Early 2010 witnessed horrific scenes on Haiti following a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on the afternoon of 12 January to be followed early in the morning of 26 February by one of the largest ever recorded in Chile (magnitude 8.8). Haiti has suffered fatalities on a scale that match those of the Indian Ocean tsunamis of 26 December 2004, while a huge area of coastal Chile affected by seismic energies more than a hundred times greater had estimated fatalities of over 700, though rising at the time of writing. It is easy to ascribe the relative magnitudes of human tragedy, which are the opposite of the relative seismic magnitudes, entirely to the more advanced infrastructure of one of South America’s most advanced countries compared with that of one of the world’s poorest. But that is not the full story. Haiti suffered from a shallow event very close to major population centres whose energy easily reached the surface. The fault responsible involved transverse horizontal movements that sheared through thick soft coastal sediments, which liquefied beneath Port au Prince. That offshore of Chile was much deeper, on a subduction zone and involved vertical movements, so much of its energy was dissipated deep in the crust, yet the area of structural damage along Chile’s narrow coastal fringe is much larger than in Haiti.
Sure, Chile has long had stringent regulations for seismic safety of construction and a state of emergency preparedness commensurate with its history of devastating earthquakes, including the largest ever recorded on 26 May 1960 with magnitude 9.5 that released about ~32 times more energy than the recent one. It is a country well-endowed with income from its huge mining operations, well-developed wineries and much else, especially foreign investment. Haiti has nothing but the horrifying reputation of a string of governments. Until the recent tragedy the majority of its people were left to fend for themselves, close to the playgrounds of the super-rich and the offshore hidey holes of ‘non-doms’. Yet survivors in both countries face essentially the same physical privations of having to live rough and the lasting horror that no amount of wealth can remove. After experiencing the great Valdivia earthquake of 20 February 1835, also in Chile, Charles Darwin observed,
‘An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves beneath our feet like a crust over fluid; one second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create.’
In both cases lessons may be learned, some socio-economic that are too obvious to repeat here. There is, though, one of that kind that transcends most of the others: the 21st century’s first decade has seen a seismic death toll of 640 thousand; a fourfold increase over the previous 20 years fatalities. That is a reflection of increasing drift of especially poor people to cities. If their dwellings are easily smashed they stand little chance. So far, the pledges of aid for reconstruction in Haiti amount to about US$5000 for each damaged structure. For geoscientists, however, what is beginning to emerge from these and the various large earthquakes in Indonesia, Pakistan and China since 2004 is that past seismic history is a clue to future events.
Faults zones behave in a segmented fashion, each with its own crude cyclicity but each somewhat prone to being triggered by events from nearby sectors. Between 1750 to 1770 Haiti was repeatedly devastated when the culprit fault unleashed its pent up stresses. Since then it has been locked in the vicinity of Haiti, with tectonic motions of about 8 mm per year accumulating to the 2 m or so motion undergone by the fault on 12 January. Subduction zones accumulate strain in many sectors distributed along the plate boundary, sometimes locking as seamounts start to descend to ‘clog’ them. Statistical analysis of historical earthquakes and locating their probable epicentres in relation to fault segments, with estimates of their power that would now be measurable from seismograph data, can at least highlight future risk geographically even if timely predictions remain impossible. Yet will their be action that matches up to the potential hazard? 2000 years ago the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples by Vesuvius was recorded in graphic detail of which the excavations presented a gruesome reminder. Yet Naples expands to urbanise the very slopes of Europe’s most dangerous natural threat.
See also: Bilham, R. 2010. Lessons from the Haiti earthquake. Nature, v. 463, p. 878-879.