EPSC 520, Winter 2017

Earthquake Physics and Geology



What are earthquakes and how do we study them? Fundamental mechanics of faulting and earthquake source processes are explored from theoretical and observational perspectives. The lectures cover concepts of earthquake source mechanism, including seismic waves, earthquake energy budget, fracture and friction mechanics, earthquake cycle deformation, earthquake triggering and prediction, and seismic hazards. This is complemented by in-class discussion on recent major discoveries and challenges in the field. Students learn to investigate earthquake source process by using seismic, geodetic and geological data in computer labs and course projects supervised by the instructor(s).


EPSC 320 Elementary Earth Physics and MATH 233 Calculus 3 or their equivalents

Basic knowledge in structural geology.

Instructors contact information

Yajing Liu, FDA 339, 514-398-4085, yajing[dot]liu[at]mcgill.ca

Course website


Class meetings

Two 1.5-hour meetings per week

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1-2:30 PM, Room FDA 211


See Weekly lecture schedule (tentative) below


2 computer labs (30%), 2 paper discussion lead (20%), a presentation on term project (10%) and a term paper (40%).

·            Computer laboratory exercises (2 labs, 15% each), 30%

o   Students can work in teams on these computer laboratory exercises, but are required to acknowledge their collaborators in the turned-in assignments.

o   See the attached Weekly Schedule for details of each computer lab exercise.

·            Presentations (lead discussion of 2 papers, 10% each, term project presentation 10%), Total: 30%

o   Each week 2-3 papers relevant to lecture topics are assigned as reading materials. Student form groups (typically, 2-3 per group; group members can change each week). Each student will lead discussions of 2 papers assigned to their group, and is expected to demonstrate ability to synthesize articles and stimulate discussion with insightful questions. 20%.

o   The end-of-term presentation will be based on the term project conducted by each student. Presentations will be 20 minutes each, plus 10 minutes for questions and discussion, in a similar format to those at scientific meetings and professional conferences. Students will be evaluated upon logical organization, effective communication and ability to address questions and comments from the audience. 10%.

·            Term paper: 40%

o   In the 1st week, through instructor suggestion and class discussion, a list of potential project ideas will be constructed and circulated among the class.

o   Students are required to choose one project from the list and submit, by the end of 2nd week, a one-page proposal to briefly outline the outstanding questions, possible methodology and expected outcome of their projects. Instructors will review the proposals to assess their feasibility, and the students will revise and submit the final version by the end of 4th week.

o   The initial version of the term paper, based on the term project, is due by 11th week, before “Student Presentation” week. Instructors will comment on the structure and content of this version and return it to students for revisions.

o   The final version of the term paper is due in the 14th week, one week after student presentations. 

o   The term paper can be based on, but not limited to, the seismic/geodetic techniques learned and results obtained through one of the two computer laboratory exercises. Students are encouraged to conduct original research projects. They are indeed encouraged to discuss with the instructors how to acquire additional data, or conduct more model simulations, beyond those provided in the labs, or to develop their lab reports into term papers. Students can collaborate in groups, provided the final jointly written paper includes an addendum detailing the contributions of each author.

o   The paper will be ~5000 words total (including references, captions, notes, etc. in Word count.), written in the style of a journal article such as Geology or Science with complete and proper citations.

Reference books:

1.    Stein, S. and Wysession, M., “An introduction to seismology, earthquakes and earth structure”, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

2.    Scholz, C. H., “The mechanics of earthquakes and faulting”, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2002.

3.    Lay, T. and Wallace, T. C., “Modern global seismology”, Vol. 58 in “International geophysics series”, ed. by R. Dmowska and J. R. Holton, Academic Press, 1995.

4.    Aki, K. and Richards, P. G., “Quantitative seismology”, University Science Books, 2nd edition, 2002.

5.    Weekly assignment of research articles from journals such as Nature, Science, Geology, Geophysics Research Letters, Journal of Geophysical Research.


Weekly lecture schedule (tentative):








Reading List (to be updated)



Organizational meeting, discussion of potential topics for term projects.


Distribute a list of suggested topics by the instructor





Review of elasticity, elastodynamics; Earthquake source characteristics: (1) focal mechanism and moment tensor, magnitude and moment, (2) source spectra, rupture directivity, energy budget




Earthquake source characteristics: (3) earthquake statistics (Gutenberg-Richter relation, Omori's law), scaling relations, earthquake probability calculation


Research proposal due



Introduction to seismic signal processing (1) Fourier transform, frequency filter, convolution, error analysis, spectral analysis, corner frequency and stress drop estimates


Computer Lab 1: seismic signal analysis



Introduction to seismic signal processing (2) focal mechanism solutions (first-arrivals and waveform inversion), seismicity relocation, waveform cross-correlation, (3) make GMT plots.



Return commented proposals, finalize research project topics



Earthquake cycle deformation, a spectrum of fault slip from steady loading to dynamic rupture, different ways to observe earthquake cycle deformation (seismometers, GPS, InSAR...), interplate and intraplate earthquakes



Computer Lab 2:

(1) Geodetic inversion using Plate Boundary Observatory GPS time series, application to slow slip events in Cascadia subduction zone, or, (2) Earthquake stress transfer calculation using USGS Coulomb stress software.

Possibly to merge with inter-university course EPSC 551: “ANATOMY OF FAULT ZONES” (lecture time changes to Mondays 1:30-3:30PM for two weeks: 02/07 and 02/14)




Triggered and induced seismicity, static and dynamic perturbations,

Coulomb stress calculation.


Computer Lab 1 due



Earthquake rupture process: fracture mechanics and friction (lab and model)




Reading week, no class






Slow earthquakes and super-shear ruptures


Computer Lab 2 due



Earthquake Geology 1 (Fault friction, strength, brittle-ductile transition, effects of temperature and pressure at depths)

Rowe (?)

Possibly to merge with inter-university course EPSC 551: “ANATOMY OF FAULT ZONES” (lecture time changes to Mondays 1:30-3:30PM for two weeks: 02/07 and 02/14)




Earthquake Geology 2 (topics: fault drilling projects. Sedimentary records and paleo-seismology?)


Rowe (?)

Term paper draft due (week 12)



Volcanic earthquakes and non-volcanic tremors.

Harrington (?)

May move class to an earlier time (March 27?)



Glacier earthquakes and transient ice sheet deformation. Outstanding questions in seismology. Earthquake prediction, early warning, earthquake engineering.


Return commented papers (week 14)


04/11 04/13

Student presentations







Classes end on April 11 (Tuesday)


Academic integrity

McGill University values academic integrity. Therefore, all students must understand the meaning and consequences of cheating, plagiarism and other academic offences under the Code of Student Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures (see www.mcgill.ca/students/srr/honest for more information). In accord with McGill University's Charter of Students' Rights, students in this course have the right to submit in English or in French any written work that is to be graded. Your instructors reserve the right to verify the originality of submitted work.