There are three main types of fault that may cause an earthquake: normal, reverse (thrust) and strike-slip. Normal and reverse faulting are examples of dip-slip, where the displacement along the fault is in the direction of dip and movement on them involves a vertical component. Normal faults occur mainly in areas where the crust is being extended such as a divergent boundary. Reverse faults occur in areas where the crust is being shortened such as at a convergent boundary. Strike-slip faults are steep structures where the two sides of the fault slip horizontally past each other; transform boundaries are a particular type of strike-slip fault. Many earthquakes are caused by movement on faults that have components of both dip-slip and strike-slip; this is known as oblique slip.
Reverse faults, particularly those along convergent plate boundaries are associated with the most powerful earthquakes, including almost all of those of magnitude 8 or more. Strike-slip faults, particularly continental transforms can produce major earthquakes up to about magnitude 8. Earthquakes associated with normal faults are generally less than magnitude 7.
This is so because the energy released in an earthquake, and thus its magnitude, is proportional to the area of the fault that ruptures and the stress drop. Therefore, the longer the length and the wider the width of the faulted area, the larger the resulting magnitude. The topmost, brittle part of the Earth’s crust, and the cool slabs of the tectonic plates that are descending down into the hot mantle, are the only parts of our planet which can store elastic energy and release it in fault ruptures. Rocks hotter than about 300 degrees Celsius flow in response to stress, they do not rupture in earthquakes. The maximum observed lengths of ruptures and mapped faults, which may break in one go are approximately 1000 km. Examples are the earthquakes in Chile, 1960; Alaska, 1957; Sumatra, 2004, all in subduction zones. The longest earthquake ruptures on strike-slip faults, like the San Andreas Fault (1857, 1906), the North Anatolian Fault in Turkey (1939) and the Denali Fault in Alaska (2002), are about half to one third as long as the lengths along subducting plate margins, and those along normal faults are even shorter.