Were the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria a result of climate change?

Written by
February 22, 2024
4 min read

Just over a week ago Turkey and Syria were devastated by one 7.8 magnitude earthquake and another 7.5 magnitude quake which hit the city of Gaziantep in the early hours of the morning. This is the most consequential earthquake in Turkey since a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit the city of Erzincan over 80 years ago in 1939 killing 33,000 people. 

But what was the cause? There have been lots of conspiracy theories around this devastating catastrophe and whether or not this was a man made disaster. 

How large was this earthquake?

Earthquakes are measured on the Moment Magnitude Scale which measures the amount of energy released by an earthquake event. A 7.5 scale earthquake is described on the scale to be a major earthquake with severe economic impact and loss of life. The equivalent energy release is just under 56 billion kg of energy. To form a comparison, in the release of the Hiroshima atomic bomb around 1000 times less energy was released (56 million kg) which generated a death toll of around 70,000. Whilst these are two completely different disasters it does allow a comparison of the sheer amount of energy that hit Turkey and Syria last week. 

Thousands of people were buried in rubble as the earthquake collapsed buildings on impact. The death toll in Turkey has reached over 33,000 and in Syria over 3,5000 and the number is still predicted to rise as the number of survivors rescued from the rubble is dropping as the hours pass.

Rescuers and volunteers have been working tirelessly to save families and individuals from the rubble and many rescue attempts have been successful, rescuing children as young as 7 months. Countries around the world are sending supplies to offer support to those who have lost everything, you can donate now at trusted organisations such as Oxfam and the Red Cross. 

What was the cause?

But what was the cause of this mass disaster and does it have anything to do with the increasing climate crisis which appears to trigger an increasing number of disasters?  

Turkey is prone to earthquakes due as it lies at the intersection between 3 tectonic plates the Anatolian, Arabian and African plates. (Tectonic plates are the sections that divide the earth’s outer crust and mantle, made of continental and oceanic crust) Turkey sits mainly on the Anatolian plate and the Arabian plate has been gradually moving northwards into Europe forcing the Anatolian plate to be pushed West. 

This gradual movement of the tectonic plates builds up pressure at the boundaries between the different plates, known as fault zones. When this pressure is released suddenly this causes earthquakes. 

Is this the first time an earthquake has hit the region?

The specific tectonic shift between the Arabian Plate and the Anatolian Plate has been behind earthquakes in this area for thousands of years but most of the large earthquakes in the last 100 years have been across the North Anatolian Fault. However, stress has been building over the East Anatolian Fault directly on the border of Turkey and Syria, and the border between the Anatolian Plate and the Arabian Plate. Recently this area has had less systemic activity as Patricia Martínez-Garzón, a seismologist at GFZ Potsdam, said “It was unusually quiet in the last century” leading some researchers to suspect that the fault was due for a major earthquake. 

What was the exact cause?

The exact cause of the earthquake last week was the sliding motion between the Arabian Plate and the Anatolian Plate. Due to the sliding motion the shaking traveled for many kilometres along the fault making the affected areas larger than expected with this type of earthquake. 

Was it predictable?

Whilst the information about the tectonic plates movement is observable it is almost impossible to predict or give advanced warnings of earthquakes, therefore Turkey since 2004 has been legally obligated to follow modern-earthquake proof standards. 

However, the collapse of multi storey buildings such as apartment blocks straight down into the ground suggests that most of the buildings did not have the relevant features to protect the infrastructure during an earthquake. The laws for construction were undermined to make cheap and illegal construction and this cost thousands of people their lives.  

It is not uncommon to see collapsed buildings side by side with standing ones, demonstrating the different levels of infrastructure. 

The earthquake itself was not preventable as it was a result of natural tectonic processes that takes place well below the surface of where human activity or rising temperatures can reach. Therefore, climate change cannot be blamed for this disaster.

The Earthquake was a natural disaster but the building collapse was man made. 

Although the shifting plates will cause earthquakes, the devastation in the region could have largely been prevented. The fact the region is known for earthquakes and many of the buildings were constructed recently, more could have been done to enforce stricter building controls. 

Countries like Japan and cities like San Francisco have earthquake proof architecture, such as the use of steel beams and columns in place of concrete and post-tension systems which prevent structures from swaying if there was to be an earthquake. 

More can be done to help countries subject to earthquakes such as Turkey and Syria build up stronger infrastructure. Syria in particular has been struggling with a war for over a decade and needs support in rebuilding and preventing the extent of damage from these types of disasters.

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Written by
February 22, 2024
4 min read