What is the Epicenter of an Earthquake? - Definition & Location

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  • 0:05 What is an Epicenter?
  • 0:21 Location of the Epicenter
  • 1:37 Locating an Epicenter
  • 2:31 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

This lesson will explain what an epicenter is in the context of earthquakes, where it is located, and how that location is determined. A short quiz will follow.

What is an Epicenter?

Earthquakes can cause huge amounts of death and destruction. For this reason, understanding them is vitally important. Like all major events, seismic or otherwise, they have to start somewhere. The epicenter is the place on the Earth's surface under which they start.

Damage from an earthquake

Location of the Epicenter

There are two important locations in any earthquake. The most important is the hypocenter, or focus of the earthquake. This is the point where the earthquake truly begins, deep under the ground and located at a tectonic plate boundary, the border between two of the fragments the Earth's crust is broken into. It is where the plate boundary begins to rupture.

The epicenter on the other hand, is the point on the Earth's surface directly above the hypocenter. This is a more useful measure for human reporting because it can be shown on a map.

Features of an Epicenter

The epicenter is usually the location where the waves from an earthquake are most intense and, as a result, it is also the location with the most damage. But this isn't always true.

If an earthquake is particularly large, it may run across a large section of the plate boundary. In this case, the epicenter might only be one of many hotspot locations and damage could be greater elsewhere. In a 2002 Alaskan earthquake of magnitude 7.9, the greatest damage was 330 km away from the epicenter. The epicenter was at the western edge of the rupture, but more damage occurred at the eastern edge.

Locating an Epicenter

Scientists have come up with a number of ways to figure out the location of an epicenter. The simplest requires the positioning of seismographs, equipment that measure the strength of ground tremors and earthquakes, around the area. It is possible to use a process of triangulation to figure out the location of the earthquake.

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