Can nuclear explosions cause earthquakes?

A nuclear explosion can cause an earthquake and even an aftershock sequence. However, earthquakes induced by explosions have been much smaller than the explosion, and the aftershock sequence produces fewer and smaller aftershocks than a similar size earthquake. Not all explosions have caused earthquakes. The range of a possible earthquake triggered by an explosion is limited to a few tens of kilometers from the shot point.

The possibility of large Nevada Test Site nuclear explosions triggering damaging earthquakes in California was publicly raised in 1969. As a test of this possibility, the rate of earthquake occurrence in northern California (magnitude 3.5 and larger) and the known times of the six largest thermonuclear tests (1965-1969) were plotted and it was obvious that no peaks in the seismicity occur at the times of the explosions. The largest underground thermonuclear tests conducted by the U.S. were detonated in Amchitka at the western end of the Aleutian Islands. The largest of these was the 5 megaton codename Cannikin test which occurred on November 6, 1971 with an energy release equivalent to a magnitude 6.9 earthquake. It did not trigger any earthquakes in the seismically active Aleutian Islands.

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How can you tell the difference between an explosion and an earthquake on a seismogram?

Explosions and earthquakes both release a large amount of energy very quickly, and both can be recorded by seismic instruments. However, because the forces involved in each are very different, the waveforms that each creates look different. Nuclear tests are very near the surface of the earth, and all the energy is released from a small volume...

Can we use a lot of explosives to cause small earthquakes in order to prevent having large ones?

No. Even huge amounts of explosive almost never cause even small earthquakes, and it would take hundreds and thousands of small earthquakes to equal a large one, even if it could be done. In addition, we wouldn't have any control over the size of the earthquake being created if it worked, since small and large earthquakes all start out in exactly...

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January 1, 2010

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