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The unusual case of the Mexican subduction zone
Mexico is located on one of Earth's subduction zones, where the ocean floor of the Cocos tectonic plate is forcing its way down ("subducting") beneath the continental edge of the North American plate. Subduction zones are prone to large earthquakes, for the two plates grind against each other, sometimes sticking together ("locking"), the lower plate pulling the upper plate down with it and thus building up stress. When the stress builds to the breaking point, the upper plate breaks free and springs back to where it had been, thus lifting the ocean floor. This produces an earthquake and sometimes a tsunami (see animation). The lower plate moves slowly, only about 6 cm/year, about as fast as fingernails grow. Thus it takes hundreds of years for stress to build up before causing a large earthquake.
Last modified May 14, 2009
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