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Wednesday, December 1, 2021

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Experts weigh in on recent earthquakes


Regions of the world where buildings are not designed to stand earthquakes tend to have more deaths and structural damages, such as those seen in the January earthquake in Haiti. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The earthquake scare began in January with a 7.0 magnitude in Haiti and then progressed in February to an 8.8 magnitude in Chile, and it all starts with a release of energy in the Earth’s crust that creates seismic waves.

Earthquake activity also extends to the U.S., specifically in California, Washington and Alaska, but Texas remains at low risk.

“Texas is at a relatively low risk of earthquakes. In contrast to California, it is not close to the boundary of a tectonic plate,” UH geology professor Kevin Burke said. “Strain accumulates relatively quickly at plate boundaries, and rocks on the boundaries break relatively frequently, generating earthquakes.”

The largest earthquake in Texas was near the city of Valentine in 1931 and reached a 5.8 magnitude. A schoolhouse, which consisted of one section of concrete blocks and another section of bricks, had to be rebuilt due to the damage. Property damage was reported from the city and surrounding areas, and landslides occurred as far away as Carlsbad, N.M.

According to the United States Geological Survey’s Web site, there are several reasons for the perception that the number of earthquakes, specifically destructive ones, is increasing.

“In the last 20 years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year,” Burke said. “This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications.”

Due to the increase in global communication, news regarding natural disasters such as an earthquake’s devastation travels faster.

“Just a few decades ago, if several hundred people were killed by an earthquake in Indonesia or eastern China, for example, the media in the rest of the world would not know about it until several days to weeks later, long after such an event would be deemed ‘newsworthy,’” Burke said. “So by the time this information was available, it would probably be relegated to the back pages of the newspaper, if at all. And the public Internet didn’t even exist. We are now getting this information almost immediately.”

He added that alternate forms of earthquakes could be created.

“Seismologists, people who study earthquakes, are mostly skeptical about the idea that a ‘recent’ concentration of ‘earthquake activity’ is anything more than part of normal statistical variation,” Burke said. “But some recent observations indicate that there may be processes that generate concentrations of earthquakes in relatively short intervals of time.”

More damages and deaths from earthquakes occur in other parts of the world because buildings are poorly designed and constructed for earthquake-hot-spot regions with high population densities.

Although earthquakes cannot be predicted, according to the USGS Web site, probabilities can be calculated for potential future earthquakes. Scientists estimate that over the next 30 years, the probability of a major earthquake occurring in the San Francisco Bay area is 67 percent and 60 percent in Southern California.

“Earthquakes are not predictable in a short time period. But the distribution of earthquakes on the earth is well known,” geophysics graduate professor Aibing Li said. “The areas that are prone to earthquakes should have a hazard-zoning map and building codes for different zones. The most effective way to prepare for an earthquake is to build strong buildings.”

The USGS focuses on long-term mitigation of earthquake hazards rather than short-term to help improve the strength and stability of structures.

Since earthquakes can happen in any weather at any time of the year, the American Red Cross has regulations for earthquake safety.

“Drop, cover and hold under a table or desk is the best recommendation,” according to the American Red Cross. “It is the simplest, reliable and easiest method to teach people, including children.”

According to the American Red Cross, victims of an earthquake should also try not to move or escape as it is happening. The longer distance that someone tries to move, the more likely they are to become injured by falling or flying debris, tripping, falling or getting cut by damaged floors, walls and items in the path of escape.

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