Category Archives: Tsunamis

APRIL 11, 2012: MAGNITUDE 8.6MM EARTHQUAKE NEAR SUMATRA TRIGGERS TSUNAMI ALERT

In the early morning hours today, USA time, 11 April 2012 a major magnitude 8.6 MM earthquake hit in the Indian Ocean some 300 kilometers from the western coast of Sumatra triggering a tsunami alert for all countries bordering the basin. To make things worse the hundreds of aftershocks have also included a second major earthquake categorized at 8.2MM magnitude. Both of these major earthquakes have been initially registered at the relatively shallow depths of 23 and 16 kilometers respectively.

Recent seismicity map of the region off the coast of Sumatra where numerous earthquakes including two og magnitudes 8.6 and 8.2 hit today 11 April 2012

These twin seismic shocks of such high magnitudes have undoubtedly raised fears of a repeat of the catastrophe that impacted the same region on 26 December 2004, when an earthquake initially reported to have been of magnitude 8.8MM at a depth of only 30 kilometers generated a major tsunami that caused 200,000+ deaths mainly in Sumatra around the region of Banda Aceh. The earthquake of 2004 is still categorized as a 9.1MM magnitude event based in an analysis of all data, while scientists from the California Institute of Technology rate it at 9.2 MM magnitude.

Animated image of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and triggered tsunami in the same Indian Ocean affected by the twin major earthquakes of 11 April 2012

While we wait for damage reports from today’s Indian Ocean’s earthquakes it is clear that these shocks serve to remind humankind that we inhabit a hazardous planet, where we all are at one time or another vulnerable to the impacts of natural and human-made hazards.

While the Indian Ocean and Sumatra may appear very far away to most of us in the USA, and they indeed are far away places, these natural events of just a few hours ago also bring home the seismic vulnerability of our fifty states. Such vulnerability is illustrated by records maintained by the United States Geologic Survey that show 54 magnitude 3.0 or higher earthquakes have hit somewhere in the United States over the last seven days, including at least one above 5.0 magnitude and five above 4.0 magnitude. Most of these major earthquakes have impacted Alaska and our western states of California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. During the same week hundreds of minor earthquakes numerous magnitude ones and twos have affected the same states listed above and several others including Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee where at least five earthquakes have hit in the past week. Likewise, Hawaii and Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been shaking in recent days.

Map showing recent seismicity in central Alaska

Let these alerts sounded by Mother Nature reminds all of us of the need to be aware of the vulnerability of the communities where we live, and of the need to practice hazard mitigation by incorporating design criteria and other measures into our houses and buildings, which will reduce the potential for damage from recurring earthquakes or other natural hazards such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes etc. Pay attention! Be prepared!! MITIGATE!!!

Seven Days of Earthquake Activity.

On 8 April 2011 as of 16:28 UTC (12:28 p.m. DST) 261 earthquakes magnitude 2.5 or higher had hit somewhere in the world over the past seven days or 168 hours, which means planet Earth gets one of these mag. 2.5 or higher seisms every 38 minutes as an average. These earthquakes include the magnitude 7.1 aftershock off the coast of Japan’s Honshu island, the 6.5 magnitude in the state of Veracruz, Mexico and a 5.0 and 5.8 shocks in the western Caribbean near the Swan Islands north of Honduras. This seismic activity is reflected on the world map below:

World map from the USGS showing earthquake activity over a moving period of seven days or 168 hours.
In reality there is a lot more shaking on Earth that shown on this map. If we were to count all earthquakes magnitude 1.0 or higher we would be talking of at least one earthquake per minute or perhaps even more, and if we took the time to count all measurable natural seismic movements of earth the annual total would exceed 1.0 million, such is the nature of the planet we inhabit. While this appears to be quite a large number, averaging 1 shock every 30 seconds or so, what happens is that the vast majority of these temblors are only measured by instruments as anything below a 2.5 magnitude is not felt by most humans, also quite a bit of this shaking is centered in uninhabited regions or in the oceans. 
What is important is to concentrate of where those earthquakes magnitude 2.5 or higher actually hit and with what frequency, paying close attention to earthquakes magnitude 5.0 or higher as these are the ones that account for most of the loss of life, injuries and physical damage that we see in the aftermath of major impacts such as the 9.0 that hit off the coast of Japan’s Honshu island on 11 March 2011, or the 8.9 that hit off the coast of Chile in 2011 and the earlier devastating earthquake in Haiti also in 2010.
The United States Geologic Survey (USGS) keeps track of earthquakes magnitude 2.5  or higher on a worldwide basis through a number of data sets. One of these data sets keeps a running tab of all mag. 2.5 or higher earthquakes taking place worldwide over the last 168 hours (7 days), and it is constantly updated.
By reviewing this running-168 hour data set on 8 April 2011 at 12:28 p.m. DST we discovered the following:
* A total of 34 earthquakes magnitude 5.0 or higher have hit somewhere on Earth in the past 168 hours;
* Of these 34 shocks, 5 were magnitude 6.0 or higher and one of them was a magnitude 7.1 in Japan, which triggered a new tsunami warning in that region;
* A total of 82 earthquakes hit the United States and an additional 52 hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands;
* Alaska was has been hit by 49 magnitude 2.5 or stronger earthquakes over the last 7 days, while California suffered 11 hits, Hawaii 3 and Arkansas 12. All of the shocks in Arkansas  have taken place over the last 24 hours within 50+ kilometers of Little Rock.
USGS Map of North America showing earthquakes magnitude 2.5 or higher that have hit over the last 168 hours as of 11:21 a.m. DST. Of interest for the North America region is the seismic activity that has taken place along or near the boundary between the Caribbean and North America tectonic plates, which has generated at least 4 shocks magnitude 5.0 or higher including a 6.5 earthquake in the stateof Veracruz in Mexico, and both a 5.0 and 5.8 in the western Caribbean to the north of Honduras hear the Swan Islands and close to 60 hits total over the same period. Especially active has been the eastern portion of the tectonic plate boundary near Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands where at least 52 magnitude 2.5 or higher shocks have taken place in the last 7 days, or almost 8 per day. The main concern with this specific activity relates to the fact that it was this seismic fault, at the Caribbean-North America tectonic plate boundary, that generated the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in early 2010.USGS earthquake map showing the area where a 5.0 and 5.8 magnitude earthquakes hit on 7 April 2011 along the boundary between the North America and Caribbean tectonic plates.

 This 168 hours of earthquake activity are “par for the course” on planet Earth and should come as no surprise to any one. What should be surprising to all is the fact that we still see catastrophic effects, in terms of loss of life and structural and physical damages as well as indirect and consequential effects after each major impact. Also surprising is the disparity of damage and loss of life between different countries. It is clear that humankind still has a lot of work to do in preparing for and in mitigating the impact of major earthquakes.

It is also clear that radical paradigm changes are needed with respect to the way we establish design criteria, and the methods of construction, risk assessment and mitigation planning we employ in earthquake vulnerable regions. Along these lines, our focus on earthquakes is driven by recent catastrophic events including the major one in Japan and the realization that there is a lot whole of shaking taking place every day on planet Earth, but it is clear that the same concerns and needs exists when it comes to other natural hazards such as tropical cyclones, floods, drought and major weather storms, as well as the slow, but inexorably and incrementally acting consequences of global climate change!