Eastern Mediterranean awaits inevitable big earthquake

The last major tremor occurred almost 1,000 years ago and the next one is about 600 years late.

By BENJAMIN PEIM / THE MEDIA LINE
January 18, 2011 22:25
4 minute read.
Boy skateboards on road shattered by 7.1 quake.

311_earthquake. (photo credit: Associated Press)

 
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Devastating earthquakes ripped through Chile and Haiti last year, killing thousands and leaving destroyed cities smoldering in their wake. Could something similar be in store for the countries of the eastern Mediterranean in the near future?

While the area that encompasses Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria has suffered destructive earthquakes before, the kind of tremors that scientists classify as great — between a magnitude of seven or eight on the Richter scale — haven’t ripped through the region in almost a millennium. The lull in activity means the Holy Land and the surrounding region could soon be in store for a deadly rocker, scientists say.

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“Most large earthquakes that are very destructive came in areas were there had been a long period of quiet, which is called a seismic gap,” Shmuel Marco, a professor of geophysics at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line.  “For Israel this is very worrying.” 

Israel’s National Infrastructure Ministry launched a campaign January 11 to heighten awareness of the danger. Television broadcasts show a mother holding her baby to the tune of Moonlight Sonata as toys on a shelf begin to shake, followed by crashing furniture and then mass of plaster falling onto an empty crib. “A major earthquake in Israel is just a matter of time,” a voiceover warns and then suggests what measures to take to protect yourself.

The ministry is planning to set up an early-warning system that will relay information from seismographs to the public in a matter of seconds. That should be enough time for people to leave their homes and/or enter a protected room, something homes constructed in the last two decades are required to have to protect against missile attacks.

The countries of the eastern Mediterranean sit on the Dead Sea Fault, a 1,100-kilometer (680-mile) line where two tectonic plates under the earth’s surface meet. When they rub together it causes earthquakes. Indeed, earthquakes have long been a part of the region’s history.  The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recounted in his writings of a massive earthquake in 33 B.C., which he said, probably exaggeratedly, killed 50,000 people.  Three more large earthquakes devastated the region, as well, in 363 AD, 749, and 1033 — roughly 400-year intervals. 

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While small earthquakes that can only be detected with seismological equipment rumble in the region every day, the last medium-sized earthquake to hit the region was in 1927, just north of the Dead Sea.  That earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.2, was one of the first in the region measured on the Richter scale, a 10-point scale that measures the energy released by earthquakes.

The 1927 tremor damaged buildings and killed hundreds in Jerusalem and Tiberias in Israel and Nablus in the West Bank. Another medium-sized earthquake struck in southern Lebanon in 1837, destroyed much of Safed, in present day northern Israel, and killed an estimate 4,000 people.   A 6.2 magnitude earthquake also struck 90 kilometers south of Aqaba in 1995.

But a large earthquake is long overdue, Marco said. “It will happen for sure, it’s only a question of when.”

Seismologists say the earthquake will probably strike between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, or in the Arava region, which stretches between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba on the Israeli-Jordanian border.  They also stress that a large earthquake would be felt by Israel’s neighbors, as well.

“Earthquakes are very democratic, they don’t discern political borders,” Marco said. “If one strikes in the Jordan Valley, then Amman, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would be hit more or less the same.” 

For its part, Jordan, Israel’s neighbor to the east, worries of a large magnitude earthquake striking along the fault line, as well.

“In Jordan we are concerned that an earthquake of this size could hit our region in the future,” Tawfiq Gh. Al-Yazjeen, the head of the Jordan Seismological Observatory and Geophysical Studies, told The Media Line in an e-mail.

In the wake of Israel’s response to last year’s forest fire in the Carmel, in which Israel had to request international assistance to contain the forest fire, Tel Aviv University’s Marco worries that Israel is ill-equipped for a future large earthquake.

“The preparation should be much better,” he said. “The Carmel fire exposed the lack of preparedness.”

Al-Yasjeen said Jordan, for its part, established an earthquake resistant “seismic building code” in 1987, which it updated in 2005.

In the 1970s Israel adopted similar building codes to those in California to make buildings earthquake-resistant, Marco said.  But many buildings in Israel were built before the 1970s, and scientists aren’t sure whether they can survive a large earthquake.

“As far as I know, our standards of construction are better than Haiti and Chile,” Marco said. “But Israel has a low enforcement level of the law, so maybe the newer buildings don’t have everything they need.”

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