Devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have left more than 2,600 dead and thousands more injured. And as the world grapples with questions on how best to help, experts say there are grim insights for other regions — including Canada — at risk of significant seismic shocks.
Hundreds are believed to still be trapped beneath the rubble of buildings in Turkey and Syria that collapsed as the ground beneath them shook. The death toll is expected to rise as workers continue their search of the carnage the natural disaster wrought on the cities and towns in the regions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the reports and images emerging from the countries “devastating.”
“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by these major earthquakes, and our hearts go out to those who lost loved ones,” he wrote in a tweet Monday morning.
“Canada stands ready to provide assistance.”
The countries were struck by not just one, but two major earthquakes on Monday. While it’s normal for a major earthquake to trigger smaller aftershocks in its wake, it’s a “different process” for a separate fault to be directly triggered after a major seismic event, according to Christie Rowe, an associate professor at McGill University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and a Canada Research Chair in Earthquake Geology.
“The second really large earthquake was probably triggered by the first one, but it came nine hours later on a different fault,” Rowe said. “So that was very unexpected and it’s just devastating.”
The devastation on Monday is not the first time Turkey has faced significant earthquakes: data compiled by the New York Times and the BBC put the death tolls of major quakes dating back from 2020 to 1939 in the tens of thousands. But why?
What causes earthquakes — and why Turkey is vulnerable
The surface of our planet is broken up into tectonic plates that are always on the move — though they aren’t very fast.
“These giant tectonic plates … are moving around at about the same speed that your fingernails grow. So just centimeters each year,” said John Cassidy, an earthquake seismologist with Natural Resources Canada.
“You can’t really see it. It’s not fast, but over a century, over a lifetime, it’s several metres of movement.”
The edges of these plates, Rowe said, are known as “plate boundary faults.”
That’s where he says “most earthquakes” happen.
Turkey sits on top of the Anatolian plate, which grinds up against the Eurasian plate. As a result, Turkey is home to two major faults — the North Anatolian fault, from west to east, and the East Anatolian fault, which sits in the southeast of the country near northern Syria.
The collision zone around the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea, where Turkey rests, is a “particularly complicated and active area” where there are “a lot of fault lines,” according to Rowe.
Cassidy said the number of fault lines could be in the “hundreds” throughout Turkey.
As these rocks slowly pull in a given direction, they’ll occasionally crack, grind or fracture.
When that happens, as it did in Turkey and Syria on Monday, we see the “very slow tectonic process,” Rowe said — which is frequently relegated to the back of our minds — make itself known in a destructive, horrifying way.
“They’ve all been squeezed or something’s changed in their natural environment. That’s how we can see these, what we call ‘triggered earthquakes,’ or even aftershocks,” he explained.
“They’re releasing stress from the changes that took place.”
When that release happens in a remote area, where few people live, even large earthquakes can pass through with “little to no impact.”
However, Monday’s earthquake hit densely populated urban areas in Turkey, along with vulnerable communities along the fault line abutting Syria — hard.
“The shaking from that earthquake last night in some areas was stronger than gravity,” Cassidy said. “So that means things would be tossed up in the air. You wouldn’t be able to stand. So, exceedingly strong shaking.”
Could this happen in Canada? Yes, seismologists warn
Canada isn’t immune to this issue. Far from it, in fact — we have a “big tectonic plate boundary off the Canadian West Coast,” Rowe said.
This boundary is known as the Cascadia subduction zone, and it runs along the upper west coast of North America, terminating around Vancouver Island. Another famous fault line, the San Andreas fault — the subject of an apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster starring The Rock — lies just to the south of the zone, running alongside California.
A New Yorker article published in 2016, titled The Really Big One, won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing as it detailed what will happen when the seismic risk in the area is realized.
“FEMA projects that nearly thirteen thousand people will die in the Cascadia earthquake and tsunami,” the author, Kathryn Schulz, wrote in the article.
“Another twenty-seven thousand will be injured, and the agency expects that it will need to provide shelter for a million displaced people, and food and water for another two and a half million.”
She continued, warning that “the odds of the big Cascadia earthquake happening in the next 50 years are roughly one in three.
“The odds of the very big one are roughly one in ten.”
Rowe recalls enduring many earthquake preparedness drills in her youth in California. But her friends in British Columbia, she said, told her they “had none” during their childhoods.
“The schools are doing a lot more now,” she said.
Vancouver has signs detailing evacuation zones and high ground where residents can seek refuge from such disasters, if and when they occur. Both Rowe and Cassidy also pointed to websites like the Great ShakeOut, which provide resources on earthquake safety.
It isn’t only British Columbia that faces threats from earthquakes, however.
“We all live in earthquake country,” Rowe said.
Earthquakes aren’t isolated to areas where massive tectonic plates crash and grind up against one another. They can also happen within plates on old cracks, or because of other sources of flexure, or bending.
This has caused quakes in the Quebec and Ontario region, including a magnitude five earthquake that rattled Ottawa and part of Quebec in 2010.
“So we have intraplate earthquakes as well,” Rowe, who is based in Montreal, said. Though, she added, they “tend not to be as big.”
Why do earthquakes kill and what can be done about it?
When it comes to the damage earthquakes cause, location is everything.
A massive 7.7 magnitude earthquake rocked part of Western Canada in 2012 — roughly the same strength as the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that caused so much devastation in Turkey and Syria on Monday.
However, the Canadian earthquake was in the Haida Gwaii region, which has a population of just about 5,000 people — a fraction of the bustling areas impacted in Turkey and Syria. Because of this, there was “little to no impact” in 2012, Cassidy said.
The National Resources Canada website that logs earthquake activity across Canada backed Cassidy’s assertion, noting there were “no reports of damage” at the time its log was published.
The Earth shaking “doesn’t actually hurt people most of the time,” Rowe said. “It’s the collapse of buildings. So it all comes down to stability of construction and the materials used in construction.”
But given the study of plate tectonics is such a recent discovery, some cities are still playing catch-up.
“Humans move and build on timescales of decades or centuries, you know, and that can be similar to the time between earthquakes,” Rowe said.
“Especially in the North American continent, we’re kind of young and new and built in places that we didn’t know had these kind of tendencies.”
Masonry and concrete, stone and brick buildings that “don’t have interior metal structures to reinforce them” are the “most deadly common construction types.”
“So when an earthquake contributes to broad-spread damage and fatalities, it’s most often because of the type of construction used in the region,” Rowe explained.
To quell these risks, building codes have been updated to reflect the need for reinforcement in some areas. These codes are also updated every five years, Cassidy said.
Building constructed before Canada understood its fault lines and the dangers they pose are “being retrofit” in risk-prone regions, Cassidy added.
On top of that, early warning systems can make a massive difference, he said.
Even an extra 10 seconds of notice before an earthquake hits can allow a surgeon to put down a scalpel, or a car to stop before entering a tunnel.
While the government grapples with these preparedness efforts, Canadians can also shore up their knowledge of earthquake safety to make sure they’re not left in the lurch if disaster strikes.
For example, Cassidy explained, you’ll want to get under a table or a desk so nothing hits you — and you’ll want to hold on, because that table or desk might move.
“There are a lot of really simple things that we can do to be prepared for earthquakes as individuals,” he said.
Especially because, he reminded Canadians, “there are many areas of Canada that are susceptible to large earthquakes.”
Corus Entertainment, the parent company of Global News, is supporting the Humanitarian Coalition in its appeal to help victims of the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria. Donations can be made online.