A process that began 50 million years ago– the slow motion breakup of the Indo-Australian tectonic plate into two pieces–isn’t over yet. In fact, they think it caused the two massive April 11 earthquakes beneath the Indian Ocean off the coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The first quake was a magnitude 8.7, 20 times more powerful than California’s long anticipated "big one." It tore a complex network of faults deep in the ocean floor. The violence triggered unusually large aftershocks thousands of miles away, off the US West Coast.

The quake lasted 2 minutes and 40 seconds (most last just seconds) and was followed by a second main shock, of magnitude 8.2, two hours later. In the September 27th edition of the Los Angeles Times, Monte Morin quotes planetary scientist Thorne Lay as saying, "It was jaw-dropping. It was like nothing we’d ever seen."

It took seismologists completely by surprised and at first Lay wondered whether the computer code he used to analyze earthquakes was wrong. Most great earthquakes occur along plate borders, where one plate dives beneath the adjoining plate. However, the April 11 quakes occurred in the middle of the plate.

Unlike the huge earthquake that struck in the same region in 2004 and created a deadly tsunami, the April 11 quakes did not cause similar destruction.

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