At what depth do earthquakes occur? What is the significance of the depth?

 

Earthquakes occur in the crust or upper mantle, which ranges from the earth's surface to about 800 kilometers deep (about 500 miles).

The strength of shaking from an earthquake diminishes with increasing distance from the earthquake's source, so the strength of shaking at the surface from an earthquake that occurs at 500km deep is considerably less than if the same earthquake had occurred at 20 km depth.

Also, the depths of earthquakes gives us important information about the Earth's structure and the tectonic setting where the earthquakes are occurring. The most prominent example of this is in subduction zones, where plates are colliding and one plate is being subducted beneath another. By carefully plotting the location and depth of earthquakes associated with a subduction zone, we can see details of the zone's structure, such as how steeply it is dipping, and if the down-going plate is planar or is bending. These details are important because they give us insight into the mechanics and characteristics of the deformation in the subduction zone.

The deepest earthquakes occur within the core of subducting slabs - oceanic plates that descend into the Earth's mantle from convergent plate boundaries, where a dense oceanic plate collides with a less dense continental plate and the former sinks beneath the latter. The plate boundary contact between two such plates generate very large, shallow subduction zone earthquakes such as the Sumatra 2004 M9.1 event, and the 2011 M9.0 Japan earthquake, and is only active to relatively shallow depths - approximately 60 km. However, because oceanic slabs are relatively cold with respect to the surrounding mantle in deeper subduction zone environments, faults within the core of these slab remain brittle and can generate earthquakes to depths of as much as 700 km (e.g., Pacific Plate beneath Japan and Kamchatka, and beneath Tonga).

As the slab descends into the mantle, rheology changes (viscosity characteristics) cause the plate to bend and deform, and generates these earthquakes. The trend of such events can be seen in cross-sections of subduction zones, and are known as "Wadati-Benioff Zones". 

Within continents, and along continental plate boundary transform faults such as the San Andreas, faults are only active in the shallow crust - perhaps to depths of approximately 20 km.

Accurately determining the depth of an earthquake is typically more challenging than determining its location, unless there happens to be a seismic station close and above the epicenter. So generally, errors on depth determinations are somewhat greater than on location determinations.

(Contributed by Gavin Hayes & Tony Crone)

Related Content

Filter Total Items: 8

Do earthquakes occur in Antarctica?

Earthquakes do occur occasionally in Antarctica, but not very often. There have been some big earthquakes--including one magnitude 8--in the Balleny Islands. The boundary between the Scotia Plate and the Antarctic Plate just grazes the north tip of the Antarctic Peninsula (again, look "northwest" from the Pole toward South America). There is also...

Where can I find earthquake educational materials?

Learn more: Earthquakes for Kids Topics for Earthquake Education

Can we cause earthquakes? Is there any way to prevent earthquakes?

Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented at many locations in the United States and in many other countries around the world. Earthquakes can be induced by a wide range of causes including impoundment of reservoirs, surface and underground mining, withdrawal of fluids and gas from the subsurface, and injection of fluids into...

What is surface faulting or surface rupture in an earthquake?

Surface rupture occurs when movement on a fault deep within the earth breaks through to the surface. NOT ALL earthquakes result in surface rupture.

Why are there so many earthquakes in the Geysers area in Northern California?

The Geysers Geothermal Field is located in a tectonically active region of Northern California. The major seismic hazards in the region are from large earthquakes occurring along regional faults that are located miles away from the geothermal field, such as the San Andreas and Healdsburg-Rodgers Creek faults. However, activities associated with...

What is an earthquake and what causes them to happen?

An earthquake is caused by a sudden slip on a fault . The tectonic plates are always slowly moving, but they get stuck at their edges due to friction. When the stress on the edge overcomes the friction, there is an earthquake that releases energy in waves that travel through the earth's crust and cause the shaking that we feel. In California there...

Foreshocks, aftershocks - what's the difference?

"Foreshock" and "aftershock" are relative terms. Foreshocks are earthquakes that precede larger earthquakes in the same location. An earthquake cannot be identified as a foreshock until after a larger earthquake in the same area occurs. Aftershocks are smaller earthquakes that occur in the same general area during the days to years following a...

Can the position of the moon or the planets affect seismicity? Are there more earthquakes in the morning/in the evening/at a certain time of the month?

Earthquakes are equally as likely to occur in the morning or the evening. Many studies in the past have shown no significant correlations between the rate of earthquake occurrence and the semi-diurnal tides when using large earthquake catalogs. Several recent studies, however, have found a correlation between earth tides (caused by the position of...
Filter Total Items: 3
Date published: September 12, 2016

EarthWord–Subduction

It’s not flirting for submarines, but this week’s EarthWord does feature the ocean...

Date published: April 30, 2014

Can a Creeping Segment of the Alaska-Aleutian Subduction Zone Generate a Great Earthquake?

The coastal geology of Simeonof Island, the southeastern-most island in the Shumagin archipelago of the Aleutian Islands, suggests the region has not experienced a great megathrust earthquake in at least the past 3,400 years.

Date published: November 24, 2003

Scientists launch San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth

Despite tremendous technological advances in earthquake seismology, many fundamental mysteries remain. The critical question of whether earthquakes will ever be predictable continues to plague seismologists — in part because there is no way to directly observe what goes on miles below the surface where earthquakes occur.

Filter Total Items: 7
Lisburne Group thrust ramp, Akmagolik Creek.
February 28, 2017

Lisburne Group thrust ramp, Akmagolik Creek.

Lisburne Group thrust ramp, Akmagolik Creek. Two helicopters for scale, one blue/white and the other red. Summer 2005.

Subduction Zone
February 1, 2017

Subduction Zone

The subduction zone is the place where two lithospheric plates come together, one riding over the other. Most volcanoes on land occur parallel to and inland from the boundary between the two plates. Credit: USGS

Image shows a diagram of a subduction zone
July 18, 2016

Subduction Fault Zone Diagram

A figure showing the oceanic plate sliding beneath the continental plate. Credit: USGS

Image: Denali Fault: Landslides
November 9, 2002

Denali Fault: Landslides

View southward toward Mt. McGinnis and two large landslides on the northeastern side. These slides had roughly 40 million cubic meters of material and travelled 10 km down glacier. This is the cover photo of the May 16th, 2003, Science.

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Image: San Andreas Fault in SE Coachella Valley
February 1, 1986

San Andreas Fault in SE Coachella Valley

Oblique aerial view of San Andreas Fault (between white arrows) in southeastern Coachella Valley, near Red Canyon; view to the west.

 

Attribution: Natural Hazards
Diagram shows tectonic plates and their relationship to one another, south of Costa Rica.

Cocos Plate and nearby tectonic plates

Diagram of the Cocos Plate (purple) in relation to nearby tectonic plates. The yellow star indicates the study area. Source: Modified from Alataristarion [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.