January 12, 2010 became the moment of tragedy for the population of Haiti: an earthquake of terrible force stroke the small island, killing and injuring thousands of people. The earthquake turned into a devastating power, destroying everything in the epicenter and miles beyond. It was the most powerful earthquake in Haiti in more than 100 years. Now, several months after the tragic event, Haitian authorities still work to restore the economic and social stability in the region. Earthquakes are difficult to predict – the Haiti earthquake did not have any warning signs or foreshocks.
It was equally unexpected and powerful. The aftershocks that followed confirmed the complexity of the natural processes that usually occur during earthquakes. The terrible earthquake that stroke Haiti on January 12th, 2010 affected around three million people, with between 100,000 and 200,000 dead (Physics Today, 2010). Measured 7. 0 according to the earthquake magnitude, the Haiti quake became the most powerful and the most devastating in the region over the last 100 years (Physics Today, 2010). 7. 0 earthquakes are believed to be large, but not huge, and the Haiti earthquake was not the strongest and the most tragic in the human history.
For the regions with high seismic activity, 7. 0-8. 0-magnitude earthquakes are a norm of life which, despite its power and negative consequences, is impossible to escape. In case of the Haiti earthquake, three essential factors contributed to the human and material losses: first, the epicenter was in 10 miles from the capital city, Port-au-Prince (Physics Today, 2010).
Second, the earthquake was shallow by itself; in other words, it was only 10-15 kilometers below the land’s surface (Physics Today, 2010). Third, given the state of the Haitian economy and the level of poverty in the region, most of the local buildings were not designed to withstand the pressure of an earthquake and simply collapsed (Physics Today, 2010). The three mentioned factors turned the Haiti earthquake for the worst-case scenario for its people (Physics Today, 2010). A belief persists that the current state of technology facilitates the prediction of earthquakes.
Today, thousands of people are confident that seismologists could have predicted the course of events in Haiti. Yet, the reality is quite different. Notwithstanding the recent technological advancements, predicting earthquakes (especially, in the long run) is still far from possible. No, that does not mean that seismologists do not monitor tectonic activity. Monitoring zones like Haiti “around the world to get a general sense of where the next such pops may happen is not that difficult, mostly because tectonic activity is hard to conceal completely” (Kluger, 2010).
Scientists have information and technologies necessary to make predictions about where on the landscape earthquakes are the likeliest to occur, but forecasting in the long term is problematic and rarely objective (Kluger, 2010). During the 18th Caribbean Geological Conference in March 2008, five scientists presented their paper, stating that the tectonic zone on the southeastern side of the island was a serious seismic hazard (Griggs, 2010). The scientists had been increasingly concerned about the fault zone which, eventually, became the source of the major problems and the epicenter of the earthquake.
Professionals justify the lack of attention toward the report by the fact that such strikes and zones can remain dormant for hundreds of years (Griggs, 2010). Given the difficulties which seismologists usually experience in the process of predicting earthquakes, the reliability of their reports is often questionable. The findings presented on the 2008 Conference followed the 2004 study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, which reported an increased earthquake risk in the Septentrional fault zone near Haiti, not far from the Dominican Republic (Griggs, 2010).
However, because Haiti is fairly regarded as one of the most active seismic zones in the world, even the heightened seismic activity does not necessarily imply that the region is facing an earthquake threat: the nearest strike can occur years and decades later. The Haiti earthquake was unique in the sense that it was not preceded by any evacuations or warning signs. The earth in Haiti did not give any sign of a foreshock and did not send either a water or an electrical signal (Kluger, 2010).
Even the P wave equipment, which seismologists use to detect vibrations, did not display any changes in the tectonic activity in the region (Kluger, 2010). People did not have a chance to foresee the events that would follow the first shake. The earthquake stroke at 21:53 UTC, January 12, 2010, in South Haiti, not far from the capital Port-au-Prince (RMS, 2010). The quake was felt across the Haiti region, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Southern Bahamas, up to the northeast and southeast coasts of Cuba (RMS, 2010).
The two cities closest to the epicenter, Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, experienced up to 7. 0 intensity shaking on the MMI scale (RMS, 2010). The strikes of such intensity usually cause moderate damage to property (RMS, 2010). The earthquake was not followed by a tsunami, and no tsunami warning was issued (RMS, 2010). Seismologists tend to differentiate between the three different types of earthquakes. The dip-slip-fault means than one clashing plate slides under the other (Kluger, 2010). The reverse dip-slip fault implies that tectonic plates pull apart (Kluger, 2010).
The strike-slip is associated with a sideways grinding of the plates (Kluger, 2010). The Haiti earthquake was of the strike-slip type, meaning that the two tectonic plates on the both sides of the fault moved in opposite directions – the Caribbean Plate went east, while the Gonvave Platelet moved to the west (Physics Today, 2010). The more interesting and important, however, what people are likely to experience during an earthquake of the magnitude similar to that in Haiti. A missionary from Haiti said: “It felt like a train was coming down the road.
It (the house) wasn’t shaking, it was rocking. I went outside and the vehicle in the driveway was rocking, glass breaking all around the house” (Leach, 2010). Another witness described the beginning of the earthquake as the rumbling of the ground underneath his feet: he saw a 400sq m house collapsing on the ground, with people trying to pull an elderly woman out of the rubble (Leach, 2010). Everything was shaking, people were screaming, while houses kept collapsing (Leach, 2010). Like any other earthquake, the one that stroke Haiti threw people into the whirl of shaking, trembling, and noise.
Within minutes after the strike, witnesses could see a huge cloud of dust and smoke rising from the Haiti capital (Leach, 2010). The moment of the first shock was only the beginning in a series of aftershocks that followed. By Friday, 22 January, seismologists noted 54 aftershocks between Mw 4. 0 and 7. 0 (RMS, 2010). The two largest aftershocks rated Mw 5. 9 (RMS, 2010). The first aftershock occurred minutes after the main quake and was located 20 miles southwest of the mainshock (RMS, 2010).
The second stroke the island eight days after the mainshock, on January 20, 2010 (RMS, 2010). Seismologists report that both aftershocks could not reach intensity higher than V which, according to the MMI scale, would cause very light damage to buildings (RMS, 2010). However, buildings in Haiti had not been designed to withstand the pressure of an earthquake; moreover, by the time the aftershock occurred, they had already been weakened – as a result, the second aftershock could readily turn into another serious attack on the Haitian property.
The aftershock that hit Haiti on January 20, 2010 frightened the Haitians, already traumatized by the devastating earthquake that had happened several days before (Murphy, 2010). Those who survived experienced the growing fear and concern about their lives and the property that had not collapsed during the mainshock. Yet, the aftershocks caused little or no additional damage (Murphy, 2010). It should be noted, that although 6. 1 and 7. 0 magnitude look almost similar, the difference between the two is much greater.
Unlike temperature scales, in which units of increase are constant, the method used to measure earthquake magnitudes is logarithmic. What this generally means is that the amount of shaking […] caused by a 5. 0 earthquake is 10 times less than that caused by a 6. 0 earthquake and 100 times less of that caused by a 7. 0 earthquake. ” (Murphy, 2010) Earthquakes of the magnitude between 6. 0 and 7. 0 are not uncommon in the Haitian region, and the aftershocks that followed the devastating earthquake on the 12th January were not significant.
The effects of the aftershocks were more emotional than physical which, given the seriousness and the consequences of the event, were natural and justified. Today, when Haiti struggles to eliminate the consequences of the quake and to restore the economic stability in the region, seismologists and scholars in geology science keep arguing about whether the Haiti earthquake could have been predicted. Whether seismologists could have predicted the Haiti earthquake is no longer important, and it is equally difficult to estimate the value and importance of the 2008 scientific report.
Nevertheless, the Haiti earthquake teaches seismologists numerous lessons and once again emphasizes the need to develop sound technologies and systems, which would predict earthquakes and warn local populations about them. Conclusion The Haiti Earthquake hit the island on January 12, 2010. With the magnitude not higher than 7. 0, the quake turned out to be the worst-case scenario for Haiti, killing and injuring thousands of local residents. The quakes of such magnitude are believed to cause average damage to people and property, but Haiti historically lacked resources necessary to build houses, which would withstand an earthquake.
As a result, buildings collapsed, killing thousands and injuring even more. No warning signs or evacuations preceded the earthquake; it was equally immediate and unexpected. People felt the land shaking and rumbling beneath their feet, with a cloud of smoke and dust rising above the capital. A series of aftershocks that followed did not cause much additional damage but became the source of serious emotional effects. The Haiti earthquake was another good lesson to seismologists, and once again emphasized the need to develop sound technologies which would predict earthquakes and warn populations about it.
Courtney from Study Moose
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