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What are the Effects of Earthquakes?

The effects from earthquakes include ground shaking, surface faulting, ground failure, and less commonly, tsunamis.

Ground Shaking

Ground shaking is a term used to describe the vibration of the ground during an earthquake. Ground shaking is caused by body waves and surface waves. As a generalization, the severity of ground shaking increases as magnitude increases and decreases as distance from the causative fault increases. Although the physics of seismic waves is complex, ground shaking can be explained in terms of body waves, compressional, or P, and shear, or S, and surface waves, Rayleigh and Love.

P waves propagate through the Earth with a speed of about 15,000 miles per hour and are the first waves to cause vibration of a building. S waves arrive next and cause a structure to vibrate from side to side. They are the most damaging waves, because buildings are more easily damaged from horizontal motion than from vertical motion. The P and S waves mainly cause high-frequency vibrations; whereas, Rayleigh waves and Love waves, which arrive last, mainly cause low-frequency vibrations. Body and surface waves cause the ground, and consequently a building, to vibrate in a complex manner. The objective of earthquake resistant design is to construct a building so that it can withstand the ground shaking caused by body and surface waves.

In land-use zoning and earthquake resistant design, knowledge of the amplitude, frequency composition, and the time duration of ground shaking is needed. These quantities can be determined from empirical (observed) data correlating them with the magnitude and the distribution of Modified Mercalli intensity of the earthquake, distance of the building from the causative fault, and the physical properties of the soil and rock underlying the building. The subjective numerical value of the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale indicates the effects of ground shaking on man, buildings, and the surface of the Earth.

When a fault ruptures, seismic waves are propagated in all directions, causing the ground to vibrate at frequencies ranging from about 0.1 to 30 Hertz. Buildings vibrate as a consequence of the ground shaking; damage takes place if the building cannot withstand these vibrations. Compressional waves and shear waves mainly cause high-frequency (greater than 1 Hertz) vibrations which are more efficient than low-frequency waves in causing low buildings to vibrate. Rayleigh and Love waves mainly cause low-frequency vibrations which are more efficient than high-frequency waves in causing tall buildings to vibrate. Because amplitudes of low-frequency vibrations decay less rapidly than high-frequency vibrations as distance from the fault increases, tall buildings located at relatively great distances (60 miles) from a fault are sometimes damaged.

Taken from: Hays, W.W., ed., 1981, Facing Geologic and Hydrologic Hazards -- Earth Science Considerations: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1240B, 108 p. 

Surface Faulting

Surface faulting is the differential movement of the two sides of a fracture at the Earth's surface and can be strike-slip, normal, and reverse (or thrust). Combinations of the strike-slip type and the other two types of faulting can be found. Although displacements of these kinds can result from landslides and other shallow processes, surface faulting, as the term is used here, applies to differential movements caused by deep-seated forces in the Earth, the slow movement of sedimentary deposits toward the Gulf of Mexico, and faulting associated with salt domes.

Death and injuries from surface faulting are very unlikely, but casualties can occur indirectly through fault damage to structures. Surface faulting, in the case of a strike-slip fault, generally affects a long narrow zone whose total area is small compared with the total area affected by ground shaking. Nevertheless, the damage to structures located in the fault zone can be very high, especially where the land use is intensive. A variety of structures have been damaged by surface faulting, including houses, apartments, commercial buildings, nursing homes, railroads, highways, tunnels, bridges, canals, storm drains, water wells, and water, gas, and sewer lines. Damage to these types of structures has ranged from minor to very severe. An example of severe damage occurred in 1952 when three railroad tunnels were so badly damaged by faulting that traffic on a major rail linking northern and southern California was stopped for 25 days despite an around-the-clock repair schedule.

The displacements, lengths, and widths of surface fault ruptures show a wide range. Fault displacements in the United States have ranged from a fraction of an inch to more than 20 feet of differential movement. As expected, the severity of potential damage increases as the size of the displacement increases. The lengths of the surface fault ruptures on land have ranged from less than 1 mile to more than 200 miles. Most fault displacement is confined to a narrow zone ranging from 6 to 1,000 feet in width, but separate subsidiary fault ruptures may occur 2 to 3 miles from the main fault. The area subject to disruption by surface faulting varies with the length and width of the rupture zone.

Taken from: Hays, W.W., ed., 1981, Facing Geologic and Hydrologic Hazards --Earth Science Considerations: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1240B, 108 p.

Ground Failure

Liquefaction Induced

Liquefaction is not a type of ground failure; it is a physical process that takes place during some earthquakes that may lead to ground failure. As a consequence of liquefaction, clay-free soil deposits, primarily sands and silts, temporarily lose strength and behave as viscous fluids rather than as solids. Liquefaction takes place when seismic shear waves pass through a saturated granular soil layer, distort its granular structure, and cause some of the void spaces to collapse. Disruptions to the soil generated by these collapses cause transfer of the ground-shaking load from grain-to-grain contacts in the soil layer to the pore water. This transfer of load increases pressure in the pore water, either causing drainage to occur or, if drainage is restricted, a sudden buildup of pore-water pressure. When the pore-water pressure rises to about the pressure caused by the weight of the column of soil, the granular soil layer behaves like a fluid rather than like a solid for a short period. In this condition, deformations can occur easily.

Liquefaction is restricted to certain geologic and hydrologic environments, mainly areas where sands and silts were deposited in the last 10,000 years and where ground water is within 30 feet of the surface. Generally, the younger and looser the sediment and the higher the water table, the more susceptible a soil is to liquefaction.

Liquefaction causes three types of ground failure: lateral spreads, flow failures, and loss of bearing strength. In addition, liquefaction enhances ground settlement and sometimes generates sand boils (fountains of water and sediment emanating from the pressurized liquefied zone). Sand boils can cause local flooding and the deposition or accumulation of silt.

Lateral Spreads - Lateral spreads involve the lateral movement of large blocks of soil as a result of liquefaction in a subsurface layer. Movement takes place in response to the ground shaking generated by an earthquake. Lateral spreads generally develop on gentle slopes, most commonly on those between 0.3 and 3 degrees. Horizontal movements on lateral spreads commonly are as much as 10 to 15 feet, but, where slopes are particularly favorable and the duration of ground shaking is long, lateral movement may be as much as 100 to 150 feet. Lateral spreads usually break up internally, forming numerous fissures and scarps.

Damage caused by lateral spreads is seldom catastrophic, but it is usually disruptive. For example, during the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska, earthquake, more than 200 bridges were damaged or destroyed by lateral spreading of flood-plain deposits toward river channels. These spreading deposits compressed bridges over the channels, buckled decks, thrust sedimentary beds over abutments, and shifted and tilted abutments and piers.

Lateral spreads are destructive particularly to pipelines. In 1906, a number of major pipeline breaks occurred in the city of San Francisco during the earthquake because of lateral spreading. Breaks of water mains hampered efforts to fight the fire that ignited during the earthquake. Thus, rather inconspicuous ground-failure displacements of less than 7 feet were largely responsible for the devastation to San Francisco in 1906.

Flow Failures

Flow failures, consisting of liquefied soil or blocks of intact material riding on a layer of liquefied soil, are the most catastrophic type of ground failure caused by liquefaction. These failures commonly move several tens of feet and, if geometric conditions permit, several tens of miles. Flows travel at velocities as great as many tens of miles per hour. Flow failures usually form in loose saturated sands or silts on slopes greater than 3 degrees.

Flow failures can originate either underwater or on land. Many of the largest and most damaging flow failures have taken place underwater in coastal areas. For example, submarine flow failures carried away large sections of port facilities at Seward, Whittier, and Valdez, Alaska, during the 1964 Prince William Sound earthquake. These flow failures, in turn, generated large sea waves that overran parts of the coastal area, causing additional damage and casualties. Flow failures on land have been catastrophic, especially in other countries. For example, the 1920 Kansu, China, earthquake induced several flow failures as much as 1 mile in length and breadth, killing an estimated 200,000 people.

Loss of Bearing Strength - When the soil supporting a building or some other structure liquefies and loses strength, large deformations can occur within the soil, allowing the structure to settle and tip. The most spectacular example of bearing-strength failures took place during the 1964 Niigata, Japan, earthquake. During that event, several four-story buildings of the Kwangishicho apartment complex tipped as much as 60 degrees. Most of the buildings were later jacked back into an upright position, underpinned with piles, and reused.

Soils that liquefied at Niigata typify the general subsurface geometry required for liquefaction-caused bearing failures: a layer of saturated, cohesionless soil (sand or silt) extending from near the ground surface to a depth of about the width of the building.

Taken from: Hays, W.W., ed., 1981, Facing Geologic and Hydrologic Hazards -- Earth Science Considerations: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1240B, 108 p.


Past experience has shown that several types of landslides take place in conjunction with earthquakes. The most abundant types of earthquake induced landslides are rock falls and slides of rock fragments that form on steep slopes. Shallow debris slides forming on steep slopes and soil and rock slumps and block slides forming on moderate to steep slopes also take place, but they are less abundant. Reactivation of dormant slumps or block slides by earthquakes is rare.

Large earthquake-induced rock avalanches, soil avalanches, and underwater landslides can be very destructive. Rock avalanches originate on over-steepened slopes in weak rocks. One of the most spectacular examples occurred during the 1970 Peruvian earthquake when a single rock avalanche killed more than 18,000 people; a similar, but less spectacular, failure in the 1959 Hebgen Lake, Montana, earthquake resulted in 26 deaths. Soil avalanches occur in some weakly cemented fine-grained materials, such as loess, that form steep stable slopes under non-seismic conditions. Many loess slopes failed during the New Madrid, Missouri, earthquakes of 1811-12. Underwater landslides commonly involve the margins of deltas where many port facilities are located. The failures at Seward, Alaska, during the 1964 earthquake are an example.

The size of the area affected by earthquake-induced landslides depends on the magnitude of the earthquake, its focal depth, the topography and geologic conditions near the causative fault, and the amplitude, frequency composition, and duration of ground shaking. In past earthquakes, landslides have been abundant in some areas having intensities of ground shaking as low as VI on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale.

Taken from: Hays, W.W., ed., 1981, Facing Geologic and Hydrologic Hazards -- Earth Science Considerations: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1240B, 108 p.


Tsunamis are water waves that are caused by sudden vertical movement of a large area of the sea floor during an undersea earthquake. Tsunamis are often called tidal waves, but this term is a misnomer. Unlike regular ocean tides, tsunamis are not caused by the tidal action of the Moon and Sun. The height of a tsunami in the deep ocean is typically about 1 foot, but the distance between wave crests can be very long, more than 60 miles. The speed at which the tsunami travels decreases as water depth decreases. In the mid-Pacific, where the water depths reach 3 miles, tsunami speeds can be more than 430 miles per hour. As tsunamis reach shallow water around islands or on a continental shelf; the height of the waves increases many times, sometimes reaching as much as 80 feet. The great distance between wave crests prevents tsunamis from dissipating energy as a breaking surf; instead, tsunamis cause water levels to rise rapidly along coast lines.

Tsunamis and earthquake ground shaking differ in their destructive characteristics. Ground shaking causes destruction mainly in the vicinity of the causative fault, but tsunamis cause destruction both locally and at very distant locations from the area of tsunami generation.