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Column: Earthquakes happen, but cities can lessen the damage
Rudi Kiefer

Urgent news from other parts of the world overshadowed the deadly earthquake that struck eastern Turkey on January 24. At magnitude 6.7, the quake was a major one, unleashing power comparable to the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Early reports from the epicenter in the city of Elazig listed 18 deaths and 500 injuries. 

East of Istanbul, Earth’s architecture has a troublesome arrangement. The African plate, which holds the entire African continent, is pushing northward towards its larger Eurasian counterpart. But an additional fault line creates the separate Anatolia plate. It’s much smaller than the African one. Like two floating logs colliding on a river, the lesser one is forced partly below the surface. This doesn’t happen smoothly. Plates bump and grind against each other. Just a few feet of ground movement constitute a devastating quake. “Earthquakes don’t kill people,” seismologists often say. “Buildings do.” 

Students sometimes misread the literature and quote “the problem of being located on a tectonic plate.” But everything in the world is on some plate. The trouble zones are where those plates collide and tear away at one another. On the North American continent, such a plate boundary runs the length from the tip of the Alaskan Coast all the way to Central America. In Alaska, the thin layer of solid crust underneath the Pacific Ocean plunges beneath the steep continental rock mass. One of the most powerful earthquakes in human history destroyed the harbor and much of the city of Anchorage on March 27, 1964. November 13, 2018 was a reminder when a less powerful but still major quake shook the area again.

California’s San Francisco Bay area is an even greater concern. More than 100 towns house a population of 6.4 million people. Farther south, in the Los Angeles Basin, the fault lines slide continuously, releasing built-up pressure. But in San Francisco, the main fault won’t budge. When it finally does break under the continuous stress, a repeat of the 1906 disaster is inevitable. However, San Francisco alone is home to one million residents now, vastly more than the 50,000 of the early 1900’s. 

We cannot predict earthquakes, much less prevent them. But we can identify buildings likely to collapse, and remove the greatest hazards. This is where the U.S. could play a proactive role in preventing a massive victim count among our fellow citizens.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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