Damages from Earthquakes
An area ravaged by a major earthquake is a heartbreaking sight. The terror and sorrow etched on the faces of survivors mirror the inconceivable destruction. This destruction comes as a result of many processes.
Ground Shaking and Displacement
An earthquake starts suddenly and may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Different kinds of earthquake waves cause different kinds of ground motion (figure above). The nature and severity of the shaking at a given location depend on four factors:
- the magnitude of the earthquake, because larger magnitude events release more energy;
- the distance from the focus, because earthquake energy decreases as waves pass through the Earth;
- the nature of the substrate at the location (that is, the character and thickness of different materials beneath the ground surface) because earthquake waves tend to be ampliﬁed in weaker substrate; and
- the “frequency” of the earthquake waves (where frequency equals the number of waves that pass a point in a speciﬁed interval of time).
If you’re out in an open ﬁeld during an earthquake, ground motion alone won’t kill you, you may be knocked off your feet and bounced around a bit, but your body is too ﬂexible to break. Buildings and bridges aren't so lucky (figure above a-d). When earthquake waves pass, they sway, twist back and forth, or lurch up and down, depending on the type of wave motion. As a result, connectors between the frame and facade of a building may separate, so the facade crashes to the ground. The ﬂexing of walls shatters windows and makes roofs collapse. Floors or bridge decks may rise up and slam down on the columns that support them, thereby crushing the columns. Some buildings collapse with their ﬂoors piling on top of one another like pancakes in a stack, some crumble into fragments, and some simply tip over. The majority of earthquake-related deaths and injuries happen when people are hit by debris or are crushed beneath falling walls or roofs. Aftershocks worsen the problem, because they may topple already weakened buildings, trapping rescuers. During earthquakes, roads, rail lines, and pipelines may also buckle and rupture. If a building, fence, road, pipeline, or rail line straddles a fault, slip on the fault can crack the structure and separate it into two pieces.
The shaking of an earthquake can cause ground on steep slopes or ground underlain by weak sediment to give way. This movement results in a landslide, the tumbling and ﬂow of soil and rock down-slope. Earthquake triggered landslides occur commonly along the coast of California where expensive homes perch on steep cliffs looking out over the Paciﬁc. When the cliffs collapse, the homes may tumble to the beach below (figure above a and b). Such events lead to the misperception that “California will someday fall into the sea.” Although small portions of the coastline do collapse, the state as a whole remains ﬁrmly attached to the continent, despite what Hollywood scriptwriters say.
In 1964, an MW 7.5 earthquake struck Niigata, Japan. A portion of the city had been built on land underlain by wet sand. During the ground shaking, foundations of over 15,000 buildings sank into their substrate, causing walls and roofs to crack. Several four-story-high buildings in a newly built apartment complex tipped over (figure above c). The same year, on Good Friday, an MW 9.2 earthquake devastated southern Alaska. In the Turnagain Heights neighbourhood of Anchorage, the event led to catastrophe. The neighbourhood was built on a small terrace of uplifted sediment. The edge of the terrace was a 20-m high escarpment that dropped down to Cook Inlet, a bay of the Paciﬁc Ocean. As the ground shaking began, a layer of wet clay beneath the development turned into mud, and when this happened, the overlying layers of sediment, along with the houses built on top of them, slid seaward. In the process, the layers broke into separate blocks that tilted, turning the landscape into a chaotic jumble, and resulting in the destruction of the neighbourhood (figure above d).
In 2011, an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, caused sand to erupt and produce small, cone-shaped mounds on the ground surface (figure above a). The transfer of sand from underground onto the surface led to formation of depressions large enough to swallow cars (figure above b). All of these examples are manifestations of a phenomenon called sediment liquefaction. During liquefaction, pressure in the water ﬁlling the pores between grains in wet sand push the grains apart so that they become surrounded by water and no longer rest against each other. In wet clay, shaking breaks the weak electrostatic charges that hold clay ﬂakes together, so what had been a gel-like, stable mass becomes slippery mud. As the material above the liqueﬁed sediment settles downward, pressure can squeeze the sand upward and out onto the ground surface. The resulting cone-shaped mounds are variously known as sand volcanoes, sand boils, or sand blows. The settling of sedimentary layers down into a liqueﬁed layer can also disrupt bedding and can lead to formation of open ﬁssures of the land surface (figure above c).
The shaking during an earthquake can make lamps, stoves, or candles with open ﬂames tip over, and it may break wires or topple power lines, generating sparks. As a consequence, areas already turned to rubble, and even areas not so badly damaged may be consumed by ﬁre. Ruptured gas pipelines and oil tanks feed the ﬂames, sending columns of ﬁre erupting skyward (figure above). Fire fighters might not even be able to reach the ﬁres, because the doors to the fire house won’t open or rubble blocks the streets. Moreover, fire fighters may ﬁnd themselves without water, for ground shaking and landslides damage water lines. Once a ﬁre starts to spread, it can become an unstoppable inferno. Most of the destruction of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, in fact, resulted from ﬁre. For three days, the blaze spread through the city until fire fighters contained it by blasting a fire break. By then, 500 blocks of structures had turned to ash, causing 20 times as much ﬁnancial loss as the shaking itself. When a large earthquake hit Tokyo in 1923, ﬁres set by cooking stoves spread quickly through the wood-and-paper buildings, creating an inferno a “fire storm” that heated the air above the city. As hot air rose, cool air rushed in, creating wind gusts of over 100 mph, which stoked the blaze and incinerated 120,000 people.
The azure waters and palm fringed islands of the Indian Ocean’s east coast hide one of the most seismically active plate boundaries on Earth, the Sunda Trench. Along this convergent boundary, the Indian Ocean ﬂoor subducts at about 4 cm per year, leading to slip on large thrust faults. Just before 8:00 a.m. on December 26, 2004, the crust above a 1,300-km long by 100-km-wide portion of one of these faults lurched westward by as much as 15 m. The break started at the hypocentre and then propagated north at 2.8 km/s; thus, the rupturing took 9 minutes. This slip triggered a great earthquake (MW 9.3) and pushed the sea ﬂoor up by tens of centimetres. The rise of the sea ﬂoor, in turn, shoved up the overlying water. Because the area that rose was so broad, the volume of displaced water was immense. As a consequence, a tragedy of an unimaginable extent was about to unfold. Water from above the up-thrust sea ﬂoor began moving outward from above the fault zone, a process that generated a series of giant waves travelling at speeds of about 800 km per hour (500 mph) almost the speed of a jet plane (figure above a). Geologists now use the term tsunami for a wave produced by displacement of the sea ﬂoor. The displacement can be due to an earthquake, submarine landslide, or volcanic explosion. Tsunami is a Japanese word that translates literally as harbour wave, an apt name because tsunamis can be particularly damaging to harbour towns. In older literature such waves were called “tidal waves,” because when one arrives, water rises as if a tide were coming in, but in fact the waves have nothing to do with daily tidal cycles. Regardless of cause, tsunamis are very different from familiar, wind-driven storm waves. Large wind-driven waves can reach heights of 10 to 30 meters in the open ocean. But even such monsters have wavelengths of only tens of meters, and thus contain a relatively small volume of water. In contrast, although a tsunami in deep water may cause a rise in sea level of at most only a few tens of centimetres a ship crossing one wouldn't even notice tsunamis have wavelengths of tens to hundreds of kilometres and an individual wave can be several kilometres wide, as measured perpendicular to the wave front. Thus, the wave involves a huge volume of water. In simpler terms, we can think of the width of a tsunami, in map view, as being more than 100 times the width of a wind-driven wave. Because of this difference, a storm wave and a tsunami have very different effects when they strike the shore. When a wave approaches the shore, friction between the base of the wave and the sea ﬂoor slows the bottom of the wave, so the back of the wave catches up to the front, and the added volume of water builds the wave higher (figure above b). The top of the wave may fall over the front of the wave and cause a breaker. In the case of a wind-driven wave, the breaker may be tall when it washes onto the beach, but because the wave doesn't contain much water, the wave runs out of water and friction slows it to a stop on the beach. Then, gravity causes the water to spill back seaward. In the case of a tsunami, the wave is so wide that, as friction slows the wave, it builds into a “plateau” of water that can be tens of meters high, many kilometres wide, and hundreds of kilometres long. Thus, when a tsunami reaches shore, it contains so much water that it crosses the beach and, if the land is low-lying, just keeps on going, eventually covering a huge area (figure above c).
Tsunami damage can be catastrophic. The December 2004 waves struck Banda Aceh, a city at the north end of the island of Sumatra, on a beautiful, cloudless day (figure above a). First, the sea receded much farther than anyone had ever seen, exposing large areas of reefs that normally remained submerged even at low tide. People walked out onto the exposed reefs in wonder. But then, with a rumble that grew to a roar, a wall of frothing water began to build in the distance and approach land (figure above b). Puzzled bathers ﬁrst watched, then ran inland in panic when the threat became clear. As the tsunami approached shore, friction with the sea ﬂoor had slowed it to less than 30 km an hour, but it still moved faster than people could run. In places, the wave front reached heights of 15 to 30 m (45 to 100 feet) as it slammed into Banda Aceh (figure above c). The impact of the water ripped boats from their moorings, snapped trees, battered buildings into rubble, and tossed cars and trucks like toys. And the water just kept coming, eventually ﬂooding low-lying land up to 7 km inland (figure above d). It drenched forests and ﬁelds with salt water (deadly to plants) and buried ﬁelds and streets with up to a meter of sand and mud. When the water level ﬁnally returned to normal, a jumble of ﬂotsam, as well as the bodies of unfortunate victims, were dragged out to sea and drifted away. Geologists refer to the tsunami that struck Banda Aceh as a near-ﬁeld (or local) tsunami, because of its proximity to the earthquake. But the horror of Banda Aceh was merely a preamble to the devastation that would soon visit other stretches of Indian Ocean coast. Far-ﬁeld (or distant) tsunamis crossed the ocean and struck Sri Lanka 2.5 hours after the earthquake, the coast of India half an hour after that, and the coast of Africa, on the west side of the Indian Ocean, 5.5 hours after the earthquake. In the end, more than 230,000 people died that day. The tsunami that struck Japan soon after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake was vividly captured in high-deﬁnition video that was seen throughout the world, generating a new level of international awareness. Though much of the coast was fringed by seawalls, they proved to be a minor impediment to the advance of the wave, which, in places, was 10 to 30 m high when it reached shore. Racing inland the wave erased whole towns, submerging airports and ﬁelds. As the wave picked up dirt and debris, it became a viscous slurry, moving with such force that nothing could withstand its impact.
The devastation of coastal towns was so complete that they looked as though they had been struck by nuclear bombs (figure above a). But the catastrophe was not over. The wave had also hit a nuclear power plant. Though the plant had withstood ground shaking and had automatically shut down, its radioactive core still needed to be cooled by water in order to remain safe. The tsunami not only destroyed power lines, cutting the plant off from the electrical grid, but it also eliminated backup diesel generators and cut water lines. Thus, cooling pumps stopped functioning. Eventually, water surrounding the heat producing radioactive core of the reactors, as well as the water cooling spent fuel, boiled away. Some of the water separated into hydrogen and oxygen gas, which exploded, and ultimately, the integrity of the nuclear plant was breached so that radioactivity entered the environment (figure above b). Because tsunamis are so dangerous, predicting their arrival can save thousands of lives. A tsunami warning centre in Hawaii keeps track of earthquakes around the Paciﬁc and uses data relayed from tide gauges and sea-floor pressure gauges to determine whether a particular earthquake has generated a tsunami. If observers detect a tsunami, they ﬂash warnings to authorities around the Paciﬁc.
Once the ground shaking and ﬁres have stopped, disease may still threaten lives in an earthquake damaged region. Earthquakes cut water and sewer lines, destroying clean-water supplies and exposing the public to bacteria, and they cut transportation lines, preventing food and medicine from reaching the area. The severity of such problems depends on the ability of emergency services to cope. The lack of sufﬁcient clean water after the 2010 Haiti earthquake led to a cholera epidemic later that year.