Shortcuts / 12 September 2023

Morocco’s earthquake

A powerful earthquake hit Morocco over the weekend, with the death toll quickly climbing over 2,000. As the search and rescue operation continues, we take a look at what we know so far, why Morocco is vulnerable to this type of disaster, and what can and has been done to mitigate earthquake risks elsewhere.

What do we know about this earthquake so far?
It was a big one – the US Geological Survey said the quake was at least a 6.8 magnitude, although Morocco’s seismologists said it could be up to 7.2 magnitude. Either way, it’s the most powerful earthquake to hit Morocco in over 100 years.

How does that compare to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria earlier this year?
The biggest quake there was 7.8 magnitude, so it was bigger than Morocco’s earthquake. Almost 60,000 people died there.

Is Morocco susceptible to quakes?
Yep – the country is located right at the top of the African continent where the African tectonic plate meets the Eurasian tectonic plate.

So they get lots of earthquakes?
Not as many as you might think… The tectonic plates near Morocco are relatively slow-moving. They shift around 4-6mm per year. Fewer earthquakes are a good thing, but it also means that residents are often less prepared when one does hit.

Has Morocco had big earthquakes in the past?
The most notable was in 1960 near the seaside town of Agadir. It killed between 12,000-15,000 people, even though it was less intense than the one we’ve just seen.

Was Morocco better prepared this time?
The country refreshed its building codes in 2011 to make buildings more quake-proof, but it’s uncertain how many buildings have been upgraded.

Why the focus on building codes?
When it comes to earthquakes, the thing that poses the greatest risk to human life is buildings. Poor building codes were to blame for the massive death toll in the Turkey and Syria quake.

Is there an example where it worked? 
Japan is on a fault line, and it updated its standards for old and new buildings after fatal quakes in the 90s. Those improvements have saved lives.

So how did Morocco’s buildings hold up in this latest quake?
One thing that’s becoming clear in the aftermath is that the hardest-hit regions nearest to the earthquake epicentre were poorer, rural areas, where building codes weren’t strictly enforced, and buildings were often made cheaply out of materials like mud brick and stone.

And what about the cities? 
You’re right – it’s not just rural areas that were affected; the ancient city of Marrakesh also suffered significant damage. How much is still TBD. 

And elsewhere?
Landslides have blocked off roads to villages in the mountains and are hampering rescue and recovery efforts, so we just don’t know at this stage.

So the death toll will continue to rise?
Sadly, that’s what the experts say. 

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