The top layer of our planet contains the tectonic plates. When these hit one another powerfully, they can release a sudden burst of intense energy. This is a major factor in the build-up to an earthquake.
2. Seismic waves travel through the layers of the earth.
These waves are caused by the energy mentioned above and can vary wildly in intensity etc. As these waves travel towards the surface, they can result in a range of activity from Volcanic eruptions through to an earthquake.
As these seismic waves hit the surface of the earth, the ground physically begins to shake. The motion is usually a mixture of side to side and up and down. Some earthquakes are so big in intensity they can send objects into the air and even bring down buildings.
4. The aftermath.
The truth is, seismic activity happens every day. An earthquake only really counts when that activity creates a measurable impact. This impact is measured according to a scale (but more on that shortly).
The aftermath of an earthquake can range from a weird shaky feeling to full-blown devastation.
Measuring the quake.
Having investigated the major parts of an earthquake, it is now important that we look at how scientists measure the impact of a shock.
The most common method of measuring an earthquake's intensity and predicting potential mess is a method called the Richter Scale.
Developed in 1935 by Charles Richter, this scale attempts to measure the magnitude of an earthquake. The higher the number, the greater the magnitude thus, the more significant the potential damage.
It has become apparent that the Richter scale is a poor measure for many seismic events. This has led to other methods of measuring the magnitude and the intensity of an earthquake.
Can we ever stop an earthquake?
The reality is, we cannot stop an earthquake. Having said this, there have been considerable advances in the science of detection and even prediction of seismic activity.
As these fields of seismography grow, we will get earlier, and earlier warnings. These will hopefully allow us to minimise earthquakes’ impact on human life and property.