Learn the science behind how earthquakes happen—and how you can stay safe if one hits.
You feel the ground suddenly shake, and nearby objects are trembling. An earthquake is happening.
Also called a temblor, an earthquake is caused by the movement of parts of the Earth’s crust, its outermost layer. They happen millions of times a year, but most are so small people don’t even feel them.
But powerful earthquakes can cause landslides, tsunamis, flooding, and other dangerous events. Most damage and deaths happen in places where a lot of people live, because the shaking causes windows to break, structures to collapse, fire to break out, and other dangers.
Learn more about these unpredictable Earth tremors—and what to do if one rattles near you.
How earthquakes develop
The action all starts thousands of miles below your feet.
Picture Earth as a hard-boiled egg: Earth’s core is the yolk, and the mantle is the white part. The outer crust is the eggshell.
People live on the surface of the crust. Below the surface—but still within the crust—are tectonic plates. Like gigantic puzzle pieces, these huge slabs of rock encircle the Earth. The seven major plates are named for the regions they rest under: the African, Antarctic, Eurasian, Indo-Australian, North American, Pacific, and South American tectonic plates
Tectonic plates aren't connected but are close together. Where they meet along their edges is called a fault. When heat from the Earth’s core creates currents in the crust, the tectonic plates can scrape, bump, or drag along each other. This is what causes an earthquake—and why the surface sometimes cracks like an eggshell.
How to measure earthquakes
About a half-million quakes rock the Earth every day. Usually the quake is too small, too far below the surface, or too deep in the seafloor to be felt. Some, however, are so powerful they can be felt thousands of miles away.
The spot on the surface just above where an earthquake starts is called the epicenter. Ripples called seismic waves travel out from the epicenter. This causes vibrations that people can feel, sometimes very far from the epicenter.
How far away people can feel an earthquake’s vibrations depends on its size, or magnitude. Scientists base the magnitude on the strength and duration of the quake’s seismic waves. The higher the number, the more powerful the earthquake: A magnitude 3 to 4.9 earthquake is considered minor; 5 to 6.9 is moderate to strong; 7 to 7.9 is major; and 8 or more is an extremely powerful temblor.
As the crust settles after an earthquake, another temblor called an aftershock can happen. Usually, aftershocks are not as powerful as the first quake but can still be very strong.
Geologists can’t predict earthquakes. But they’re working to change that with new research and technology.
Where earthquakes happen
Earthquakes occur along faults, the areas where tectonic plates meet. About 80 percent of earthquakes occur along the rim of the Pacific Ocean. Called the Ring of Fire because of the large number of volcanoes there, the area is a meeting point for many tectonic plates.
Earthquakes are also common in California because the region sits on top of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. Temblors happen when these two plates grind against each other. About two-thirds of this movement happens along the San Andreas Fault.
Another major earthquake area in the United States is the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which affects Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.
How to survive an earthquake
Earthquakes can happen anytime or anywhere—even if you don’t live near a fault. So it’s a good idea to prepare.
• Talk with your family about the safest places in your home in case an earthquake hits. This could be under a sturdy table or next to an interior wall (one that is not connected to the outside).
• Look for heavy items that could fall or break during a quake, and move them to safer spots.
• Ask your parents to make sure you have an emergency kit containing things like first-aid supplies, a flashlight, a cell phone charger, and a battery-operated radio. Your family should also have enough food and water for at least 72 hours
DURING AN EARTHQUAKE: Most earthquakes last only 10 to 30 seconds, so it’s important to get to a safe place fast. Remember three things during an earthquake: drop, cover, and hold on.
Drop: Get down on your hands and knees and crawl to your shelter.
Cover: Underneath a sturdy table, desk, or bed, cover your head and neck with your arms. If furniture isn’t nearby, crouch down on your knees with your arms over your head and neck next to an interior wall. (Don’t stand under a doorway—they can easily collapse.)
Hold on: If you’re under a piece of furniture, hold on with one hand and move with the furniture if it starts sliding. Stay where you are until the shaking stops.
AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE: Once the earthquake ends, check for injuries. Listen to a radio for any warnings and instructions from official organizations like the United States Geological Survey. Be prepared for any aftershocks.
Text and images adapted from Everything Volcanoes and Earthquakes: Earthshaking photos, facts, and fun!