URI geosciences faculty discuss earthquake in Turkey, Syria

Earthquakes are nearly impossible to predict but produce information that can inform future decision-making

KINGSTON, R.I. – Feb. 9, 2023 – With the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, University of Rhode Island professors Meng “Matt” Wei and Brian Savage shared their insights.

Wei, an associate professor in URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, says, “This earthquake sequence was a ‘dual-event,’ which means two earthquakes of similar magnitude ruptured two nearby fault segments within 12 hours.” 

A geophysicist who focuses on seismology, Wei says earthquakes are extremely difficult to predict and worked with a group of scientists, writers, and illustrators at MinuteEarth to produce a video on the topic. He adds, “It is well known that the area was overdue for a large earthquake; however, events such as these are not very common and happened because of the location near active geological faults.” 

Savage, chair of URI’s Geosciences Department, says each event that occurs produces information that can be learned from and applied to research to help protect people from future earthquakes. Savage teaches courses in natural disaster, geophysics, tectonics and earth structure. He studies complex seismic velocity structures within the earth, conducts seismic waveform modeling, and oversees the computation of synthetic 3D seismograms at the University, computer simulations of earthquakes that can help better visualize such events.

Savage discussed the situation in Turkey and Syria in an interview. 

Tell us about the earthquake in Turkey. Was it predicted?

The major earthquake which recently occurred in Turkey was a magnitude 7.8 in southern Turkey near the Syrian border and the Mediterranean Sea. Due to the earthquake’s size and location, it impacted numerous cities in the region.

We are unable to predict earthquakes. We can identify regions that are prone to earthquakes and estimate sizes for future events based on previous earthquakes, but we are unable to determine the magnitude, size and location of any specific event.

How is it that something like this occurs?

Earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics, where large lithospheric plates move along the surface of the Earth. Where the plates move in different directions, energy is stored along the fault line until an earthquake happens. This releases the stored energy as seismic waves. The fault in Turkey is the same type as the San Andreas in California.

What is it about the East and North Anatolian fault zones that makes this area susceptible to such powerful and extensive earthquakes?

The northern border of Turkey and the region from Armenia/Georgia to the Mediterranean has large strike slip faults, like the San Andreas, as a result of the relative compression between Eurasia and the Arabian Peninsula. As the Arabian plate moves north, Turkey is being squeezed to the west along these long, strike-slip fault lines. The earthquakes in and around Turkey probably have a maximum magnitude of around 8.

Media have reported that there have been hundreds of other aftershocks. Will those continue and what would that mean for rescuers?

Aftershocks will continue for a while. Aftershock magnitudes normally also decrease in size. But the impact of the large event and repeated aftershocks can be mentally exhausting for people.

How easy is it to predict an earthquake? 

Earthquakes are not predictable. The process is too complex for us and we do not understand the earthquake’s physics well enough to predict the time and place of a specific event. We are able to forecast earthquakes in the future, but only that events of a maximum size will occur in a region – usually quite large – within a time span on the order of 100 to 300 years.

Is there another earthquake in recent memory that compares or is similar? 

The last major event that happened in Turkey was in August 1999 (Izmit, M 7.6). Izmit is just south of Istanbul and caused widespread damage with numerous collapsed structures. More recently, the earthquakes in Haiti (2010), Japan (2011), and Nepal (2015) were impactful due to their size and proximity to population centers. We have about one magnitude-8 event per year and about 10 magnitude-7 events each year. Many of those earthquakes are not near population centers and get much less coverage.

Do events like this help inform modeling/future research? What can be learned from this? 

Earthquakes like these and those away from population centers are important for many fields of study including earth science, seismology, and earthquake engineering.  They provide extensive data that impacts:

•           Ways to build structures that withstand large earthquakes

•           Improve prediction of where earthquake shaking is amplified due to local geology

•           An understanding of how the Earth works and what it is made of

•           Testing early warning earthquake systems

•           Enforcing the Nuclear Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

Earthquakes help to build better models of the heterogeneities within the Earth; these improved Earth models improve quantification and characterization of events in size and source, whether from earthquakes or explosions.

To speak to URI faculty for more information on earthquakes, please contact the URI Department of Communications.