From temblor: “Did the Moon trigger Saturday’s M=6.1 earthquake in Colombia?”


From temblor

March 27, 2019
Aron Mirwald, M.Sc., Temblor, Inc.

A magnitude 6.1 earthquake occurred on 23 March 2019 at 2:14 pm in Colombia. A recent scientific paper reports that the tide might be responsible for 16% of the earthquakes in Colombia. But did the Moon trigger this earthquake? Possibly, but there are important limitations.

Colombia’s hyperactive Cauca Cluster and Bucaramanga Nest

The M=6.1 quake, which was widely felt in Bogota, Cali, and Medellin, was located in the well-known ‘Cauca cluster’ in Colombia, where M≥3 earthquakes occur frequently (~24 per year). Together with the ‘Bucaramanga nest’ (~550 per year), the two clusters account for over half of all Colombian earthquakes (Geological Service Colombia). Most of the earthquakes in the two clusters strike at depths between 70-180 km (43 -111 mi). How earthquakes can be produced at these great depths is itself an enigma, and a matter of ongoing research (read this and this for an introduction).

But, as for many geoscience problems, there is more to it: Researchers from the Medellin University have found that earthquakes in Colombia correlate with the tide. They show in their recent publication that the relation between earthquakes and tide is especially strong for earthquakes within the two earthquake clusters (Monaco et. al., 2019).

Each dot represents an earthquake. The colored dots are corresponding to earthquakes in seismic clusters. The upper two are the Cauca cluster and Bucaramanga nest, where over half of the earthquakes in Colombia occur.

The Moon and the Sun cause the Earth to deform

Maybe you have heard that we are slightly lighter when the moon is above us (only one millionth of our weight). But, to be exact, this is also true if the moon is directly below us, at the opposite side. The reason for this is that the gravitational force is not the only force at play. The earth is moved by the moon circling around it, and we experience a centrifugal force because of this (here is a webpage with a great animation of this). The net force is upwards both at the side that faces the moon and at the opposite one.

Both Moon and Earth move in ellipses due to the force they exert on each other. The white arrows represent the net force, i.e. the sum of the centrifugal force and the gravitational force.
Image from (interactive animation)

The moon is not the only one who influences the earth. The sun does it in a similar way, although the force it generates is about half as large. The combined effect of the Sun and the Moon is called ‘tide’. The tide has two effects on the earth. First, it moves large quantities of water, also known as ocean tide. Second, it deforms the solid earth: The tidal forces, that pull on both sides, elongate the planet, making it around 40 cm longer. This generates shear and unclamping stresses in the earth that can promote earthquakes (Heaton, 1975).

The magnitudes of the stresses generated by the tide are much smaller than stresses due to the movement of the tectonic plates. This means that tides themselves are not responsible for earthquakes. Perhaps, however, if an earthquake is about to trigger, the tide can nudge it to fail. Therefore, we would expect seismicity to be higher when the tidal stresses and the tectonic stresses point in the same direction, and lower when the opposite is true.

Searching for periodicity: can we prove tidal triggering?

There are two key tidal cycles: The first one is 27.5 days long, which is the time the moon needs to circle around the earth. The second one is 24 hours long, which is the time the earth takes to turn around its own axis. If an increase in the rate of earthquakes correlates with these periods, then that increase could be tidally triggered. The next step would then be to actually compute the stresses involved.

Could the tides permit earthquake forecasts?

Since 1980 seismologists have searched for such a link, with mixed results. Recent studies, which have found a relation, are limited to certain regions or circumstances (Ide et. al., 2016). For example, it was found that the number of earthquakes in the region of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan was correlated with the tide before the earthquake occurred. After the magnitude 9 earthquake, on the other hand, no correlation was found (Tanaka et. al., 2012). Studies like this speculate that it might be possible to evaluate if a large rupture is about to come in certain areas, but this has yet to be proven.

The recent event was probably facilitated by the tide

In their research, Dr. Gloria Moncayo and her colleagues evaluated earthquakes in Colombia between 1993 and 2017. They found that the rate of earthquakes indeed had a periodic component, with a period of 27.5 days. About one-sixth (or 16%) more earthquakes occur when the moon is closest, i.e. at a full moon. This correlation between earthquakes and tides was strongest for the events within the Cauca cluster and the Bucaramanga nest.

The recent earthquake occurred just three days after the last full moon (20 March). In the figure below, this corresponds to a phase of 34°, and thus in an area where more earthquakes are expected due to the tide. We contacted the authors of the research in order to learn more.

Dr. Moncayo told us that the position and the timing of the event indicated tidal triggering. Her colleague, Dr. Jorge I. Zuluaga, added that they calculated the tidal stress for this event and found that its direction was such that the earthquake would be facilitated. ‘If I could bet a dollar, I would bet that it was tidally triggered. Regretfully, we cannot falsify this assertion’, he wrote.

Here, you see the number of earthquakes in relation to the 27.5-day period of the moon. A phase of 0 and 360 degrees corresponds to a full moon, and 180 degrees to a new moon. You can see that only a small fraction of the total number of earthquakes varies with time.
Image from Moncayo et. al. (2019)

Putting it into perspective: A tidal nudge, but not an earthquake prediction

For last Saturday’s event, we know that the tidal stress favored the triggering. Before we jump into hasty conclusions, we should be aware that there are limitations to the result of the study of Dr. Moncayo and her colleagues. An important one is that the seismological network has expanded in the time they evaluated. This could introduce error in the detection of periodicity (Ader and Avouac, 2013). Even if the periodicity that the authors found was true, still most of the earthquakes are independent of the tide. Only a fraction (less than 16%) of the seismicity could be attributed to it. Finally, we need to know the actual tidal stresses and not only the periodicity to make statements of the causality.


Ader, T. J., & Avouac, J. P. (2013). Detecting periodicities and declustering in earthquake catalogs using the Schuster spectrum, application to Himalayan seismicity. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 377, 97-105.

Heaton, T. H. (1975). Tidal triggering of earthquakes. Geophysical Journal International, 43(2), 307-326.

Ide, S., Yabe, S., & Tanaka, Y. (2016). Earthquake potential revealed by tidal influence on earthquake size–frequency statistics. Nature Geoscience, 9(11), 834.

Moncayo, G. A., Zuluaga, J. I., & Monsalve, G. (2019). Correlation between tides and seismicity in Northwestern South America: the case of Colombia. Journal of South American Earth Sciences, 89, 227-245.

Tanaka, S. (2012). Tidal triggering of earthquakes prior to the 2011 Tohoku‐Oki earthquake (Mw 9.1). Geophysical research letters, 39(7).

See the full article here .


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Stem Education Coalition

Earthquake Alert


Earthquake Alert

Earthquake Network project

Earthquake Network is a research project which aims at developing and maintaining a crowdsourced smartphone-based earthquake warning system at a global level. Smartphones made available by the population are used to detect the earthquake waves using the on-board accelerometers. When an earthquake is detected, an earthquake warning is issued in order to alert the population not yet reached by the damaging waves of the earthquake.

The project started on January 1, 2013 with the release of the homonymous Android application Earthquake Network. The author of the research project and developer of the smartphone application is Francesco Finazzi of the University of Bergamo, Italy.

Get the app in the Google Play store.

Smartphone network spatial distribution (green and red dots) on December 4, 2015

Meet The Quake-Catcher Network

QCN bloc

Quake-Catcher Network

The Quake-Catcher Network is a collaborative initiative for developing the world’s largest, low-cost strong-motion seismic network by utilizing sensors in and attached to internet-connected computers. With your help, the Quake-Catcher Network can provide better understanding of earthquakes, give early warning to schools, emergency response systems, and others. The Quake-Catcher Network also provides educational software designed to help teach about earthquakes and earthquake hazards.

After almost eight years at Stanford, and a year at CalTech, the QCN project is moving to the University of Southern California Dept. of Earth Sciences. QCN will be sponsored by the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) and the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC).

The Quake-Catcher Network is a distributed computing network that links volunteer hosted computers into a real-time motion sensing network. QCN is one of many scientific computing projects that runs on the world-renowned distributed computing platform Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).

The volunteer computers monitor vibrational sensors called MEMS accelerometers, and digitally transmit “triggers” to QCN’s servers whenever strong new motions are observed. QCN’s servers sift through these signals, and determine which ones represent earthquakes, and which ones represent cultural noise (like doors slamming, or trucks driving by).

There are two categories of sensors used by QCN: 1) internal mobile device sensors, and 2) external USB sensors.

Mobile Devices: MEMS sensors are often included in laptops, games, cell phones, and other electronic devices for hardware protection, navigation, and game control. When these devices are still and connected to QCN, QCN software monitors the internal accelerometer for strong new shaking. Unfortunately, these devices are rarely secured to the floor, so they may bounce around when a large earthquake occurs. While this is less than ideal for characterizing the regional ground shaking, many such sensors can still provide useful information about earthquake locations and magnitudes.

USB Sensors: MEMS sensors can be mounted to the floor and connected to a desktop computer via a USB cable. These sensors have several advantages over mobile device sensors. 1) By mounting them to the floor, they measure more reliable shaking than mobile devices. 2) These sensors typically have lower noise and better resolution of 3D motion. 3) Desktops are often left on and do not move. 4) The USB sensor is physically removed from the game, phone, or laptop, so human interaction with the device doesn’t reduce the sensors’ performance. 5) USB sensors can be aligned to North, so we know what direction the horizontal “X” and “Y” axes correspond to.

If you are a science teacher at a K-12 school, please apply for a free USB sensor and accompanying QCN software. QCN has been able to purchase sensors to donate to schools in need. If you are interested in donating to the program or requesting a sensor, click here.

BOINC is a leader in the field(s) of Distributed Computing, Grid Computing and Citizen Cyberscience.BOINC is more properly the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, developed at UC Berkeley.

Earthquake safety is a responsibility shared by billions worldwide. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) provides software so that individuals can join together to improve earthquake monitoring, earthquake awareness, and the science of earthquakes. The Quake-Catcher Network (QCN) links existing networked laptops and desktops in hopes to form the worlds largest strong-motion seismic network.

Below, the QCN Quake Catcher Network map
QCN Quake Catcher Network map

ShakeAlert: An Earthquake Early Warning System for the West Coast of the United States

The U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) along with a coalition of State and university partners is developing and testing an earthquake early warning (EEW) system called ShakeAlert for the west coast of the United States. Long term funding must be secured before the system can begin sending general public notifications, however, some limited pilot projects are active and more are being developed. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018.

Watch a video describing how ShakeAlert works in English or Spanish.

The primary project partners include:

United States Geological Survey
California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES)
California Geological Survey
California Institute of Technology
University of California Berkeley
University of Washington
University of Oregon
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

The Earthquake Threat

Earthquakes pose a national challenge because more than 143 million Americans live in areas of significant seismic risk across 39 states. Most of our Nation’s earthquake risk is concentrated on the West Coast of the United States. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has estimated the average annualized loss from earthquakes, nationwide, to be $5.3 billion, with 77 percent of that figure ($4.1 billion) coming from California, Washington, and Oregon, and 66 percent ($3.5 billion) from California alone. In the next 30 years, California has a 99.7 percent chance of a magnitude 6.7 or larger earthquake and the Pacific Northwest has a 10 percent chance of a magnitude 8 to 9 megathrust earthquake on the Cascadia subduction zone.

Part of the Solution

Today, the technology exists to detect earthquakes, so quickly, that an alert can reach some areas before strong shaking arrives. The purpose of the ShakeAlert system is to identify and characterize an earthquake a few seconds after it begins, calculate the likely intensity of ground shaking that will result, and deliver warnings to people and infrastructure in harm’s way. This can be done by detecting the first energy to radiate from an earthquake, the P-wave energy, which rarely causes damage. Using P-wave information, we first estimate the location and the magnitude of the earthquake. Then, the anticipated ground shaking across the region to be affected is estimated and a warning is provided to local populations. The method can provide warning before the S-wave arrives, bringing the strong shaking that usually causes most of the damage.

Studies of earthquake early warning methods in California have shown that the warning time would range from a few seconds to a few tens of seconds. ShakeAlert can give enough time to slow trains and taxiing planes, to prevent cars from entering bridges and tunnels, to move away from dangerous machines or chemicals in work environments and to take cover under a desk, or to automatically shut down and isolate industrial systems. Taking such actions before shaking starts can reduce damage and casualties during an earthquake. It can also prevent cascading failures in the aftermath of an event. For example, isolating utilities before shaking starts can reduce the number of fire initiations.

System Goal

The USGS will issue public warnings of potentially damaging earthquakes and provide warning parameter data to government agencies and private users on a region-by-region basis, as soon as the ShakeAlert system, its products, and its parametric data meet minimum quality and reliability standards in those geographic regions. The USGS has set the goal of beginning limited public notifications in 2018. Product availability will expand geographically via ANSS regional seismic networks, such that ShakeAlert products and warnings become available for all regions with dense seismic instrumentation.

Current Status

The West Coast ShakeAlert system is being developed by expanding and upgrading the infrastructure of regional seismic networks that are part of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS); the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) is made up of the Southern California Seismic Network, SCSN) and the Northern California Seismic System, NCSS and the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN). This enables the USGS and ANSS to leverage their substantial investment in sensor networks, data telemetry systems, data processing centers, and software for earthquake monitoring activities residing in these network centers. The ShakeAlert system has been sending live alerts to “beta” users in California since January of 2012 and in the Pacific Northwest since February of 2015.

In February of 2016 the USGS, along with its partners, rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California joined by Oregon and Washington in April 2017. This West Coast-wide “production prototype” has been designed for redundant, reliable operations. The system includes geographically distributed servers, and allows for automatic fail-over if connection is lost.

This next-generation system will not yet support public warnings but does allow selected early adopters to develop and deploy pilot implementations that take protective actions triggered by the ShakeAlert notifications in areas with sufficient sensor coverage.


The USGS will develop and operate the ShakeAlert system, and issue public notifications under collaborative authorities with FEMA, as part of the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program, as enacted by the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act of 1977, 42 U.S.C. §§ 7704 SEC. 2.

For More Information

Robert de Groot, ShakeAlert National Coordinator for Communication, Education, and Outreach

Learn more about EEW Research

ShakeAlert Fact Sheet

ShakeAlert Implementation Plan