Why Are There So Many Earthquakes?
First a quick geology lesson. An earthquake is the shaking and vibration of the Earth's crust due to the movement of the Earth's tectonic plates. Earthquakes happen when tension is released from inside the crust as the tectonic plates do not always move smoothly alongside each other and can sometimes get stuck. The effects of an earthquake can be devastating and destroy settlements and landscapes, and cause many deaths. Being aware of where in the world earthquakes are likely to take place and being knowledgeable about what to do in the event of one occurring will mean you can travel freely and not be caught unaware.
Unfortunately, one of those places where earthquakes are common is Japan.
Rescue workers after the Tohoku earthquake, March 2011
It is somewhat reassuring to know that buildings in Japan are as earthquake-resistant as any in the world and that people are taught safety procedures from an early age. But if you're travelling to Japan (or any other place where there is a possibility of earthquakes occurring), knowing what to do to stay safe is of the upmost importance. For tourists, carrying travel insurance is vital.
If an earthquake is taking place and you are indoors, stay indoors and hold onto something solid. Stay away from windows, outside walls and elevators. If you are outside, it's best to get into the open and stay clear of buildings and powerlines. Staying calm and clear of potential landslides and hazards is crucial. If you are near the coast, be aware of the possibility of a tsunami (see below) and head for higher ground if you can.
Where do earthquakes occur?
Most of the earthquake activity is concentrated in a number of distinct earthquake belts. Many earthquakes are recorded to be around the edge of the Pacific Ocean or in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Countries such as Japan, Nepal, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico, Italy, and Turkey are particularly susceptible.
What was the worst earthquake ever recorded?
The world's largest earthquake ever documented was on May 22 in 1969 near Valdivia in southern Chile. It was given a magnitude reading of 9.5 by the United States Geological Survey. Although other earthquakes in history may have been larger, it was only in the early 1900s that we were able to accurately measure their power. Most of the deaths that occurred during the Chilean earthquake were caused by the series of tsunamis that followed- they pushed buildings off of their foundations and drowned many people.
The worst earthquakes in Japan in recent memory were the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, centered in Kobe and measuring 7 on the Japanese scale, and the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami in northern Japan in 2011. The quake measured a massive 9 but the majority of death and devastation was caused by the subsequent tsunami. Another major problem was the destruction of a nuclear power plant on the coast of Fukushima, the effects of which are likely to be felt for centuries.
Why do they occur so frequently?
Although it may appear like it, earthquakes aren't actually happening any more frequently than they have in the past. The only difference is that there is more media attention surrounding them. Similarly, random probability means they are unpredictable and there is no way of knowing when one will occur. So if you read one of those stories often seen online about the "big one" that's due to Hit Tokyo in 20XX, rest assured that no one actually knows these things.
If you're not used to them, even minor earthquakes can be unsettling. But they are such a common occurrence in Japan that most people simply ignore them. Which makes sense, because if they weren't happening it would suggest that tensions in the earth's crust were not being released and were building up to possibly become something major.
While experiencing an earthquake can be traumatic, it's important to remember there is always the added danger of a tsunami taking place shortly after. Tsunamis are waves caused by sudden movement of the ocean due to earthquakes, landslides on the sea floor, or volcanic eruptions. Unlike in Hollywood movies, tsunamis are not always colossal waves when they come to the shore, but they can be devastating and are certainly a side effect of earthquakes that should be monitored closely. In the event of any sizeable earthquake in Japan, all TV stations will provide live coverage and warnings of any impending danger.
- The Japan Meteorological Agency posts regular updates in English on any earthquake developments.