Earthquakes of magnitudes exceeding 7.0 struck Japan and Ecuador just hours apart Saturday. Are the two somehow related?
No. The two quakes occurred about 9,000 miles apart. That’s far too distant for there to be any connection between them.
Large earthquakes can, and usually do, lead to more quakes — but only in the same region, along or near the same fault. These are called aftershocks. Sometimes a large quake can be linked to a smaller quake that occurred earlier, called a foreshock. In the case of the Japanese quake, seismologists believe that several magnitude-6 quakes in the same region on the previous day were foreshocks to the Saturday event.
But the two earthquakes are similar in some ways, aren’t they?
Not really. The magnitude-7.8 quake in Ecuador was what would be considered a classic megathrust event, a type that was first identified through the work of George Plafker, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist, on the great Alaskan earthquake of 1964. A megathrust quake occurs in the boundary zone where one of the planet’s tectonic plates is sliding under another, a process called subduction.
In the case of the Ecuadorean quake, the Nazca, a heavy oceanic plate, is sliding under the South American, a lighter continental plate, at a rate of about 2 inches a year. Strain builds up at the boundary, which is then released suddenly in the form of an earthquake. Because the boundary area is usually large, megathrust quakes are the most powerful and include the two strongest quakes ever measured by instruments: the magnitude-9.2 1964 Alaskan quake and one in coastal Chile in 1960 of magnitude 9.5.
Although there have been plenty of megathrust earthquakes in Japan — including the 2011 Tohoku quake, which led to the Fukushima nuclear disaster — the earthquake Saturday on the island of Kyushu in southwest Japan was not the megathrust type. Rather, according to the geological survey, the earthquake occurred at shallow depth along a different kind of fault — called a strike-slip — in the top of the Eurasia plate, above any subduction zone.
OK, but two 7.0-plus quakes in the same day — does that mean earthquake activity is increasing?
No. The geological survey, which monitors earthquakes around the world, says the average number of quakes per year is remarkably consistent. For earthquakes between magnitude 7.0 and 7.9, there have been some years with more than 20 and others with fewer than 10, but the average, according to the survey, is about 15. That means that there is more than one per month, on average, and by chance, sometimes two quakes occur on the same day. (Also by chance, the world sometimes goes a month or longer without a 7.0-plus quake, as it did between July 27 and Sept. 16 last year.)
Sometimes it seems that earthquakes are increasing in frequency because, as instrumentation improves and more people occupy more parts of the world, more quakes make the news. The two earthquakes Saturday both occurred in heavily populated areas with media and communication networks, so word got out quickly and easily. If one had occurred in the middle of the ocean, few people would have noticed.