On February 6, at 4:17 a.m., death came for thousands of people in their sleep. At that moment, 11 miles beneath the south-central Turkish city of Nurdagi–close to the Syrian border–a spark was launched into a geologic powder keg.
An epochal battle between tectonic plates had reached a crescendo. Two gigantic blocks, moving side by side in opposite directions, had been warping the crust for millions of years. They finally gave in to the darkness of night. The crust crumbled. A large swath of the expansive East Anatolian Fault Zone jolted, releasing pent-up energy equivalent to roughly 8 million tons of TNT. That’s more than twice the cumulative power of every single explosive, including both atomic weapons, used during World War II.
And it will again happen–and again and again. More than any other type of environmental or geologic disaster, earthquakes are unpredictable and difficult to predict. Hurricanes can be identified many days before they arrive, giving coastal communities time to evacuate. Scientists learn every year more about the types of convulsions and cacophonies that warn of imminent volcanic eruptions. We have the technical means in place to stop an asteroid of mid-size size capable of destroying entire countries from arriving at our door. But the science of seismology is simply too young to stop the next major quake, or the legion of quakes after that, from killing many thousands of people.
Already, estimates of the devastation in Turkey and Syria have exceeded 7,000 deaths; 23 million people have been directly affected. As corpses from destroyed homes are removed, the death toll is likely to rise, as people who remain alive, but have been buried under concrete bricks or snow, lose their heartbeats. Near the epicenter of the 7. 8-magnitude earthquake, the ground shook so forcefully that it registered close to the top end of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, a measure of how violent a quake feels at the surface. Then, about nine hours after the first big quake, a 7. 5-magnitude temblor lacerated another heavily populated part of Turkey just 60 miles away. Entire streets–mostly not built to withstand or resist such a momentous quake–were vaporized behind a veil of ash and dust.
Seismologists, watching from afar in horror, suspected that this was one of the largest quakes of its kind, as recorded by scientific instruments, to directly hit a largely populated area. Although they sometimes oversee disasters like this, these researchers are normally more akin to planetary linguists. As seismic waves rush away from earthquakes, nuclear blasts, or even crowds of people meandering about, they occasionally get gulped up by a seismometer at the surface, carrying traces of the events that created them and the types of matter they passed through on the way. Seismologists listen to these geologic yawps, songs, and whispers all the time, and attempt to interpret what they may be saying about their journeys and their origins. This has led to dramatic revelations about Earth’s internal architecture–but only recently. Earth’s mucilaginous mantle, slowly flowing beneath the crust, was first detected in 1889 from the movement of seismic waves. The liquid outer core was identified in 1914, and the solid inner core was first ascertained in 1936.
These discoveries, along with decades of painstaking analyses of seismic waves recorded across the world, have led to significant advances in understanding the physics of how both fault lines and volcanoes work. Over the past century, and particularly in the past few decades, major fault lines have been forensically mapped out, along with plenty of their smaller branches. Their movements and behavior are well established. But whereas volcanologists are getting better at forecasting roughly when and how even notoriously complex and mercurial volcanoes will erupt, earthquakes always come as ambushes.
Despite all their efforts, seismologists can’t predict when or where the next big quake is going to occur. Only the worst kind of fear-feeding, click-harvesting charlatans claim to possess such abilities. These probabilities are based on seismically active areas that have been extensively studied and heavily instrumented. For example, within the next 30 years, there is a 46 percent chance that a 7-magnitude quake will rock the Los Angeles area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. This is about as accurate as it gets.
As far as scientists can tell, quakes do not send up a flare before they tear the ground apart. Until these precursory signals are found–if they even exist–seismology will be predominantly a retrospective science, using data from sometimes-devastating temblors to incrementally improve our understanding of faults and their tectonic masters. The only certainty in seismology, for now, is that big quakes will continue to kill people for as long as our species exists. The tragedy of this week will continue to be repeated in Turkey, Syria and around the globe.
Geologic events show us how little control we have over our lives. These events can sweep us away easily and often, just like the sand grains that are at the mercy eternal waves. Prior to becoming a science journalist I was a volcanologist. Like many Earth- and space-science aficionados, I am beguiled by a solar system’s most extreme forces, including eruptions and asteroid strikes. Their destructive elements are usually tempered by moments of awe (for their spectacular dynamism, and the aesthetic and scientific marvels they provide) and optimism (because the better we understand these events, the more we can dilute their occasionally lethal demonstrations of power). However, earthquakes almost always bring undiluted dread.
Hundreds of millions will live in the Earth’s dangerous and active fault zones. However, this does not mean that humans are immune to the effects of powerful earthquakes. With proper investment and attention, houses and apartments can be constructed to resist the most deleterious effects of earthquakes. Even if just a small percentage of buildings don’t collapse the next time the ground lurches, a handful of families previously destined to die will be saved–a reward worth any price.
Will scientists ever warn the public to get out of harm’s way in the event of a seismic storm? Nobody knows, and you would be a fool to bet on it either way. All experts can do is try, and keep trying, despite the dread, despite the trepidation provided by that endlessly ticking tectonic clock. But if humanity can use seismometers to listen to the beating heart of Mars–another planet, tens of millions of miles from home–then we have earned the right to hope.
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