Earthquakes Are Unlike Any Other Environmental Disaster

Hurricanes and volcanic eruptions can be predicted. But earthquakes always come as ambushes.

Rescuers search for victims and survivors in the rubble of buildings a day after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey's southeast, in Diyarbakir, on February 7, 2023.

On February 6, at 4:17 a.m., death came for thousands of people in their sleep. At that moment, 11 miles beneath the south-central Turkish city of Nurdağı—close to the Syrian border—a spark was launched into a geologic powder keg.

An epochal battle between tectonic plates had reached a crescendo. Two gigantic blocks, moving side by side in opposite directions, had been warping the crust for millions of years. Then, in the dark of night, they yielded. The crust cracked. A large swath of the expansive East Anatolian Fault Zone jolted, releasing pent-up energy equivalent to roughly 8 million tons of TNT. That’s more than twice the cumulative power of every single explosive, including both atomic weapons, used during World War II.

And it will happen again—and again, and again. Earthquakes, more so than many other types of geologic or environmental disasters, defy prediction and prevention. Hurricanes can be identified many days before they arrive, giving coastal communities time to evacuate. Every year, scientists learn more about which type of cacophony or convulsion warns of impending deadly volcanic eruptions. And should a midsize asteroid capable of demolishing an entire country arrive at our doorstep, given sufficient warning time, we have the technological means to send it hurtling harmlessly into the darkness. But the science of seismology is simply too young to stop the next major quake, or the legion of quakes after that, from killing many thousands of people.

Already, estimates of the devastation in Turkey and Syria have exceeded 7,000 deaths; 23 million people have been directly affected. The death toll will rise as corpses are extracted from ruined homes, and as those still alive but entombed beneath concrete, bricks, rain, or snow run out of heartbeats. Near the epicenter of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, the ground shook so forcefully that it registered close to the top end of the Modified Mercalli Intensity scale, a measure of how violent a quake feels at the surface. Then, about nine hours after the first big quake, a 7.5-magnitude temblor lacerated another heavily populated part of Turkey just 60 miles away. Entire streets—mostly not built to withstand or resist such a momentous quake—were vaporized behind a veil of ash and dust.

Seismologists, watching from afar in horror, suspected that this was one of the largest quakes of its kind, as recorded by scientific instruments, to directly hit a largely populated area. Although they sometimes oversee disasters like this, these researchers are normally more akin to planetary linguists. As seismic waves rush away from earthquakes, nuclear blasts, or even crowds of people meandering about, they occasionally get gulped up by a seismometer at the surface, carrying traces of the events that created them and the types of matter they passed through on the way. Seismologists listen to these geologic yawps, songs, and whispers all the time, and attempt to interpret what they may be saying about their journeys and their origins. This has led to dramatic revelations about Earth’s internal architecture—but only recently. Earth’s mucilaginous mantle, slowly flowing beneath the crust, was first detected in 1889 from the movement of seismic waves. The liquid outer core was identified in 1914, and the solid inner core was first ascertained in 1936.

These discoveries, along with decades of painstaking analyses of seismic waves recorded across the world, have led to significant advances in understanding the physics of how both fault lines and volcanoes work. Over the past century, and particularly in the past few decades, major fault lines have been forensically mapped out, along with plenty of their smaller branches. Their movements and behavior are well established. But whereas volcanologists are getting better at forecasting roughly when and how even notoriously complex and mercurial volcanoes will erupt, earthquakes always come as ambushes.

Despite their best efforts, seismologists cannot tell you with any precision when the next major quake will occur, or its location. Only the worst kind of fear-feeding, click-harvesting charlatans claim to possess such abilities. The best that hazard experts can offer, in seismically active, heavily instrumented, and extensively studied parts of the world, are very approximate probabilities. For example, within the next 30 years, there is a 46 percent chance that a 7-magnitude quake will rock the Los Angeles area, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That is as precise as these things get.

As far as scientists can tell, quakes do not send up a flare before they tear the ground apart. Until these precursory signals are found—if they even exist—seismology will be predominantly a retrospective science, using data from sometimes-devastating temblors to incrementally improve our understanding of faults and their tectonic masters. The only certainty in seismology, for now, is that big quakes will continue to kill people for as long as our species exists. This week’s tragedy will be mirrored, over and over again, in Turkey, in Syria, and all over the world.

Geologic events show us how little control we have over our lives. They can wash us aside effortlessly and repeatedly, like sand grains at the mercy of eternal waves. Before I became a science journalist, I trained to be a volcanologist. Like many Earth- and space-science aficionados, I am beguiled by a solar system’s most extreme forces, including eruptions and asteroid strikes. Their destructive elements are usually tempered by moments of awe (for their spectacular dynamism, and the aesthetic and scientific marvels they provide) and optimism (because the better we understand these events, the more we can dilute their occasionally lethal demonstrations of power). Earthquakes, though, almost always engender unadulterated dread.

Earth’s active and potentially dangerous fault zones will forever be home for hundreds of millions of people. But that’s not to say that humanity is helpless in the face of fierce tremors. With proper investment and attention, houses and apartments can be constructed to resist the most deleterious effects of earthquakes. Even if just a small percentage of buildings don’t collapse the next time the ground lurches, a handful of families previously destined to die will be saved—a reward worth any price.

Will there ever be a day when scientists can warn people to move out of the path of an oncoming seismic storm? Nobody knows, and you would be a fool to bet on it either way. All experts can do is try, and keep trying, despite the dread, despite the trepidation provided by that endlessly ticking tectonic clock. But if humanity can use seismometers to listen to the beating heart of Mars—another planet, tens of millions of miles from home—then we have earned the right to hope.