Turkey-Syria earthquake was impossible to predict, expert reveals why

An interview with Dr. Zoe Mildon brings us closer to understanding the Turkey-Syria earthquake.
Sade Agard
Collapsed buildings on February 07, 2023 in Hatay, Turkey
Collapsed buildings on February 07, 2023 in Hatay, Turkey

Burak Kara/Getty Images  

On February 6, around 4:17 am local time, a severe 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, shocking a large portion of both countries quite literally- as they were asleep. A few hours later, a 7.5 magnitude earthquake struck, sending shockwaves as far as Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Cyprus.

With the death toll now surpassing 7,000 and set to rise, as well as over 15,000 injured, naturally, we wonder: what could have caused earthquakes of this scale? Could they have been predicted to help prevent the estimated collapse of 6,000 buildings and, more significantly, the loss of life? 

Interesting Engineering (IE) spoke with Dr. Zoe Mildon, an Associate Professor in Earth Sciences at the University of Plymouth, UK, whose research focuses on earthquake dynamics.

What is the Turkey-Syria earthquake?

Turkey-Syria earthquake was impossible to predict, expert reveals why
The faults: Turkey is seismically active

Mildon explained to IE that earthquakes happen along faults which are lines of weakness in the Earth's crust.

Most of Turkey is located on the Anatolian plate, sandwiched between the North Anatolian Fault and the East Anatolian Fault. "The fault which moved during the Turkey-Syria earthquake is called the East Anatolian fault," she said.

She added that an earthquake occurs when tectonic stress, built up over hundreds or thousands of years, is released.

When was the last time Turkey experienced an earthquake of similar magnitude?

Mildon highlighted that Turkey is known to be a seismically active country. Still, most recent (i.e., in the last century) earthquakes have occurred along the North Anatolian fault, which runs east-west across the North of the country.

"The last earthquake of a similar scale was in 1999, centered around the city of Izmit, this was a magnitude 7.6 earthquake, and 17,000 people lost their lives," she said. 

The area affected by Monday's earthquake hadn't experienced a similarly large earthquake- at least not one experienced in the lifetimes of the current local population. "But, from historical records, there is evidence of similar-sized earthquakes occurring hundreds of years ago," she revealed.

Mildon also expressed that aftershocks (subsequent earthquakes) always occur after large-magnitude earthquakes. Therefore, more small earthquakes are expected in the area over the following days or weeks.

Could the Turkey-Syria earthquake have been predicted?

"Earthquakes cannot be predicted, certainly not to the precision of knowing when and where an earthquake will occur," she stated. 

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Based on previously observed earthquakes, seismologists and geologists can make broad predictions about the regions where earthquakes are more or less likely to occur. The tremors of yesterday, however, could not have been accurately foreseen.

She said, "there is no way that the earthquakes yesterday could have been precisely predicted."

What are the biggest hazards of earthquakes?

Many factors affect how hazardous an earthquake will be and the effect one will have on the local population, Mildon said.

"This earthquake was quite shallow (~10-kilometer depth); therefore, the ground shaking at the surface would have been more intense than if the earthquake had been deeper," she explained.

Additionally, "the earthquake happened while people were sleeping, so people are likely to have been slower to react to the initial shaking."

Why did so many buildings collapse in the Turkey-Syria earthquake?

Mildon highlighted that it is possible to build earthquake-resilient buildings, and many earthquake-prone countries around the world do have building codes to reduce the risk of buildings totally collapsing during earthquakes. 

"From my observations of photographs and footage in the media, some buildings remained standing relatively intact when others nearby had collapsed," she said. 

We know that in the ten provinces of Turkey, the quake on Monday caused at least 6,000 buildings, including hospitals and other public facilities, to collapse. This begs the question: could more have been done to stop the devastation?

It turns out that Turkey's president Mr. Erdogan had made robust building a political priority ever since the 1999 Izmit earthquake and the subsequent 2020 Aegean coast earthquake that killed 114 people. However, there is significant doubt as to whether some rules were upheld, given the level of destruction shown over the last few days.

Additionally, Roger Musson, an honorary research associate at the British Geological Survey, told AFP that the construction of the buildings in Turkey was not "really adequate for an area that's susceptible to large earthquakes." 

Mildon told IE that the "advice from the USGS (The United States Geological Survey) is that if you feel an earthquake and are inside a building, you should 'Drop, Cover and Hold' until the shaking stops, and then leave the building."

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