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Will humanity have the capacity to predict earthquakes?

Opinion & Analysis
The death toll so far makes the Turkey-Syria earthquake the deadliest and most destructive in recent history.

ON February 7, the world woke up to news that a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale had rocked Turkey and Syria and left massive casualties and huge trail of destruction. 

More than 25 000 people were, by the end of last week, estimated to have been killed by the earthquake with the number expected to rise as search and rescue operations, amid aftershocks, continue in both countries. The death toll so far makes the Turkey-Syria earthquake the deadliest and most destructive in recent history.

There have been larger ones before with varying degrees of impact on casualties, destruction, and global threat. In April 2015, a 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal killing more than 8 800 people. In March 2011, a 9.0 earthquake rocked Japan triggering a tsunami and killing more than 18 400 people.

The 2011 Japan earthquake raised a global threat at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Ōkuma. The result was the most severe nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, classified as level seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) after initially being classified as level five, and thus joining Chernobyl as the only other accident to receive such classification.

Who can forget the December 26, 2004 earthquake that hit Indonesia at a magnitude of 9.1 triggering a massive Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people in 14 countries in one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. The direct results caused major disruptions to living conditions and commerce in coastal areas of surrounding countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

Banda Aceh in Indonesia reported the largest number of deaths. The earthquake was the third-largest ever recorded based upon seismographic measurements, the largest in the 21st century and had the longest duration of faulting ever observed, between eight and 10 minutes. It caused the planet to vibrate as much as 10mm and also remotely triggered earthquakes as far away as Alaska.

There has been several others in between and each of them has offered some lessons on how to, at least, prepare for their devastating impact. In Japan in 2011, for example, we learned the importance of investing in earthquake-proof buildings. With the Indonesia earthquake of 2004, we learned the importance of reading early warning signs and incorporating them into the preparedness and response plan.

With the recent earthquake in Turkey, it may be too early to proffer a view as people are still searching and mourning loved ones. 

However, what has been learned so far is that some parts of Turkey, mainly the recently affected area, are prone to earthquakes because they lie at the intersection of three earth plate tectonics which make up the Earth’s crust. And these are the Anatolian, Arabian and African plates. 

The Arabia earth tectonic is thought to be moving northwards into Europe, causing the Anatolian plate, on which Turkey lies, to be pushed out westwards. The movement of the tectonic plates builds up pressure on fault zones at their boundaries. It is the sudden release of this pressure that causes earthquakes and ground shaking. With this knowledge, perhaps Turkey could have avoided tall buildings for residential accommodation or at least learned from the Japanese on how they managed to build earthquake-proof buildings.

Japan is thought to be decades ahead in terms of making its buildings resilient to earthquakes and other shocks. It is known for earthquake-proof buildings, and this has helped Japan cope with numerous powerful quakes that would have caused massive death toll and destruction on property.

For example, one of the tallest buildings in the world, the Tokyo Skytree Tower, is believed to be completely earthquake-proof. This is because it uses seismic dampers on the structure's base which connect to a central pillar that can absorb an earthquake’s shocks. And for this reason and the rise in the frequency and severity of natural disasters, resilient construction is now on the global agenda across the world. 

With the recent Turkey-Syria earthquake, there has been a new phenomenon with some scientists arguing that there is a relationship between planetary movement and seismic activity. They have posited that what is being witnessed as seismic activity or earthquakes bear a co-relationship with the developments in the planet. One such scientist is the Dutch researcher, Frank Hoogerbeets, of the Solar System Geometry Survey (SSGS). On February 3, he posted on his Twitter account that: “Sooner or later, there will be an magnitude 7.5 earthquake in this region (South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon).” This turned out to be accurate as Turkey and Syria and other surrounding countries endured the wrath of a 7.8 earthquake. 

Even so, some scientists have continued to argue that the world does not have the capacity to predict earthquakes, thus dismissing Hoogerbeets’ predictions as chance or just hogwash. 

On February 9, he went on to predict the possibility of an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, before the Solomon Islands announced a 5.4 earthquake near Santa Cruz Islands. His planetary-seismic theory continues to be disputed even when some of his predictions turned out to be accurate. 

The United States of America’s Geological Survey (USGS) remains adamant that no one can predict an earthquake. 

“We do not know how, and we do not expect to know how any time in the foreseeable future,” they announced to the media.

“The USGS scientists can only calculate the probability that a significant earthquake will occur in a specific area within a certain number of years.”

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