Moment magnitude scale
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The moment magnitude scale (MMS; denoted explicitly with Mw or Mw, and generally implied with use of a single M for magnitude) is a measure of an earthquake's magnitude ("size" or strength) based on its
Moment magnitude (Mw ) is considered the authoritative magnitude scale for ranking earthquakes by size. It is more directly related to the energy of an earthquake than other scales, and does not saturate—that is, it does not underestimate magnitudes as other scales do in certain conditions. It has become the standard scale used by seismological authorities like the
At the beginning of the twentieth century, very little was known about how earthquakes happen, how seismic waves are generated and propagate through the earth's crust, and what information they carry about the earthquake rupture process; the first magnitude scales were therefore
The local magnitude scale was developed on the basis of shallow (~15 km (9 mi) deep), moderate-sized earthquakes at a distance of approximately 100 to 600 km (62 to 373 mi), conditions where the surface waves are predominant. At greater depths, distances, or magnitudes the surface waves are greatly reduced, and the local magnitude scale underestimates the magnitude, a problem called saturation. Additional scales were developed – a surface-wave magnitude scale (
The study of earthquakes is challenging as the source events cannot be observed directly, and it took many years to develop the mathematics for understanding what the seismic waves from an earthquake can tell us about the source event. An early step was to determine how different systems of forces might generate seismic waves equivalent to those observed from earthquakes.
The simplest force system is a single force acting on an object. If it has sufficient strength to overcome any resistance it will cause the object to move ("translate"). A pair of forces, acting on the same "line of action" but in opposite directions, will cancel; if they cancel (balance) exactly there will be no net translation, though the object will experience stress, either tension or compression. If the pair of forces are offset, acting along parallel but separate lines of action, the object experiences a rotational force, or
The single couple and double couple models are important in seismology because each can be used to derive how the seismic waves generated by an earthquake event should appear in the "far field" (that is, at distance). Once that relation is understood it can be inverted to use the earthquake's observed seismic waves to determine its other characteristics, including fault geometry and seismic moment.
In 1923 Hiroshi Nakano showed that certain aspects of seismic waves could be explained in terms of a double couple model. This led to a three-decade long controversy over the best way to model the seismic source: as a single couple, or a double couple? While Japanese seismologists favored the double couple, most seismologists favored the single couple. Although the single couple model had some short-comings, it seemed more intuitive, and there was a belief – mistaken, as it turned out – that the
The debate ended when Maruyama (1963), Haskell (1964), and Burridge & Knopoff (1964) showed that if earthquake ruptures are modeled as dislocations the pattern of seismic radiation can always be matched with an equivalent pattern derived from a double couple, but not from a single couple. This was confirmed as better and more plentiful data coming from the
A double couple model suffices to explain an earthquake's far-field pattern of seismic radiation, but tells us very little about the nature of an earthquake's source mechanism or its physical features. While slippage along a fault was theorized as the cause of earthquakes (other theories included movement of magma, or sudden changes of volume due to phase changes), observing this at depth was not possible, and understanding what could be learned about the source mechanism from the seismic waves requires an understanding of the source mechanism.
Modeling the physical process by which an earthquake generates seismic waves required much theoretical development of
In a pair of papers in 1958, J. A. Steketee worked out how to relate dislocation theory to geophysical features. Numerous other researchers worked out other details, culminating in a general solution in 1964 by Burridge and Knopoff, which established the relationship between double couples and the theory of elastic rebound, and provided the basis for relating an earthquake's physical features to seismic moment.
The first calculation of an earthquake's seismic moment from its seismic waves was by
with μ being the rigidity (or resistance) of moving a fault with a surface areas of S over an average dislocation (distance) of ū. (Modern formulations replace ūS with the equivalent D̄A, known as the "geometric moment" or "potency"..) By this equation the moment determined from the double couple of the seismic waves can be related to the moment calculated from knowledge of the surface area of fault slippage and the amount of slip. In the case of the Niigata earthquake the dislocation estimated from the seismic moment reasonably approximated the observed dislocation.
Seismic moment is a measure of the
Nonetheless, seismic moment is regarded as the fundamental measure of earthquake size, representing more directly than other parameters the physical size of an earthquake. As early as 1975 it was considered "one of the most reliably determined instrumental earthquake source parameters".
Most earthquake magnitude scales suffered from the fact that they only provided a comparison of the amplitude of waves produced at a standard distance and frequency band; it was difficult to relate these magnitudes to a physical property of the earthquake. Gutenberg and Richter suggested that radiated energy Es could be estimated as
(in Joules). Unfortunately, the duration of many very large earthquakes was longer than 20 seconds, the period of the surface waves used in the measurement of Ms . This meant that giant earthquakes such as the 1960 Chilean earthquake (M 9.5) were only assigned an Ms 8.2.
Kanamori recognized that measurement of radiated energy is technically difficult since it involves the integration of wave energy over the entire frequency band. To simplify this calculation, he noted that the lowest frequency parts of the spectrum can often be used to estimate the rest of the spectrum. The lowest frequency
(where E is in Joules and M0 is in Nm), Kanamori approximated Mw by
The formula above made it much easier to estimate the energy-based magnitude Mw , but it changed the fundamental nature of the scale into a moment magnitude scale.
Hanks & Kanamori (1979) combined their work to define a new magnitude scale based on estimates of seismic moment
where is defined in newton meters (N·m).