The science behind earthquakes
A collection of research and insights from Stanford experts on where and how earthquakes happen, why prediction remains elusive, advances in detection and monitoring, links to human activities, how to prepare for "The Big One," and more.
The ground beneath our feet is always in motion. In an earthquake, it can roll, shudder and crack as rocky puzzle pieces in Earth’s outer layer lurch past one another. Forces that accumulate miles underground over centuries or longer can deliver a catastrophic burst of energy in a matter of seconds.
Most quakes are small. As many as 500,000 detectable earthquakes occur each year. Nearly 100,000 of them are strong enough to be felt, and only about 100 cause damage. They usually occur in the upper 10 miles or so of the Earth’s crust, and they’re concentrated along the boundaries where tectonic plates meet.
Over the past two decades, however, earthquakes have caused more than half of all deaths related to natural disasters. In any given quake, the extent of harm depends heavily on the population density and building designs in the place where it strikes. And worldwide, the human cost of these events falls overwhelmingly on the poor. One study found that even when property damages are roughly equal, measures of well-being decline more steeply in cities that have lower-income population and lower household savings. In another study, which followed children whose mothers experienced a major earthquake during pregnancy, researchers showed that exposure to this kind of acute stress in utero can have negative effects years later among children in poor households.
Although predicting when a particular fault will unleash a quake remains out of reach, scientists have uncovered much of how, where and why earthquakes occur. This collection covers how scientists are deciphering the physics of earthquakes, developing technology to study them, discovering how quakes evolve and more.
Scroll down for earthquake research news and insights related to detection and monitoring, how earthquakes happen, human dimensions including strategies for resilience and connections to energy development, and prediction and preparedness.
Last updated: October 26, 2020
Tiny movements in Earth’s outermost layer may provide a Rosetta Stone for deciphering the physics and warning signs of big quakes. New algorithms that work a little like human vision are now detecting these long-hidden microquakes in the growing mountain of seismic data.
Scientists are training machine learning algorithms to help shed light on earthquake hazards, volcanic eruptions, groundwater flow and longstanding mysteries about what goes on beneath the Earth’s surface.
Stanford geoscientists have devised a new algorithm for detecting thousands of faint, previously missed earthquakes triggered by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”
Stanford geophysicist Biondo Biondi dreams of turning existing networks of buried optical fibers into an inexpensive “billion sensors” observatory for continuously monitoring and studying earthquakes
A study provides new evidence that the same optical fibers that deliver high-speed internet and HD video to our homes could one day provide an inexpensive observatory for monitoring and studying earthquakes.
New research provides the first quantitative synthesis of faulting across the entire continent, as well as hundreds of measurements of the direction from which the greatest pressure occurs in the Earth’s crust.
An earthquake in Indonesia that cracked through the Earth at nearly 9,200 miles an hour offered a detailed look at supershear, which can create the geologic version of a sonic boom. Stanford geophysicist Eric Dunham told National Geographic the event could help researchers understand where and how super-fast quakes can happen.
“We’d like to think we know about all of the faults of that size and their prehistory, but here we missed it,” Ross Stein, an adjunct professor in geophysics at Stanford, told The New York Times.
There are technologies available that could move us toward stronger, safer buildings, but a lack of political and economic will is holding us back. Stanford civil engineer Anne Kiremidjian says a culture of resilience can help cities bounce back from disaster stronger than ever.
A study found that economically disadvantaged children prenatally exposed to an environmental stressor had much lower cognitive abilities than their counterparts who didn’t experience the stress. No effect was found among children in upper- or middle-class families. The study used a strong earthquake in Chile to explore the impacts.
Officials know how to account for deaths, injuries and property damages after the shaking stops, but a new study describes the first way to estimate the far greater financial fallout that such a disaster would have, especially on the poor.
Research shows that human-induced and naturally occurring earthquakes in the central U.S. share the same shaking potential and can thus cause similar damage.
A study suggests foreshocks are just like other small quakes, not helpful warning signs as previously thought.
A Stanford-led research team is helping disaster response officials figure out where injuries are likeliest to occur, so survivors can get to the hospitals best able to treat them.
After the 1906 quake the city built a water network dedicated to fire-fighting. A computer model suggests the best strategy to strengthen this system for another century.
Stanford civil engineers are working with the city to assess high-rise safety and mitigate any disruption, downtime or lost economic activity should downtown buildings be damaged.