The effects of an earthquake are strongest in a broad zone surrounding the epicenter. Surface ground cracking associated with faults that reach the surface often occurs, with horizontal and vertical displacements of several yards common. Such movement does not have to occur during a major earthquake; slight periodic movements called fault creep can be accompanied by microearthquakes too small to be felt. The extent of earthquake vibration and subsequent damage to a region is partly dependent on characteristics of the ground. For example, earthquake vibrations last longer and are of greater wave amplitudes in unconsolidated surface material, such as poorly compacted fill or river deposits; bedrock areas receive fewer effects. The worst damage occurs in densely populated urban areas where structures are not built to withstand intense shaking. There, L waves can produce destructive vibrations in buildings and break water and gas lines, starting uncontrollable fires.
Damage and loss of life sustained during an earthquake result from falling structures and flying glass and objects. Flexible structures built on bedrock are generally more resistant to earthquake damage than rigid structures built on loose soil. In certain areas, an earthquake can trigger mudslides, which slip down mountain slopes and can bury habitations below. A submarine earthquake can cause a tsunami, a series of damaging waves that ripple outward from the earthquake epicenter and inundate coastal cities.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.