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Institute for Geophysics
Department of Geological SciencesBureau of Economic GeologyInstitute for Geophysics
UTIG: EARTHQUAKES IN TEXAS

EARTHQUAKE SEISMOLOGY

Chapter 12 of, State of Texas Hazards Analysis, by the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, Department of Public Safety, Austin, Texas, 1998.

Introduction: Earthquakes in Texas

An earthquake is a motion or trembling that occurs when there is a sudden breaking or shifting of rock material beneath the earth's surface. This breaking or shifting produces elastic waves which travel at the speed of sound in rock. These waves may be felt or produce damage far away from the epicenter-the point on the earth's surface above where the breaking or shifting actually occurred.

For Texans, three essential facts about earthquakes are important to remember. First, earthquakes do occur in Texas (see Figure 12A). Within the twentieth century there have been more than 100 earthquakes large enough to be felt; their epicenters occur in 40 of Texas's 257 counties. Four of these earthquakes have had magnitudes between 5 and 6, making them large enough to be felt over a wide area and produce significant damage near their epicenters.

Second, in four regions within Texas there have been historical earthquakes which indicate potential earthquake hazard (Figure 12B). Two regions, near El Paso and in the Panhandle, should expect earthquakes with magnitudes of about 5.5-6.0 to occur every 50-100 years, and even larger earthquakes are possible. In northeastern Texas the greatest hazard is from very large earthquakes (magnitude 7 or above) which might occur outside of Texas, particularly in Oklahoma or Missouri-Tennessee. In south-central Texas the hazard is generally low, but residents should be aware that small earthquakes can occur there, including some which are triggered by oil or gas production. Elsewhere in Texas, earthquakes are exceedingly rare. However, the hazard level is not zero anywhere in Texas; small earthquakes are possible almost anywhere, and all regions face possible ill effects from very large, distant earthquakes

Third, while Texas does face some earthquake hazard, this hazard is very small in comparison to that in many other states, including California, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina, and Washington (Figure 12C). In most parts of Texas earthquake hazard is also small compared to the hazard attributable from other natural phenomena, such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods. Thus there is no need for Texas to enact sweeping changes in construction practices, or take other drastic measures to mitigate earthquake hazard.

However, Texans need to begin learning about earthquakes. Over the past 70 years Texas has changed from a sparsely populated state with an economy dominated by agriculture to an economically diverse state with various large, technical manufacturing industries centered in a few densely populated urban regions. For reasons of safety, economy, and (in some cases) law, Texans need to consider earthquake hazard when designing or siting various structures which are essential for providing medical or emergency management services, which house sensitive manufacturing processes, or which store hazardous wastes.

Figure 12A Locations of earthquakes and earthquake sequences that have occurred in Texas, or that were felt by Texas residents. Numbers are the year of occurrence. (See a larger version of this figure.)  Locations of earthquakes felt in Texas

 

Figure 12B Figure 12B Map indicating probable causes of eartthquakes occurring in Texas. Solid lines show the four regions of Texas where historical earthquake activity indicates there is earthquake hazard. Light lines are county boundaries.

 

Figure 12C Earthquake hazard map for the continental United States as prepared by the U. S. Geological Survey. In the central and eastern U. S., the regions expecting the highest accelerations all correspond to the sites of known historical earthquakes. These include: Montana, 1959; West Texas, 1931; Oklahoma, 1952; Missouri-Tennessee, 1811-1812; and South Carolina, 1886. In many places such as Texas, the absence of detailed historical information means that earthquake hazard may be higher than indicated in this figure. Figure 12C

Earthquake Magnitude, Intensity, and Damage

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The nature and geographical extent of earthquake hazard depends strongly on the quake's size or magnitude. Because earthquakes are rare, people are often confused about how risk depends on magnitude. Imagine that you were about to return from a vacation, and someone told you that animals had infested your property. Naturally, you would ask whether these animal were mice, armadillos, or cattle, because each might cause a different kind and amount of damage. Similarly, if your neighborhood has an earthquake, the kind and amount of damage depends on the earthquake's size. A quake with magnitude 3 may do no more than startle people and rattle dishes within a one-square-mile region. However, a magnitude 7 would be felt by people over the entire state of Texas, and could do significant damage to buildings, bridges, and dams over a considerable region.

Scientists determine an earthquake's magnitude by measuring the amplitude of ground motion as recorded on a seismograph, and then correcting the measurement to account for the effects of distance from the epicenter. The magnitude scale is a 'power of ten' scale; thus if a magnitude 3.8 caused ground motion of 1/10 inch at a particular location, a 4.8 at the same epicenter would cause ground motion of 1 inch, and a 5.8 would cause ground motion of 10 inches. This means that magnitude 3 and magnitude 7 earthquakes are enormously different with respect to their ground motion and the size of and slip on the faults that produce them. 

Scientists use the Modified Mercalli intensity (MMI) to describe how strong the motion is at a particular location. The MMI is a number between one and twelve, expressed as a Roman numeral such as MMI IV or MMI IX so that the number won't be confused with magnitude (see Figures 12D and 12E). While each earthquake has only one magnitude, it has many different intensities, since earthquake damage becomes less severe as one moves away from the epicenter. Usually, most of the damage done by an earthquake occurs in the regions nearest the epicenter which have the highest intensities. While intensity depends strongly on factors such as soil properties, in most cases earthquakes with larger magnitudes have higher maximum intensities (see Figure 12F).

Because damaging earthquakes are rare in Texas, it is tempting to ignore them. A more responsible approach is to be selective about mitigation efforts, focusing attention on structures or areas where potential hazard is greatest. The argument for earthquake mitigation is analogous to the argument for having seatbelts and airbags in automobiles-although any one driver is unlikely to have an accident in any given day or year, over a person's lifetime there is a significant chance of having a serious accident. Even in West Texas and the Panhandle, at any particular place damaging earthquakes probably occur only once per century, or less. However, with a little prior planning it is possible to ensure that their damage is minimal.

Earthquake felt intensity - the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale

MMI What people feel, or what damage occurs.
I Not felt except by a very few people under special conditions. Detected mostly by instruments.
II. Felt by a few people, especially those on the upper floors of buildings. Suspended objects may swing.
III. Felt noticeably indoors. Standing automobiles may rock slightly.
IV. Felt by many people indoors, by a few outdoors. At night, some people are awakened. Dishes, windows, and doors rattle.
V. Felt by nearly everyone. Many people are awakened. Some dishes and windows are broken. Unstable objects are overturned.
VI. Felt by everyone. Many people become frightened and run outdoors. Some heavy furniture is moved. Some plaster falls.
VII. Most people are alarmed and run outside. Damage is negligible in buildings of good construction, considerable in buildings of poor construction.
VIII. Damage is slight in specially designed structures, considerable in ordinary buildings, great in poorly built structures. Heavy furniture is overturned.
IX. Damage is considerable in specially designed buildings. Buildings shift from their foundations and partly collapse. Underground pipes are broken.
X.Some well-built wooden structures are destroyed. Most masonry structures are destroyed. The ground is badly cracked. Considerable landslides occur on steep slopes.
XI.Few, if any, masonry structures remain standing. Rails are bent. Broad fissures appear in the ground.
XII. Virtually total destruction. Waves are seen on the ground surface. Objects are thrown into the air.

 

Figure 12D Felt area and Modified Mercalli Intensities experienced by Texans from the magnitude 6.0 Valentine, Texas, earthquake of 16 August, 1931. Dashed lines are county boundaries; small square in south-central Texas indicates region mapped in next figure. Figure 12D

 

Figure 12E Figure 12E: Felt area and Modified Mercallli Intensities experienced by Texans from the magnitude 4.3 Fashing, Texas, earthquake of 9 April 1993. Dashed lines are county boundaries; shaded regions indicate major oil (dark shading) and gas (light shading) fields. Note how this small earthquake is felt over a much smaller area than the 1931 magnitude 6.0 Valentine earthquake.

 

Figure 12F
Relationship Between Earthquake Magnitude and Maximum Observed Modified Mercalli Intensity (MMI).

Magnitude

Maximum MMI

3.0 III-IV
3.5 IV-V
4.0 V-VI
4.5 V-VI
5.0 VI
5.5 VI-VII
6.0 VIII
Note that the table values are only approximate, as there is great variation for individual Texas earthquakes.

 

Approximate Relationship Between Earthquake's Magnitude and the Diameter of and Slip Along the Fault that Produces It.