Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/January 1899/Modern Studies of Earthquakes


THE investigation of earthquakes, seismology, has become in the present day an independent subject of scientific interest. In lands where earthquakes are frequent, as in Italy and Japan, seismic observations have been officially systematized over the whole country, with central and branch stations at which the work is never still. A net of seismic observations of all nations is being more and more closely woven over the whole earth, and there are yearly and monthly collations of observations of even the slightest shocks. Seismic literature is, therefore, nearly inexhaustible, and theory and praxis are in constant vogue; in short, seismics has grown to be a separate branch of science, and to demand independent treatment, calling for the energy and labor of many students. What gives it so great importance? What is the condition of our present knowledge and its history? What will be reached in the future through the competition of the nations? These questions possess a high scientific as well as culture-historical interest. We here attempt to answer them.

The first really scientific description of an earthquake—that of Lisbon—with its far-reaching accompanying phenomena, was the work of the greatest contemporary thinker, Kant, and it is not too much to say that his paper opened a new epoch in the knowledge of earthquakes. That terrible event and the extreme terror which it caused everywhere were followed in 1783 by the likewise extremely destructive earthquake of Calabria. The attention of the people was thus directed to this mysterious mighty activity of the earth, and was kept especially lively in Italy, the country of Europe most subject to earthquakes. The newly rising science of geology therefore found in the last third of the last century in these phenomena a problem of prominent importance. Geologists were the first to apply themselves to seismic studies, as the most widely current explanation of the phenomena is still a geological one. The scientific interest of the question prevailed over the practical. More attentive observation was given to earthquakes, the accounts of them scattered through the ancient chronicles were collated, and the already very numerous seismic notes of great earthquake manifestations—such as those by Hoff, Perry, Mallet, Volger, Fuchs, etc.—constituted a very important factor in the study. One of the earliest results of the inquiry was to show that directly perceptible earthquakes are not perceptible everywhere; that they are most common on the great upfoldings of the earth's crust on the mountain chains, such as the Andes, Alps, and Himalayas; and that, further, they are connected with the shores of the Pacific, the Antilles, and the Mediterranean, and with places also where great breaches and various disturbances are evident; that they are at home likewise in volcanoes; and that they are most frequent in the northern hemisphere, and when the earth is nearest to the sun. The descriptions of powerful shocks furnish us evidence of a double movement of the earth's crust—an alternate up-and down vibration and an often very marked wave motion. The destruction which earthquake shocks and waves inflict on buildings, and the remarkably rapid and wide spread of the tremblings over the surface of the earth, have been very diligently inquired into; and when, in 1856, Naples and Calabria were visited by a great earthquake, an English investigator, Robert Mallet, made a full study of it, and believed that by comparing the direction of the rents in walls and buildings, which were assumed to correspond with that of the tremblings, he could identify the focus of the shocks in the earth's interior, and the course of the wave movement over its surface—a view which has long prevailed in seismology. Still more important was the work of the geologist Karl von Seebach, of Göttingen, on the great earthquake in central Germany, which kept the northern part of the plains of the upper Rhine, around Mayence, Grossgerau, and Darmstadt, disturbed for several years after 1869. Von Seebach's chief effort was to obtain the most exact data possible as to the time of the beginning of the shocks from as many places as possible, from which he might deduce the spot where the shocks began and were strongest, the epicenter which lay directly over the point in the earth's interior where the movement originated. From them he also deduced a series of localities where the shocks were simultaneous and of equal intensity, which could be connected by certain nearly circular lines called homoseists. As the distance of these from the epicenter increases, the undulations take place later and are weaker, and facts may be thus furnished from the velocity of propagation of the shocks can be computed. The observations are also important because von Seebach undertook through a simple mathematical calculation to determine from them the situation of the forces of the subterranean point where the undulations originated.

With these investigations, the process of annihilating time and space by steam and the applications of electricity was also going on. By the effect of this great event, the conditions of earthquake investigation were revolutionized. A comparative study of the phenomena, fundamental and essential to a science of seismology, on the basis of material furnished from all the regions of the earth, was rendered possible. An earthquake service was organized in Japan, by J. Milne, of England; one had already been organized for a considerable time in Italy, and the results obtained at the two places of observation so widely separated corresponded. Japanese, Indian, and American earthquakes could be simultaneously studied in Italy, Russia, Germany, and England; and thus a new, hitherto undeveloped field was gained, the scope of which has already extended far beyond its merely geological aspect.

This could have happened only through another advance that has been made in our century, which has first rendered a real seismology, a scientific knowledge of the seismic conditions of the earth, possible through the immense development of technics, by which a system of instrumental observation of earthquakes was established. Only through this could the acquisitions of recent times be utilized. While formerly observations were macroscopic and touched only earthquakes that could be directly felt, they now cover essentially microscopic tremors of the earth's crust, of less than a thousandth of a millimetre, that are wholly imperceptible to human senses; and we can read them, enlarged at our pleasure, on our photographically registering seismometers. We already had instruments which correctly indicated the time of the beginning and possibly the direction of a shock; but we needed and have invented new instruments—various sorts of horizontal and vertical pendulums—for the observation and representation of the whole course of the movement. The vertical indicating instruments are much used in Italy, and the horizontal ones almost exclusively in England, Japan, and Germany. The horizontal pendulum was invented in Germany in 1832 by Hengler, adapted to scientific use by Professor Zöllner, of Leipsic, and afterward applied in that form by English, German, and other observers. The most complete shape and the one best adapted to extremely delicate seismic observations was given to it by the late German astronomer and geographer Dr. Ernst von Rebeur Paschnitz, of Merseburg. Having undergone a few small changes, fixed in a threefold combination it serves as our most sensitive and accurate seismometer. Its movements and its very exact time markings are photographically represented. The pendulum box is only forty centimetres in diameter. In consequence of its convenience and cheapness, its self-action and its serviceability, it is becoming adopted more and more generally as an international instrument.

Microseismic investigation and its wide extension over the earth have raised seismology another step during the last twenty years, so that it may be said that really exact seismic research began with it. Modern seismology has confirmed many of the older results, such as the localization of earthquakes on the shores of the Pacific, the Mediterranean and in the mountain chains of the earth, and also the importance of homoseists and the epicenter. It has, on the other hand, greatly modified the former estimates of the velocity of propagation of the shocks. It has cast much doubt on speculations as to the seasons in which earthquakes are more or less frequent; and it has demonstrated the inadequacy of former methods of determining the central focus. It has furthermore brought us much that is new. First is the momentous fact that the earth's crust is never at rest; that it undergoes a multitude of very diversified movements besides those of the earthquake. Thus a periodical swelling, a flood wave, is produced by the attraction of the moon; and other heavings are induced by the daily and annual course of the sun's heat. But such movements and other similar ones do not come within the scope of this article.

Real earthquakes, or movements that originate in the depths of the earth, also appear in very different forms. First are the directly perceptible shocks, from the powerful ones that create great disturbances to the merely local ones often hardly remarked. Of the immediate workings of these shocks, microscopic instruments have taught us nothing essentially new. But very many macroscopic movements, often continuing for several hours, but which are not felt, have been revealed, that have been shown in many instances to be distant effects of other strong earthquakes; effects which are sometimes propagated over the whole surface of the earth. There is, furthermore, another series of movements, only partly explained as yet, of a peculiar sort: first, small, quickly passing disturbances, which appear in the photographic reproductions of the curves as larger or smaller knots, and which are regarded with great probability as distant effects of minor seismic movements most likely imperceptible anywhere. They can not be local earthquakes, for they give entirely different curves. There also appear, with considerable regularity, at certain seasons of the year, very slow movements of the ground, called pulsations; and finally the multitude of vibrations called tremors, which assume various forms. Sometimes they come as forerunners, accompaniments, or followers in close association with those great disturbances that originate in distant earthquakes; sometimes as shocks of minute intensity in separate groups, which it has not yet been possible to account for; and in other cases they are traced to the shaking of the ground by the wind. It is hardly necessary to observe that the seismic apparatus should be most carefully guarded against disturbance by the movements of trade, wagons, etc., so that the problem shall not be complicated by them.

The theory of the nature of earthquake shocks, their transmission and their velocity, has been set in a new light by the labors of Augustus Smith, of Stuttgart. From some calculations of their velocity made by G. von Nebeur, it is found that the earthquake of April 17, 1889, in Tokio, Japan, was perceived in Potsdam, Prussia, nine thousand kilometres distant, in thirteen minutes; that of October 27, 1894, in Santiago, Chili, in Rome, eleven thousand five hundred kilometres distant, in seventeen minutes, and in Charkow, Russia, two thousand kilometres from Rome, between one and two minutes later. It reached Tokio at the same time, after a transit of seventeen thousand four hundred kilometres.

Still another task of modern seismology is the investigation of earthquakes at sea, or seismic movements of the bottom of the ocean, and the manner in which they are propagated through the water, of which a very fine cartographic representation has been published by Dr. C. Rudolph, of Strasburg.

The question of the origin of earthquakes stands in constant connection with this external development of seismology. It is significant and remarkable that the answers to it, though they may be given differently from different scientific points of view, are always consistent in one fact, that earthquakes are a phenomenon of the whole earth. Some of the investigators seek to explain them, aside from those that occur in volcanic regions, as a part of the great changes in the earth's crust which have taken place during the last geological epoch, and are still, perhaps, taking place; others find their seat and cause in the unstable condition of the interior of the earth, beneath its solid and red-hot envelope. The former explanation, the older and heretofore the prevalent one, is called the tectonic theory, because it is based, leaving out volcanic earthquakes, on the structure of the earth's crust; the second, which is gaining ground, and requires no separate explanation for volcanic earthquakes, may be called, reviving an expression used by L. Fr. Naumann, of Leipsic, the Plutonic theory, because it goes down into the unexplored depths of the earth. If seismic manifestations depend upon the action of the whole earth, a single explanatory principle, as is always the case with great natural phenomena, is not sufficient, and tectonic as well as Plutonic earthquakes must be recognized, and the reverse.

The tectonic theory is of geological origin, and properly supplanted the older Plutonic theory of Humboldt, which was only an unverified supposition. As a whole it was first worked out by Otto Volger in 1858, after various similar hypotheses had been set forth by other investigators. He was confirmed by the independent researches of Rudolf Hoernes, Edouard Suess, and most of the German, French, and English seismologists.

Their theory supposes that there are large hollow spaces in the crust of the earth, into which immense falls of material take place, and that these are the cause of a part of the earthquakes; that the crust of the earth is often and variously disturbed in consequence of the constant contraction dependent upon the cooling of the globe. It is broken up into separate masses which in their turn are dislocated horizontally or vertically; is lifted up and folded into immense mountain ranges, the arches of which, breaking, may again suffer dislocation. Thus continuous action in movement of masses and foldings is constantly going on in the earth. Edouard Suess, the distinguished Austrian geologist, has indeed constituted a special earthquake type to correspond with this type of mountain formation. Since, in consequence of this condition, tension is present everywhere in the crust of the earth, it may come to pass that it shall be relieved by a distant earthquake, and another earthquake, which may be called a relay or transmission earthquake, be produced thereby. Hence we have, besides the volcanic, the landfall, the tectonic (in the strict sense), and the transmission earthquakes. The sources of earthquake force lie, then, according to this theory, in the incompleteness of the earth's crust, the effects of gravity, and the earth's loss of heat.

And is the supposition not very probable? Do we not see similar processes going on over the whole earth, in the shape of earthquakes, landslides, fissures, subsidences of land, and the like? And as the Alps were lifted up, and the plain of the Rhine was depressed between the Vosges and the Black Forest, may not mightier dislocations, breaches, and destruction occur? Why may not the processes which took place in the earlier epochs of the earth's history and were so powerful in the more recent Tertiary be still going on? All this seems so plausible that, with a few exceptions, the theory has been almost universally agreed in.

I briefly mention here Falb's theory, which, accepting the earlier views, ascribes earthquakes to periodical swellings of the fiery fluid interior of the earth, only because of the effect it has had on the public in connection with some wholly unscientific predictions. More worthy of consideration is the theory of Daubrée, the late distinguished master of French and especially Alsatian geology, who did not attribute the similar phenomena of volcanic and nonvolcanic earthquakes to different causes, but maintained that all earthquakes were produced by superheated steam issuing from surface waters. But this theory needs no refutation. There are, however, some serious objections to the tectonic theory of earthquakes, plausible as it may seem. In order to weigh them as we ought, we must as briefly as possible construct a picture of the constitution of the earth's interior.

The average distance from the earth's surface to its center is sixtythree hundred and seventy kilometres. The temperature of the earth increases with the depth, at the rate, on a moderate estimate, of about one degree centigrade for every forty metres. Hence, at a depth of one thousand kilometres we would have a temperature of 25,000° C.; even if we call it only 15,000°, we should expect to find there only gases, and those in a simple state, for with that heat all the compound gases would be dissociated. The zone of fluidity for all rocks lies at a depth of about one hundred kilometres, where the temperature is 2,500° C. While the crust of the earth is between 2.5 and three times as heavy as distilled water at 4° C, its specific gravity rises toward the center of the earth to more than eleven, or about fourfold. Iron has a specific gravity of 7.8, or about threefold that of the crust of the earth; but the specific gravity of the earth at the greatest depth is considerably higher than this. Hence must arise an enormous pressure, steadily increasing toward the center, where, according to the English geophysicist, the Rev. Osmond Fisher, it reaches about three million atmospheres to the English square inch. It results from these conditions that with the enormous pressure and heat, and specific gravity, the interior of the earth consists of dissociated gases compressed to great rigidity, which exert an immense counter-pressure—for their tendency is always to expand. They pass out continuously into a zone of fluid matter, and this again is held by the pressure of the interior gases in a like compact condition. Thus a very high pressure still prevails in the lower parts of the solid crust of the earth, which is so high that even the most solid rocks there are in a latent plastic condition—that is, they behave toward different forces like plastic clay, and like it can be deformed without breaking. Rents, slides, caves, and clefts are out of the question there; things of that kind can exist only in the upper strata.

This fact constitutes a very strong objection to the tectonic theory of earthquakes, and thus the very depths of the earth speak against it. We have already mentioned that K. von Seebach estimated the depth of the earthquake focus from the movements of the waves, and found it not very great. But his estimates, as Prof. August Schmidt has shown, rest upon physically incorrect premises; according to Schmidt's more correct calculation, the center of the Charleston earthquake of 1886 lay at a depth of one hundred and twenty kilometres, where there can be no question of tectonic movements, because general fluidity is reached at one hundred kilometres. Further, the earthquake at Lisbon, if the tectonic theory is valid, might, taking the character of the region into consideration, have been occasioned by a slide. But how large must the plunging mass, how deep the plunge or slide have been to produce such shocks as destroyed Lisbon and shook Europe to beyond Bohemia! Where can we find room in the closely compressed interior of the earth for such irruptions? Even if such a sudden sinking had left no trace in the interior, it should have left its marks on the surface. Mr. John Milne counts up not less than 8,331 considerable earthquake shocks Japan between 1885 and 1892; Julius Schmidt, former director of the observatory in Athens, enumerated three hundred severe and dangerous and fifty thousand light shocks for Phocis alone between 1870 and 1873, of which not a trace of land changes or depressions can be perceived, aside from superficial avalanches (on Parnassus, for example) and subsidence of meadows and other spongy soil, like the famous depression of the Molo at Lisbon.

All this speaks so emphatically against the tectonic origin of earthquakes that it can not be considered as a general cause. Even the mighty disturbances and shocks of the times when such ranges as the Alps and Himalayas were lifted up can prove nothing for the present time; for the conditions, the mechanical work and acting forces, of the earth were quite different, and the latter much greater and more acute than in our time, as the number and magnitude of the volcanoes of those ages show, before which ours are almost as nothing. We have no adequate comprehension of the way that mechanical work was done. A depression like that of the plain of the Rhine could certainly not have taken place without severe earthquakes; but we do not know how they may have come to pass, for we have nothing analogous to them. The upper strata of the earth's crust are broken up, fissured, and cavernous; hence purely local minor earthquakes may undoubtedly be produced by cavings-in, landslides, and settlings of small extent. But this explanation, in view of the nature of the crust, is not possible for strong earthquakes, even in the upper layers, which send their waves far over the land; their origin must be, almost of necessity, in the greater deeps beneath the crust, far down where the immense gas globe of the interior is constantly forcing its way into the fluid band, and this into the solid stone; in those zones of changing conditions a mighty movement must be incessantly prevailing. The pressure upon the gases of the interior diminishes here, and the excessive temperature as well. This can not take place without changes. Temperature and pressure now fall, now rise again, but continue very high through it all. The dissociated gases unite and separate again, and most violent explosions are infallibly produced thereby. Water exists in the interior in immense masses, and that not solely in consequence of percolation from the surface. Vapor at very high pressure separates into its elements—hydrogen and oxygen—the reunion of which ensues with violent explosions, similar to our gas explosions, which must be very numerous in the interior of the earth, and accompanied with great development of force. The principal effect of such explosions is, of course, against the cooler and more weakly resisting sides, and therefore not toward the interior but toward the crust and the weakest parts of it, toward the rupture lines of the zones of disturbance, the synclinals. Such attacks, striking the earth's crust from within, occasion most earthquakes, especially violent, destructive, deep-seated outbursts like those of Lisbon and Charleston. The relation of the seismic and the volcanic phenomena is clearly to be seen.

One series of seismic phenomena remains to be explained—the lighter undulations, the tremors, and the remarkable irregularity of the movements of the ground. The indications of the vertical pendulum apparatus which represent these movements form an inextricable tangle of lines running over and crossing one another. The late Japanese professor of seismology, Sekiya, prepared an enlarged model of the tracings of the seismic movements of a point of the earth's surface, which has been much copied. It represents an extremely confusing vibration of the lines.

Now we have to confront a very important fact which adds much to the difficulty of seismic research. We never feel and observe the earthquake shocks themselves, never directly in their simplicity or multiplicity, but only the wave movements that are sent out from them in the elastic crust of the earth. These, however multifold their origin, proceed in an immense spherical wave which moves in more or less numerous repetitions through the earth's interior. It is this shaking of the earth by the spherical waves that our instruments represent as earthquakes. We can not include as the earth's crust the surface of the earth on which we live, and which consists of loose materials disintegrated by weathering, breaking, and numerous causes, but the solid crust, often lying at a considerable distance beneath us, which bears these materials, and from which the spherical waves emerge. As the waves of the sea, beating upon the coast, are turned, split up, divided, thrown up, etc., in their surging, so surge, too, the seismic waves upon the disintegrated surface of shingle, pebbles, broken rocks, sand, and earth, in clefts and gorges. We thus never observe the original spherical waves, but only their fragmentary derivative forms, their resolution into numerous single waves which come to us diverted into the most various directions. It is thus most plainly shown that Mallet's effort to determine the center and origin of the earthquake from the direction of the shock was futile. We can only draw scientific conclusions respecting the time of beginning, the duration, and force of the movement. It is thus evident that many of the tremors (not all, by any means) originate in this division; that a fixed point of the earth's surface must describe a very complicated path in so intricate a wave movement; that the division is less marked on firm ground than on loose; that the former, in consequence of the more evenly protracted movement, is less dangerous than the latter; and that multiplied waves interfere, overlay, weaken, or strengthen one an other just as water waves do. Thus are explained the earthquake bridges or spots which always remain unmoved through repeated earthquakes, either because they are firmer, or because the progress of the waves is arrested at them by interference.

The sounds, too, which so frequently accompany earthquakes are likewise simply results of this division of the waves and their escape into the air, for we perceive wave motions in the air as sound. The admirable delicacy of our sense of hearing is here manifested, for seismic movements are not rarely perceptible, or heard, as air waves, which we can not perceive as movements of the ground. Earthquake thunder is caused, like storm thunder, by shocks to the air, of which we hear the nearest and latest first, and the farthest and earliest last. The different tone shades of the earthquake sound depend upon their various sources, as from small, sharp fragments, clinking, rattling, and humming; from sand and earth, dull rumbling; from trees, whistling, etc. The echo in ravines not rarely operates to add strength to them. Earthquake sounds that seem to come out of the air from above are caused by earthquake waves reaching us by way of trees, houses, etc.; the different directions and degrees of force which they seem to indicate in different houses or in different rooms of the same house are explainable by the different elasticity conditions of the houses and rooms. But not the most insignificant conclusion can be drawn from these sounds concerning the nature and causes of earthquakes. It is important to emphasize this fact, for errors have often originated in conclusions drawn from such things.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Deutsche Rundschau.


Examples of a race of curiously protectively colored mice which inhabit the sandy island, the North Bull, in the Bay of Dublin, were exhibited by Dr. H. Lyster Jameson in the Zoological Section of the British Association. A considerable percentage of them were distinctly lighter hued than the ancestral type of house mouse, though every possible gradation occurred between the typical house mouse and the palest examples. The speaker regarded the marked predominance of sand-colored specimens as due to the action of natural selection. The hawks and owls which frequent the island, and are the only enemies the mice have to compete against, most easily capture the darkest examples, or those that contrast most strongly with the color of the sand. Thus a protectively colored race is becoming established. The island came into existence only about a hundred years ago. Consequently it is possible to fix a time limit within which the sandycolored race has been evolved. Its evolution also, as Professor Poulton observed in his comment on Dr. Jameson's paper, gives additional evidence to that afforded by the shore crabs described by Professor Weldon in his presidential address to the section, that the transmutation of species is not necessarily so slow as to be indiscernible.