Why Do Earthquakes Happen?

Aug 2, 2019

Why do earthquakes happen? How do the tectonic plates move underground? How do we stay safe during an earthquake? For this week's show we headed to California to visit Jennifer Strauss at the Berkeley Seismology Lab and we hear from Celeste Labedz at the California Institute of Technology.

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"Why do earthquakes happen?" -Evan, 6, Rhode Island

Other questions in this episode: Why are continents so far apart? Why do buildings sometimes catch fire after earthquakes? Why are there tsunamis after earthquakes?

Earthquakes happen mainly because our earth has something special: tectonic plates.

"The outer layer of the earth isn't one single outer shell like the peel of an apple. It's in several pieces; those are the tectonic plates that can move around the other surface of the earth," says cryoseismologist Celeste Ladedz. "At the places where tectonic plates touch, like in California where the North American plate is up against the Pacific plate, the relative motion between them is what's causing the earthquakes. Plates stay stuck together most of the time because of the friction between them. But, over time, that force builds up and then they'll suddenly slip against each other.  That jolting slip is what an earthquake is. That's what creates the seismic waves that move the ground."

Labedz suggests an image that might help you understand an earthquake. Think about moving a piece of heavy furniture across a thick carpet. When you start pushing, the carpet will hold the furniture in place for a while, but then the force builds up and it moves in a big jerky jolt. That's what's happening in an earthquake!

Click listen to hear the entire episode.

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