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What the earthquake in Turkey can tell us about California’s “Big One”

What the earthquake in Turkey can tell us about California’s “Big One”

Monday brought yet another devastating earthquake to Turkey and Syria, as a 6.3 aftershock terrified millions of people already traumatized by the devastating 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude Feb. 6 earthquakes. More than 47,000 casualties have been reported in the two countries; Monday’s quake added at least six more people to that list.

Here in Southern California, we should be paying attention to the circumstances that led these earthquakes to be so catastrophic because, according to specialists at the US Geological Survey, “The question is not if, but when a major earthquake will hit southern California.”

The vast majority of earthquakes that occur in California are harmless. In fact, every year there are about 10,000 of them, but few people feel them. The San Andreas fault, wedged between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates, is an exception, causing severe earthquakes and having long been a looming danger on the west coast. The troublesome fault stretches from Cape Mendocino in California’s northwest down to the Salton Sea, near the Mexican border, with a record of producing 7.8 earthquakes every 150 years or so. It’s been over 160 years since the 1857 Fort Tejon earthquake struck the southern region of the fault that now includes much of Los Angeles County with a 7.9 magnitude earthquake, and we’ve been anticipating the “Big One” to strike for some time. Seismologists are looking at the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria as a model for what could occur when the San Andreas unleashes its overdue earthquake. 

Geologists in Turkey are currently studying the Anatolian fault, where the recent earthquake hit, to document their findings and apply them to what’s currently known about active fault lines like the San Andreas. 

“Learning from earthquakes anywhere helps us anticipate the effects of earthquakes wherever they occur,” tweeted Californian geologist Brian Olsen. The recent Turkish and Syrian earthquakes are especially relevant because “the similarity of the faults in Turkey to those in California makes understanding these earthquakes particularly important for preparing for the future,” he wrote.

Both are strike-slip faults that form at the borders of shifting tectonic plates. When the two plates move over time, friction builds up, and a strike-slip fault produces a vertical crack in the ground, causing the plates to slide to one side and produce severe earthquakes.

One of the primary reasons for the high death toll in Turkey and Syria was infrastructure ‘pancaking’ as a result of negligent building standards, leaving people trapped beneath collapsed structures. ​​Following the 7.6 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey in 1999, these damages should have been foreseen. The majority of the destruction back then was attributed to inadequate building standards and soft-story buildings (structures with weak foundations and insufficiently reinforced first floors). Since then, safety updates should have been applied to the existing weak structures; however, few adjustments were made on time due to high costs and bureaucratic corruption.

Soft story apartment building in Santa Monica

California is in a more privileged position because we’ve seen this coming and have built much of our infrastructure to withstand the impact. Yet, we continue to have a soft-story infrastructure problem as well. In 2019, the Department of Building and Safety compiled a list of over 13,500 soft-story apartments that needed seismic retrofitting. Last week, members of the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion seeking an update from the DBS on the seismic retrofitting program’s progress within 60 days to determine how much of our infrastructure is still at risk. In the meantime, if you live off campus, check if your building has been certified earthquake safe or if you live in a soft-story building. Unfortunately, proper infrastructure is only one aspect of surviving an earthquake; there are additional concerns. Tremendous pressure on tectonic plates during an earthquake can result in fires, floods, landslides, and tsunamis in coastal areas. 

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LMU on the edge of the liquidation zone

Geographically, LMU is somewhat ideally positioned; no faults run directly through the campus, but the bluff is on the boundaries of the liquefaction zone. The liquefaction zone is an area where the city of Los Angeles has determined there is a landslide risk in the event of an earthquake. Liquefaction refers to when soil and groundwater combine during an earthquake and becomes a substance closer in form to a liquid which results in landslides and can cause significant property damage. Because LMU is on a slope, this is a legitimate threat. The Lion contacted LMU about their plans in the event of an earthquake and whether we are prepared for landslides, but no response was provided.

The most important thing in the event of an earthquake is to be prepared and to know what to do, because panicking will only put you in even greater danger. That’s the mission of the international organization ShakeOut, which conducts a yearly earthquake drill that LA County is obligated to participate in called “The Great Shakeout.” According to ShakeOut, the safest thing to do during an earthquake is to crawl beneath a table or desk, cover your neck with your hands, and hold on. Once it stops shaking, go outside to find open space and avoid buildings. If you’re in bed, turn face-down and cover your neck with a pillow. Previous theories suggesting that you find a doorway have been discredited, given that your greatest danger is from flying objects and that a building up to code is unlikely to collapse completely. In the case of a landslide, instructions are more ambiguous, but the consensus agrees one should flee or curl into a ball if outside. While we may not be able to predict future earthquakes with the current technology, Shakealert, and similar software can also give us a crucial head start in reacting when an earthquake does occur.  The danger will always be present, but there is a lot that can be done to prepare our homes and ourselves in the meantime. 

The point of this article is not to unnecessarily scare students about a disaster that hasn’t yet occurred. The San Andreas has been a threat our entire lives, and to live in fear is not the answer. What is important, however, is that we’re made aware of the very real possibility that what happened to Turkey and Syria could happen here in California. All we can do in the meantime is be prepared and become well-informed about our liabilities in a potential earthquake.