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Understanding earthquakes with a seismologist

After the Turkey-Syria earthquake, there have been many questions, concerns and conspiracies. To answer these questions, a seismologist might have some of the answers.

It has been over two weeks since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern and central Turkey and western Syria. Over 40,000 people have died in Turkey and more than 5,000 in Syria, and the toll is rising. People are still being searched for and rescued, and donations and appeals are still needed.

A few days ago, Turkey was hit by two more earthquakes with magnitudes of 6.4 and 5.8.

Why is Turkey prone to earthquakes?

A 7.6 earthquake struck the Kocaeli Province of Turkey in 1999 in İzmit, resulting in almost 18,000 deaths. What many might not know is that Turkey is a seismically active area.

‘It’s because of the tectonics where Turkey’s created,’ says earthquake seismologist Ezgi Karasozen. It’s not just Turkey. Nations surrounding the country, including Iran, are also earthquake-prone.’

Earthquakes happen because the slow and steady motions of tectonic plates cause stresses to build up along faults in the Earth’s crust. The pressure causes friction due to the weight of overlaying rocks holding these cracks together. When the stress overcomes the friction, the two sides slip past each other, causing a sudden release of energy in the form of an earthquake.

Ezgi explains that Turkey lies in a complex collision zone where three tectonic plates meet: Anatolian, Arabian, and African. The Arabian and African plates move northwards, compressing the Anatolian plate, where most of Turkey is. Because of this collision, the Anatolian plate escapes to the west along two major faults.

The recent earthquakes happened on the 500 km long East Anatolian Fault, which lies in the collusion boundary between Arabia and Anatolia.

For her PhD, Ezgi worked on Iran and Turkey’s earthquakes and now monitors landslides for the Alaska Earthquakes Centre in Fairbanks. She was also born in the Turkish capital of Ankara.

When she received news of the earthquake, Ezgi knew it was going to be bad. ‘I burst into tears,’ says Ezgi. ‘I felt so powerless.’

Neglecting building codes

One thing that frustrated Ezgi was that the infrastructure damage shouldn’t have been this high.

‘It’s a large magnitude earthquake. We would be seeing damage,’ says Ezgi. ‘But most of my colleagues also agree on the fact that the damage extent shouldn’t be this much.’

Reports estimate that at least 6,400 buildings have been destroyed across the two nations, and poor enforcement of seismic codes contributed to the devastation in Turkey.

Seismic or earthquake codes are building regulations made to protect property and life in buildings in case of earthquakes. After the 1999 İzmit earthquake, a new seismic code was created to protect against earthquakes in Turkey.

Most of these codes worldwide are similar in designing buildings to help endure an earthquake.

While the code was strengthened in 2007, it was alleged that builders often ignored the rules due to corruption. The regulations were strengthened again in the 2018 Turkish Seismic Code, and foreign experts said the code was very modern and similar to US codes. But that doesn’t mean the codes were well enforced.

The same year, the government offered amnesties for building code violations to increase election support. A practice that would turn cities into graveyards.

Support column failure in buildings made way for pancake-type collapses, complicating rescue efforts.

Although over three million housing units nationwide were strengthened in the two decades before 2023, many apartment blocks do not meet 21st century standards – especially in the many older buildings.

Ezgi pointed out an apartment listing online, stating in capital letters that the building satisfied all the required and latest building codes. But that same building collapsed when the earthquake struck.

‘It is very challenging to buy a house, to begin with, right,’ says Ezgi. ‘If you’re living in an earthquake-prone region, you would check for whether it is up for building code.’

‘When you see that it says this was built up to the building code, it should be. You wouldn’t do another research or investigation to make sure it is actually.’

‘It’s not easy to pay attention to every detail.’

As a seismologist, it’s Ezgi’s job to study the shock waves created by earthquakes and determine factors that contribute to or foretell an earthquake. She finds it frustrating that people aren’t playing their role in preventing devastation.

‘We as earthquake seismologists are doing our part, like doing the research and then highlighting where the earthquakes are gonna be,’ says Ezgi. ‘There are really good top-notch scientists that work in Turkey that say these should be the building codes.’

‘There’s sort of like, detachment almost, that this information maybe doesn’t carry through, or people who are supposed to enforce these building codes don’t do their part.

Debunking conspiracy theories behind earthquakes

Along with the revelation of poor infrastructure came the conspiracy theories and myths surrounding the earthquake, mainly that they can be predicted.

‘That’s not real,’ says Ezgi. ‘No, we can’t predict an earthquake.’

‘I wish we could. I mean, that would make all of our jobs much easier, but that’s not the case.’

A tweet started circulating on Twitter of a user saying there would be a 7.5 magnitude earthquake soon in the region of South-Central Turkey, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. There are claims predictions can be made from planetary alignments.

While this tweet was made three days before the earthquake struck, there is no scientific basis for earthquake predictions. There are always chances for earthquakes to happen in areas with active faults.

‘I mean “soon” is not a prediction, right? You need to give some date, time and where it’s going to happen,’ says Ezgi. ‘Planets are too far away to create a force to trigger an earthquake.’

Most earthquakes strike without warning because the faults in the Earth’s crust are locked up and stationary, despite the strain of plates moving around them. The plates are, therefore, silent until the rupture begins, and seismologists have not found any reliable signal to measure before that initial break.

While we can’t predict earthquakes, Ezgi says we can forecast them. Forecasting tells you the chance or the probability of the range of future earthquakes in a given region, including their magnitude and how often they will occur over a specified period.

‘We can forecast that an earthquake will happen in so many years in a portion of folds,’ says Ezgi. ‘That’s what we can do, and that’s what we did for this region as well.’

Remembering the damage that comes with earthquakes

It has been over two weeks since the initial earthquake, and as a seismologist from Turkey, Ezgi has accepted that something like this has happened.

Along with the delay in rescue, Ezgi has one point she thinks is important here: she doesn’t want the same mistakes repeated from the past.

‘We need to find a better way, on all of our parts, to make sure that is not going to happen again, in the sense that the devastation is not going to be that big, she says. ‘We need to be more resilient on that, I think.’

After the negligence of seismic codes, Ezgi wants people to remember this earthquake and the damage that came along with it.

‘I think it’s in human nature to forget,’ says Ezgi. ‘This is part of our lives. Earthquakes don’t have to be scary and don’t have to be this devastating if we do everything properly.’

‘There are lots of lessons that we could learn from this and then hopefully make things better.’

‘These are our lives, and we are trying to learn from each of these events.’