An earthquake is a shaking of the ground caused by the sudden breaking and movement of large sections of the earth’s rocky outermost crust called tectonic plates.
Earthquakes are the result of a sudden release of energy in the earth’s crust that creates seismic waves. The seismic activity of an area refers to the frequency, type and size of earthquakes experienced over a period of time. Earthquakes are measured using observations from seismometers.

The Moment-Magnitude is the most common scale on which earthquakes larger than approximately 5 are reported for the entire globe. Those smaller than magnitude 5 reported by national seismological observatories are measured mostly on the local magnitude scale, also referred to as the Richter Scale. Intensity of shaking is measured on the modified Mercalli scale. The shallower an earthquake, the more damage to structures it causes, all else being equal.
At the Earth’s surface, earthquakes manifest themselves by shaking and sometimes displacement of the ground. When the epicenter of a large earthquake is located offshore, the seabed may be displaced sufficiently to cause a tsunami. Earthquakes can also trigger landslides, and occasionally volcanic activity.

Earthquake fault types

The three main types of fault that may cause an earthquake are normal, reverse (thrust) and strike-slip. Normal and reverse faulting are examples of dip-slip, where the displacement along the fault is in the direction of dip and movement on them involves a vertical component. Normal faults occur mainly in areas where the crust is being extended such as a divergent boundary. Reverse faults occur in areas where the crust is being shortened such as at a convergent boundary. Strike-slip faults are steep structures where the two sides of the fault slip horizontally past each other; transform boundaries are a particular type of strike-slip fault. Many earthquakes are caused by movement on faults that have components of both dip-slip and strike-slip; this is known as oblique slip.

Reverse faults, particularly those along convergent plate boundaries are associated with the most powerful earthquakes, including almost all of those of magnitude 8 or more. Strike-slip faults, particularly continental transforms can produce major earthquakes up to about magnitude 8. Earthquakes associated with normal faults are generally less than magnitude 7.

This is so because the energy released in an earthquake, and thus its magnitude, is proportional to the area of the fault that ruptures and the stress drop. Therefore, the longer the length and the wider the width of the faulted area, the larger the resulting magnitude.

Measuring and locating earthquakes

Earthquakes can be recorded by seismometers up to great distances, because seismic waves travel through the whole Earth’s interior. The absolute magnitude of a quake is conventionally reported by numbers on the Moment Magnitude Scale (formerly Richter scale, magnitude 7 causing serious damage over large areas), whereas the felt magnitude is reported using the modified Mercalli intensity scale.

Every tremor produces different types of seismic waves, which travel through rock with different velocities:

  • Longitudinal P-waves (shock- or pressure waves)
  • Transverse S-waves (both body waves)
  • Surface waves — (Rayleigh and Love waves)

Propagation velocity of the seismic waves ranges from approximately 3 km/s up to 13 km/s, depending on the density and elasticity of the medium. In the Earth’s interior the shock- or P waves travel much faster than the S waves (approx. relation 1.7 : 1). The differences in travel time from the epicentre to the observatory are a measure of the distance and can be used to image both sources of quakes and structures within the Earth. Also the depth of the hypocenter can be computed roughly.

Earthquakes are not only categorized by their magnitude but also by the place where they occur. The world is divided into 754 Flinn-Engdahl regions, which are based on political and geographical boundaries as well as seismic activity. More active zones are divided into smaller F-E regions whereas less active zones belong to larger F-E regions.

Effects of earthquakes

Ground rupture is a visible breaking and displacement of the Earth’s surface along the trace of the fault, which may be of the order of several metres in the case of major earthquakes. Ground rupture is a major risk for large engineering structures such as dams, bridges and nuclear power stations and requires careful mapping of existing faults to major earthquakes.

Shaking and ground rupture are the main effects created by earthquakes, principally resulting in more or less severe damage to buildings and other rigid structures. The severity of the local effects depends on the complex combination of the earthquake magnitude, the distance from the epicenter, and the local geological and geomorphological conditions, which may amplify or reduce wave propagation. The ground-shaking is measured by ground acceleration.

Specific local geological, geomorphological, and geostructural features can induce high levels of shaking on the ground surface even from low-intensity earthquakes. This effect is called site or local amplification. It is principally due to the transfer of the seismic motion from hard deep soils to soft superficial soils and to effects of seismic energy focalization owing to typical geometrical setting of the deposits.

Major Earthquakes

These are earthquakes of moment magnitude 8.5 and greater since 1900.

One of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history occurred on 23 January 1556 in the Shaanxi province, China, killing more than 830,000 people. Most of the population in the area at the time lived in yaodongs, artificial caves in loess cliffs, many of which collapsed during the catastrophe with great loss of life. The 1976 Tangshan earthquake, with death toll estimated to be between 240,000 to 655,000, is believed to be the largest earthquake of the 20th century by death toll.

The largest earthquake that has been measured on a seismograph reached 9.5 magnitude, occurring on 22 May 1960. Its epicenter was near Cañete, Chile. The energy released was approximately twice that of the next most powerful earthquake, the Good Friday Earthquake, which was centered in Prince William Sound, Alaska.
The ten largest recorded earthquakes have all been megathrust earthquakes; however, of these ten, only the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake is simultaneously one of the deadliest earthquakes in history.

Earthquakes that caused the greatest loss of life, while powerful, were deadly because of their proximity to either heavily populated areas or the ocean, where earthquakes often create tsunamis that can devastate communities thousands of kilometers away. Regions most at risk for great loss of life include those where earthquakes are relatively rare but powerful, and poor regions with lax, unenforced, or non-existent seismic building codes.

Causes of Earthquakes

Most earthquakes are causally related to compressional or tensional stresses built up at the margins of the huge moving lithospheric plates that make up the earth’s surface. The immediate cause of most shallow earthquakes is the sudden release of stress along a fault, or fracture in the earth’s crust, resulting in movement of the opposing blocks of rock past one another. These movements cause vibrations to pass through and around the earth, just as ripples are generated when a pebble is dropped into water. Volcanic eruptions, rockfalls, landslides, and explosions can also cause a quake, but most of these are of only local extent. Shock waves from a powerful earthquake can trigger smaller earthquakes in a distant location hundreds of miles away if the geologic conditions are favourable.

Earthquake Effects

Most earthquake-related deaths are caused by the collapse of structures and the construction practices play a tremendous role in the death toll of an earthquake. In southern Italy in 1909 more than 100,000 people perished in an earthquake that struck the region. Almost half of the people living in the region of Messina were killed due to the easily collapsible structures that dominated the villages of the region. A larger earthquake that struck San Francisco three years earlier had killed fewer people (about 700) because building construction practices were different type (predominantly wood). Building practices can make all the difference in earthquakes, even a moderate rupture beneath a city with structures unprepared for shaking can produce tens of thousands of casualties.

Although probably the most important, direct shaking effects are not the only hazard associated with earthquakes, other effects such as landslides, liquefaction, and tsunamis have also played important part in destruction produced by earthquakes.

How do I prepare for earthquakes?

You can identify potential dangers in and around your home by conducting an earthquake hazard assessment. Some possible hazards are:

  • Tall, heavy furniture which could topple over such as bookcases, china cabinets or modular wall units
  • Hot water heaters which can be pulled away from pipes and ruptured
  • Appliances which could move enough to rupture gas or electrical lines
  • Hanging plants in heavy pots that could swing free of hooks
  • Heavy picture frames or mirrors over the bed
  • Latches on kitchen or other cabinets which will not hold the door closed during shaking
  • Breakables or heavy objects that are kept on high or open shelves
  • Flammable liquids like painting or cleaning products that would be safer in a garage or outside shed

Earthquake Drill

It is important to know where you should go for protection when your house starts to shake. By planning and practising what to do before an earthquake occurs, you can condition yourself and your family to react correctly and spontaneously when the first jolt or shaking is felt.

Here are some tips for conducting an earthquake drill:

  • Each family member should know safe spots in each room. Some of these areas are under supported archways, against inside walls and under heavy pieces of furniture like a desk or sturdy table.
  • Stay away from windows, hanging objects, mirrors, and tall
    unsecured furniture.
  • Reinforce this knowledge by physically placing yourself in the safe
    locations. This is an especially important step for children.
  • In the days or weeks after this exercise, hold surprise drills.
  • Be prepared to deal with what you may experience after an earthquake –
    both physically and emotionally.

How to ride out the earthquake

During a major earthquake you may experience a shaking that starts out to be gentle and within a second or two, grows violent and knocks you off your feet or you may be jarred first by a violent jolt as though your house was hit by a truck. A second or two later you’ll feel the shaking and as in the first example, you’ll find it very difficult (if not possible) to move from one room to another.

Safety tips:

  • Do not touch downed electricity lines or damaged appliances.
  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleach, gasoline and flammable liquids as soon
    as possible.
  • Check to see that sewage lines are intact before using the toilet. Plug
    bathtub and sink drains to prevent sewage back-up.
  • Check the building for cracks and damage, particularly masonry walls
  • Check food and water supplies.
  • Check closets and cupboards. Open doors cautiously. Beware of objects
    tumbling off shelves.
  • Use coal pot for emergency cooking, only outdoors.
  • Turn on your battery-powered radio (or car radio) for damage reports and
  • Do not use your vehicle unless there is an emergency. Do not go
    sightseeing through badly damaged areas. You will only hamper the relief
    effort. Keep streets clear for the passage of emergency vehicles.
  • Be prepared for aftershocks. These are usually smaller than the main
    quake but some may be large enough to do additional damage to structures
    weakened during the main shock.
  • In some communities other means of transportation may be required during
    the emergency phase and abandoned and secondary tracks could be the only
    access routes possible.
  • Remember those who are physically challenged may need assistance
    more than in normal circumstances.
  • If you are in the kitchen, turn off the stove at the first sign of shaking and
    quickly take cover under a counter or table, or in a doorway.

If you have to evacuate

Post a message in clear view where you can be found. List reunion points in case you separate from other members of family or friends. Such points may be a neighbour, friend, school, church, or community centre.

Take with you:

  1.   Medicines and first aid kit
  2.   Flashlight, radio and batteries
  3.   Important papers and cash
  4.   Food, sleeping kit, blankets and change of clothing

When the shaking stops

  • A good sturdy pair of shoes is best to wear after the shake. Check yourself and those around you for injuries.
  • Do not use the telephone unless there is severe injury.
  • Avoid naked flame after an earthquake until you are sure that it is safe to light matches, stoves, pilots, etc. Search for damaged gas lines and water mains and do not switch on electricity.
  • If a person is injured apply the appropriate first aid, stop any bleeding, and keep victim warm. Don’t move the victim unless in immediate danger of further injury. Call 911 for serious cases.

Major Earthquakes in Antigua and Barbuda

  • October 8th 1974, 5:51am – Antigua & Barbuda experienced a very significant quake. Larger un-reinforced buildings such as churches, public buildings and the West Indies Oil refinery took the brunt of the damage. Land slippage was evident in some areas like Deep Water Harbour. Damage was estimated at approximately 10 – 15 EC dollars.
  • August 27th 1990, 3:15am – A tremor of 4.9 on the Richter Scale was felt. At the same time, a hurricane also approached.
  • November 29th 2007, 3:00pm – A 7.4 tremor hit Antigua and other eastern Caribbean islands. No injuries were reported.