Israel inaugurates earthquake warning system

Many buildings in the north still remain at high risk in case of earthquakes.

 View of damage caused to houses in the city of Tiberias and the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilea, in northern Israel, after earthquakes shook the area, on July 9, 2018. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
View of damage caused to houses in the city of Tiberias and the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilea, in northern Israel, after earthquakes shook the area, on July 9, 2018.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Israel’s east is overdue for a powerful earthquake, and the government is finally making preparations for the day the big one strikes.

Prof. Michael Tsesarsky of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba told The Media Line, “We have a statistical estimate of about one major earthquake every century in this area, along the Dead Sea tectonic fault.”

The Dead Sea fault forms part of the boundary between the African and Arabian plates. The last severe earthquake took place in 1927, with the epicenter in the Jericho area, and the one before that was the Galilee earthquake of 1837, centered close to the city of Safed, Tsesarsky said, adding that both caused great damage.

“So we are within the time frame of the next [big] earthquake. We cannot say when exactly it will strike, but we can say that with every day that passes, the probability rises,” he continued.

Tsesarsky said that in the worst case, we can expect to see a quake of 7.5 on the Richter scale, and according to a more optimistic scenario, one of about 6-6.5 in magnitude.

A view shows houses destroyed following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti August 14, 2021. (credit: REUTERS)A view shows houses destroyed following a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in Les Cayes, Haiti August 14, 2021. (credit: REUTERS)

Earthquakes are measured using logarithmic scales, meaning one of 7.5 in magnitude is much more powerful than one of 6.5. Each whole-number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in the measured amplitude of waves recorded by seismographs and an increase of about 31.6 times in the amount of energy released.

The IDF Front Home Command conducted an earthquake drill on Monday morning in the Jordan Valley; Kiryat Shmona, Beit She’an, Acre and Nesher in the North; and Arad and Dimona in the southern Negev Desert, to test warning sirens it is hoped will sound shortly ahead of a large quake, giving residents time to position themselves in as safe a place as possible.

Because of a technical issue, the Home Front Command dropped plans to send out a test alert on its mobile app.

Ran Nof, a seismologist at the Geological Survey of Israel, the body that implemented this earthquake warning system, told The Media Line it was launched last week.

Its core algorithm was developed at the University of California, Berkeley, he explained. “The algorithm is already being used on the West Coast in the US; in Israel, it was adjusted and implemented in the Israeli seismic network operated by the Geological Survey,” Nof said.

He clarified that the warning system launch and the drill were not put in motion because of the several temblors recently experienced by Israel and neighboring countries. The small quakes did, however, encourage the Survey to accelerate the launch, but it had been working on the warning system for several years, Nof acknowledged.

“The Geological Survey has been promoting the early alert system for the past 15 years, after a long adapting, upgrading, and testing process. On January 27, the system was finally connected to the IDF Home Front Command, which is responsible for disseminating the alerts to the population through its app and the sirens distributed across the country,” he added.

Nof said that when an alert is received, citizens should try to exit buildings in a safe manner. If that is not possible, they should go to the closest bomb shelter, and if that is also not possible, they should take cover under furniture or something else solid.

However, some experts believe the early warning system might not be enough to prevent the death of hundreds or even thousands if a strong earthquake strikes. Tsesarsky said that the solution is much more complicated than a drill or an early warning system that would give people a few seconds to act.

“The government should invest money in the structural rehabilitation in the high-risk areas,” he said.

It is well known which segments of the Dead Sea fault are at the most risk, Tsesarsky explained. Northern Israel is one of them, he added.

Not enough effort and money have been invested by the government to rehabilitate the structures in danger in these areas, he said.

Israel has a building code called Standard SI 413, designed to make structures earthquake-resistant. The problem, Tsesarsky said, is that this code only became effective in 1980, and around 100,000 buildings in Israel, built before then, are in great danger.

Then there is the Tama 38 program, which encourages apartment owners to remodel pre-1980 structures to be earthquake-resistant, by allowing them to add or expand apartments.

However, Tsesarsky pointed out that the program has been most active in places where real estate values are high, principally in the greater Tel Aviv area, which is at less risk of quake damage.

The areas at greater risk, such as the cities of Kiryat Shmona, Tiberias, and Beit She’an, have seen little investment under the project since there is less economic incentive there, he explained.

That is why the state should take a more active role, Tsesarsky thinks.

“It will cost several million shekels, but it would save many, many lives,” he said. “In the end, it is all about money; the numbers are known.”

Nof urged people to also take greater responsibility for protecting themselves.

“Earthquakes are natural hazards. We cannot stop or control them; we can only prepare for them. That is why it is also the population’s responsibility to be prepared and informed so they can take action when they receive the alerts.”