Occurrence of earthquakes
Global seismicity patterns had no strong theoretical explanation until the dynamic model called plate tectonics was developed during the late 1960s. This theory holds that the Earth’s upper shell, or lithosphere, consists of nearly a dozen large, quasi-stable slabs called plates. The thickness of each of these plates is roughly 80 km (50 miles). The plates move horizontally relative to neighbouring plates at a rate of 1 to 10 cm (0.4 to 4 inches) per year over a shell of lesser strength called the asthenosphere. At the plate edges where there is contact between adjoining plates, boundary tectonic forces operate on the rocks, causing physical and chemical changes in them. New lithosphere is created at oceanic ridges by the upwelling and cooling of magma from the Earth’s mantle. The horizontally moving plates are believed to be absorbed at the ocean trenches, where a subduction process carries the lithosphere downward into the Earth’s interior. The total amount of lithospheric material destroyed at these subduction zones equals that generated at the ridges.
Seismological evidence (such as the location of major earthquake belts) is everywhere in agreement with this tectonic model. Earthquake sources are concentrated along the oceanic ridges, which correspond to divergent plate boundaries. At the subduction zones, which are associated with convergent plate boundaries, intermediate- and deep-focus earthquakes mark the location of the upper part of a dipping lithosphere slab. The focal mechanisms indicate that the stresses are aligned with the dip of the lithosphere underneath the adjacent continent or island arc.
Some earthquakes associated with oceanic ridges are confined to strike-slip faults, called transform faults, that offset the ridge crests. The majority of the earthquakes occurring along such horizontal shear faults are characterized by slip motions. Also in agreement with the plate tectonics theory is the high seismicity encountered along the edges of plates where they slide past each other. Plate boundaries of this kind, sometimes called fracture zones, include the San Andreas Fault in California and the North Anatolian fault system in Turkey. Such plate boundaries are the site of interplate earthquakes of shallow focus.
The low seismicity within plates is consistent with the plate tectonic description. Small to large earthquakes do occur in limited regions well within the boundaries of plates; however, such intraplate seismic events can be explained by tectonic mechanisms other than plate boundary motions and their associated phenomena.