18 ‘significant’ quakes in 24 days: Is the Earth shaking more and is a big jolt imminent?

So far, November has witnessed several earthquakes of which at least 18 are considered ‘significant’. They have caused the deaths of hundreds and left many injured and homeless. The frequency of such calamities has increased. How worried should we be?

FP Explainers November 24, 2022 19:43:37 IST
18 ‘significant’ quakes in 24 days: Is the Earth shaking more and is a big jolt imminent?

A rescuer walks amid rubble during the search for victims at a village hit by an earthquake-triggered landslide in Cianjur, West Java, Indonesia. More than 260 people died in the disaster and hundereds more were left injured. AP

It’s been a nervous November. Earthquakes have been rocking different parts of the world this month – 18 significant quakes and several other small temblors.

In the wee hours of Thursday, Meghalaya was hit by a 3.4-magnitude tremor. According to the National Center for Seismology, India’s nodal agency that monitors earthquakes, the movement of tectonic plates under the Earth’s surface was felt around 3:46 am in 37 kilometres east northeast of Tura. The depth of the earthquake was five km below the ground.

18 ‘significant’ quakes in 24 days

From Maharashtra’s Nashik (3.6 on the Richter scale) to Solomon Island’s Malango (7 on the Richter scale), from Turkey’s Duzce province (6.1 on the Richter scale) to Mexico’s Baja California (6.2 on the Richter scale), quake after quake have left the world shaken. The big one, of course, hit Indonesia’s main island of Java. Though it seemed moderate the 5.6 temblor caused massive damage, claiming more than 260 lives, leaving hundreds injured and several missing.

On Monday, another quake struck off the coast of Crete in Greece and what followed were fears of a tsunami. A similar warning was issued to an area on the Solomons coast within 300 metres of the epicentre.

18 significant quakes in 24 days Is the Earth shaking more and is a big jolt imminent

Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj

It makes one wonder if the frequency of quakes has increased.

According to data from United States Geological Survey’s Earthquake Hazards Program, there were 12 “significant” earthquakes in November last year. The survey designates “significant” earthquakes as those “determined by a combination of magnitude, the number of “Did You Feel It” responses, and PAGER (Prompt Assessment of Global Earthquakes for Response) alert level.

As compared to 2021, the temblors this year are more. Twelve were recorded in November last year. There have been 18 “significant” quakes in the past 24 days and this does not take into account the smaller ones like the tremors in Meghalaya or the jolt in Uttarakhand‘s Pithoragarh on 9 November.

The Uttarakhand was hit after a 6.3 quake shook Nepal, which claimed six lives and damaged houses. The Nepal incident occurred around 1.57 am on 9 November and it was the third in five hours.

Each time the termors became strong and the last quake was felt in Delhi, Gurugram, Noida and other parts of Uttar Pradesh.

18 significant quakes in 24 days Is the Earth shaking more and is a big jolt imminent

There have been 18 'significant' quakes that have been recorded in November 2022. The most casualties have been reported from the disaster in Indonesia. AP

The rise in the number of quakes

There is a rise in the number of quakes, yes. But is a big one coming?

According to a 2017 report in Guardian, activities like mining, nuclear explosions, and groundwater extraction has seen an increase in the number of human-induced quakes. The data said that over 728 in the past 149 years might have been caused because of human activities.

Scientists have also claimed that the cooling of the Earth causes contraction of the crust, which results in increased volcanic disturbances causing earthquakes.

But is there a reason to worry?

A temporary increase in seismicity is part of the normal fluctuation and is not an indication that a large earthquake is imminent. The increase in number is mostly because there are more seismic instruments to record the temblors, according to the US agency.

However, experts have from time to time raised an alarm of a possible big jolt.

18 significant quakes in 24 days Is the Earth shaking more and is a big jolt imminent

Experts have said that the next big earthquake is due in Tokyo. There is an estimated 70 per cent chance of a magnitude-7 quake hitting the city before 2050. Representational picture/AFP

The warnings about the big bad one

After the Nepal temblor in early November, scientists said there is a strong possibility of a major earthquake in the Himalayan region and underlined the need for better preparation to minimise the damage to life and property.

Senior geophysicist of Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology Ajay Paul said the Himalayas have come into existence as a result of a collision between Indian and Eurasian plates. Due to the constant pressure of the Eurasian plate on the Indian plate, strained energy accumulating under it keeps releasing itself from time to time in the form of earthquakes, Paul said.

“Occurrence of earthquakes due to accumulation of strained energy under the Himalayas is a normal and relentless process. The entire Himalayan region is highly vulnerable to tremors and the strong possibility of a major earthquake is always there,” Paul warned. The magnitude of a future earthquake might be seven or more on the Richter scale, he claimed.

Also read: From Nepal to China, the deadliest earthquakes that rocked the world

Experts have also warned of an earthquake striking Delhi, which falls in a severe seismic zone. “At Richter scale 6.0, the effect of the earthquake in Delhi would be devastating. Many buildings would be razed to dust,” Professor Chandon Ghose had cautioned.

The other big warning has been sounded for Japan’s Tokyo. The last major quake hit the city in 1923 and the next one is due in about a century, say experts. There is a 70 per cent chance that a quake of the magnitude of 7 will hit Tokyo before 2050.

According to reports, the world’s most populous city is preparing for a possible calamity. They call it X Day. Such a disaster in Tokyo could kill 9,700 people and injure almost 1,50,000. There would be an expected peak of 3.39 million evacuees the day after the disaster, with a further 5.2 million stranded, while more than 3,00,000 buildings could be destroyed by the earthquake itself or the ensuing fires, journalist Daniel Hurst wrote in Guardian in 2019.

There are similar predictions made for the United States. Parts of the San Andreas fault in California have not ruptured in over 200 years, meaning it’s overdue for a high-magnitude earthquake commonly referred to as “The Big One”, reports Business Insider.

A 2015 forecast by the USGS estimated a seven per cent chance that a magnitude 8 quake will occur in California within the next 30 years. The state sits between two major tectonic plates: the Pacific plate, which is moving northwest, and the North American plate, which is sliding past it to the southeast.

18 significant quakes in 24 days Is the Earth shaking more and is a big jolt imminent

In California, which is full of earthquake fault lines, the San Andreas Fault is perhaps its most famous, extending some 1,200 kilometres through the State forming the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate, which is moving to the northwest at three inches each year and the North American Plate, heading south at about one inch per year. AFP

A team of earthquake experts have created a ShakeOut scenario, which says a possible earthquake will travel across California flattening old buildings, disrupting roads and severing electric, telephone and water lines. It would lead to hundreds of fires, which will be difficult to contain and those will lead to larger blazes which will take out sections of Los Angeles.

The lines that bring water, electricity and gas to Los Angeles would break during the quake and won’t be fixed for months. Though most modern buildings would survive the shaking, many are rendered structurally unusable. Aftershocks will shake the state in the following days, continuing the destruction, according to a report in Smithsonian Magazine.

Such a catastrophe would lead to 2,000 deaths and 50,000 injuries, and cause some $200 billion in damage, 50,000 injuries and 2,000 deaths, the researchers estimated.

“The scenario is actually somewhat of an underestimate,” a scientist behind the ShakeOut, USGS seismologist Lucy Jones, told the publication.

It sure sounds like a big bad quake is in the making. And who knows it could come any day.

With inputs from agencies

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