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Why was the latest earthquake in Turkey so devastating?

Many people in Turkey who were affected by the earthquake live in structures that are extremely likely to be damaged by shaking.

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Image: Suhaib Salem/Reuters

Deaths in earthquakes are often caused by falling bricks and masonry. Many people in Turkey who were affected by the earthquake live in structures that are extremely likely to be damaged by shaking, with unreinforced brick masonry and low-rise concrete frames. Seismologists consider Turkey a tectonically active area, where three tectonic plates—the Anatolia, Arabia, and Africa plates—touch and interact with each other. The two major fault lines surrounding the North Anatolian Fault and the East Anatolian Fault which has a slip rate of between 6 and 10 millimetres per year—are gradually squeezing the country westward toward the Mediterranean Sea. Yet, many buildings in the region are not built to withstand large earthquakes, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS), making the destruction worse.

The area of Turkey and Syria that has been hardest hit by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks is known for having big quakes, but it had been decades since one this large last hit. The Turkish authorities are currently compiling lists of persons liable for prosecution in connection to the shoddy building construction. There are of course people who bear the blame, but this comes off as a witch hunt. Why were they allowed to get construction permits? Why were the faulty plans approved? Who approved them? Didn’t any civil engineers check the building’s progress? Is it possible that no one knew the constructions were NOT earthquake safe? How could a government be so criminally indifferent to huge blocks being built, later to be proven as solid as sand castles? Blame should be sought from the top, but that is highly unlikely to happen.


Also read: Germany to issue emergency visas to Turkish, and Syrian earthquake victims


Too many people died because of criminal decisions at all levels of government and guild. The Arabian Peninsula is part of a tectonic plate that is making its way north into the Eurasian Plate, and the entire nation of Turkey is getting squeezed aside.  That tectonic shift has been behind earthquakes for millennia in the area, including one that flattened the Syrian city of Aleppo in 1138. More recent quakes, such as the 1999 one that struck the city of Izmir, have killed many thousands. Most of the largest earthquakes in the past hundred years have been along the North Anatolian Fault.

But stress has been building along another major fault: the East Anatolian Fault. That fault has seen some big earthquakes in the past, says Patricia Martínez-Garzón, a seismologist at GFZ Potsdam, a research centre in Germany. But more recently, there hasn’t been as much activity. Some researchers had begun to suspect the fault was due to a major quake, according to Fatih Bulut, with the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. His research group and others had run computer models showing that this fault could have a magnitude 7.4 or greater earthquake. But that doesn’t mean that seismologists could say exactly when a big one would hit, according to Ian Main, a seismologist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom.

In 1999, a magnitude-7.4 earthquake hit 11 kilometres southeast of Izmit, Turkey, killing more than 17,000 people and leaving more than 250,000 homeless. After this tragedy, the Turkish government introduced new building codes and a compulsory earthquake insurance system. However, many of the buildings affected by this week’s quake were built before 2000, says Mustafa Erdik, a civil engineer at Boğaziçi University, Turkey. Things are worse in Syria, where more than 11 years of conflict have made building standards impossible to enforce. The earthquake struck Syria’s north-western regions, with buildings collapsing in Aleppo and Idlib. Some war-damaged buildings in Syria have been rebuilt using low-quality materials or “whatever materials are available.

Researchers say people need to brace themselves for yet more quakes and aftershocks, as well as deteriorating weather. The possibility of major aftershocks causing even more damage will continue for weeks and months. Earthquakes occur when the movement of tectonic plates creates a sudden, rapid displacement of the Earth’s crust. Tectonic plates are large pieces of the Earth’s lithosphere (the rigid outer layer of the planet) that fit together like a puzzle. These plates move and interact with one another along plate boundaries, causing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the creation of mountain ranges.

The region of Turkey and Syria is located along the boundary of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, making it a highly seismic area with a history of powerful earthquakes. The earthquakes that occur in this region are caused by the movement of these tectonic plates and the release of pent-up energy stored in the Earth’s crust. In addition to plate boundary earthquakes, there are also interpolate earthquakes that occur within the plates themselves, caused by the adjustment of stresses within the plate.


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Vaidehi Taman
Vaidehi Tamanhttps://authorvaidehi.com
Vaidehi Taman an Accredited Journalist from Maharashtra is bestowed with three Honourary Doctorate in Journalism. Vaidehi has been an active journalist for the past 21 years, and is also the founding editor of an English daily tabloid – Afternoon Voice, a Marathi web portal – Mumbai Manoos, and The Democracy digital video news portal is her brain child. Vaidehi has three books in her name, "Sikhism vs Sickism", "Life Beyond Complications" and "Vedanti". She is an EC Council Certified Ethical Hacker, OSCP offensive securities, Certified Security Analyst and Licensed Penetration Tester that caters to her freelance jobs.
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