The Danger of Earthquakes

Tremors in the Middle East cause concern for California


(Photo from the Daily Maverick)

In the early morning of Feb. 6, Syria and Turkey were rocked by a deadly 7.8 magnitude earthquake. Two weeks later, a 6.3 magnitude quake caused additional injuries and damage.   

Currently, the death toll is over 47,000 and climbing, with 87,000 injuries reported. 

The cities also took a big hit: around 47,000 buildings were severely damaged in both countries.

“Most importantly, the incredible damage and terrible loss of life were due to the fact that the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria were tremendously powerful,” AP Human Geography teacher Louis Harley said. “Earthquakes in that part of the world are common, but a 7.8 followed by a 7.7 just hours later is very unusual. These were the largest earthquakes to hit [Turkey and Syria] since the 1600s.”

California is known for earthquakes—strong ones—but none have been this destructive. 

“To put this in context, our last big earthquake almost 20 years ago was the 6.7 Northridge quake,” Harley explained, “a much less powerful quake that still caused about $50 billion in damages.”

California keeps earthquakes in mind when constructing new buildings, as many codes are in place to keep them intact in the case of an earthquake. 

However, Turkey wasn’t as prepared. 

“Secondly, many buildings in Turkey were either older buildings unable to survive major earthquakes or newer construction that failed to follow modern earthquake guidelines. It’s not unusual for building construction in developing countries like Turkey to completely avoid construction laws and guidelines due to corruption and the lack of inspectors,” Harley said. 

As for who is to blame for the immense damage, Harley has found that “12 Turkish building contractors have been arrested for faulty construction of buildings that collapsed.” 

The government has issued more arrest warrants for contractors and there are ongoing investigations related to building collapses. 

Though Turkey and Syria were hit by the same magnitude, Syria’s situation is arguably tougher. 

“In Syria, a country wrecked by a decade of civil war, the situation is even more grim,” Harley said. “In parts of Syria, there is no organized government presence and there have been no building regulations enforced for many years. Here, buildings quickly collapsed and we don’t know the real extent of the damage.”

California’s history is riddled with earthquakes, making many wonder how an earthquake similar to the one in Syria and Turkey could affect Californians. 

Marta Wood teaches Marine Biology and shed some light on how California experiences seismic activity. 

“Syria and Turkey lie on a transform fault, which is the same type of fault line that lies in California,” Wood said. “Transform faults, like the San Andreas Fault, are a little different in the way that they don’t come together or spread apart like convergent or divergent boundaries, they slide past each other. Because of that they build up a little more friction because they never stop grinding up against each other.”

It’s possible for the San Andreas fault to produce an earthquake with a magnitude as high as 8.2. 

The last high-magnitude earthquake that California experienced was the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which leaves the state waiting for the next one. 

“Historically, high magnitude earthquakes along the San Andreas fault happen every 150-200 years, so we are due for a big one. When miles of slab rub up against each other we have little earthquakes, but the fault is due for a bigger shift,” Wood said. 

Although California’s buildings are better prepared than those in Syria and Turkey, damages and deaths are still a possibility for the future. 

According to an article in the LA Times, a large earthquake would “bring disaster to all of Southern California simultaneously, with the fault rupturing from near the Mexican border to Monterey County.”