Beneath the lithosphere is the Earth’s mantle, which is a thick layer of superheated rock – although it’s not an ocean of magma, as is commonly thought because pressure keeps the rock from liquefying.
Australia is located in the center of its tectonic plate.
The mantle is kept hot by Earth’s metallic core, which sits at a “nice 6,000 degrees Celsius,” says Dr Sabine Zahirovich, a plate tectonics expert at the University of Sydney. “The same temperature as the surface of the sun.” The radioactive decay of plutonium and uranium in the mantle also helps keep the temperature up.
Hot things go up and cold things go down. Therefore it is present in the Earth’s mantle. Hot rock is pushed to the surface, bubbles form in volcanoes and at the edges of tectonic plates, while cooler parts of the surface—usually parts of the sea floor—sink toward the core.
This system pushes and pulls the edges of tectonic plates, causing them to wander across the face of the Earth.
The Australian plate is being pulled to the northeast about 7 cm per year, toward Indonesia, by several forces.
To the south, the Southeast Indian mountain range, which stretches between Australia and Antarctica, expands and pushes us north. The eastern part of our plate is being pulled under the Pacific plate, while northward around Indonesia our plate is actually pushing up over the top of the Pacific plate, in a kind of geological car collision.
This intricate motion and grinding along the edges creates tremendous tension in the cold, ancient rocks of Australia.
This stress domain, as it is known, is very unusual – we are the only place in the world where there are significant differences in stress trend across the continent. But this makes sense given the distorting nature of our tectonic boundaries.
This image shows the stress field variations that span across Australia. Credit: Earth Science Reviews
All of this pent-up pressure must eventually be released – in the form of earthquakes.
“The Australian continent is a very old land mass – the western half of it is at least 3 billion years old. And it has been moving. So there has been a lot of tension and stress, which puts dents in the rock mass – earthquake faults,” says Dr. Januka Atanayake, Head of the Department Seismology at the University of Melbourne, “And They Don’t Heal.”
When the pressure from tectonic action exceeds the strength of a fault, it can suddenly break – and an earthquake occurs. This is what happened on Sunday, most likely in a reverse fault, where one side of the fault suddenly slips relative to the other.
An earthquake releases three seismic waves, each of which can be picked up by a seismometer.
Seismographs picked up Sunday’s quake. Source: Geoscience Australia Credit: Geoscience Australia
Primary waves (marked on the chart in red as P) and secondary waves move quickly but with low amplitude (wave size), and often cannot be felt.
The third wave, known as the surface wave, is usually the one that does the most damage – because it is slow but has a large amplitude. If the earthquake is large enough, you may actually feel three separate tremors, Atanayake says.
“The general perception is that Australia is an ancient, stable continental mass, and you don’t usually associate that with earthquakes,” says Associate Professor Chris Elders of Curtin University’s School of Earth and Planetary Sciences.
“But as Melbourne residents discovered late Sunday, earthquakes do happen.”
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