What causes an earthquake?

An earthquake is the shaking and vibration of the Earth's crust due to movement of the Earth's plates (plate tectonics). Earthquakes can happen along any type of plate boundary.

Earthquakes occur when tension is released from inside the crust. Plates do not always move smoothly alongside each other and sometimes get stuck. When this happens pressure builds up. When this pressure is eventually released, an earthquake tends to occur.

The point inside the crust where the pressure is released is called the focus. The point on the Earth's surface above the focus is called the epicentre.

Earthquake energy is released in seismic waves. These waves spread out from the focus. The waves are felt most strongly at the epicentre, becoming less strong as they travel further away. The most severe damage caused by an earthquake will happen close to the epicentre.

Diagram showing movement of plates in an earthquake