When the Earth quakes

Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Tuesday 14 Feb 2023

The true essence of any endeavour is conscience. If that is missing, all else is likely to collapse sooner or later. Thereupon, we pray for miracles.


In the realm of science fiction, earthquakes were accurately predicted as a reality. We have kept pace with science fiction, if not rivaled it, (except for a flying batman and co), and earthquakes are indeed a reality; they have been since the dawn of history. What keeps us from predicting them?

Seismologists are ready with a deluge of excuses the sum of which is “a real prediction of earthquakes is not possible.”

With hearts wrenched with pain and eyes blinded with tears we watch the devastation of humanity in Turkey and Syria.

Even Volodymyr Zelensky’s war had to take a back seat at the extremely painful ravaging of human lives.

Shutting out the pictures on TV does not shut out the horrific images of those alive or dead beneath all the ash and soot; scenes that sting us, even in our sleep.

Wild and angry nature out on a rampage, crushing indiscriminately everything in its path, from man-made structures to man himself. There was always a war between man and the vengeful face of nature. Man had to overcome adverse natural elements for the sake of survival. On occasional or regular fits of fury nature wreaks disasters wiping out man, woman, and child.

For the most part, technology has adequately dealt with its wild malevolence which comes and goes. Together with science, it has helped man cope with nature’s attacks, saving lives by predicting hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, damaging people and property.

Nature is mightier than the mightiest. In its frenzy and fury it has buried many a country and culture, never to rise again. That occurred in ancient times.

Are we to allow it to kill millions as in days of yore? Do we sit, watch, cry and pray?

Billions of dollars go into research of every kind, some of it so absurd, such as gnatcatchers, or hair products. Some $35 million were paid to 118 clinics that did not exist.

Such a shame, such a waste, such a lack of conscience.

Could not such funds be channelled to seismology; predicting earthquakes, saving lives, saving billions, saving property?

We know all about the moon’s surface, but not what lies beneath the Earth’s surface.

Seismology, the scientific study of earthquakes and related phenomena, is well funded, they say. Not enough. Dr Alex Copley of Cambridge University, working on construction sustaining earthquakes, laments the lack of research on predicting the tectonic plates and their movements.

We already know the location of the major faults where earthquakes occur. What is a fault? It is a fracture or zone of fractures, between two blocks of rock. Faults allow the blocks to move relative to each other. If the movement occurs rapidly we have an earthquake.

We know the location of these faults. The major one is the San Andreas Fault in the North American continent, the Pacific Northwest, Himalayas, Andes, Central America, Japan, Himalayas, referred to as the Ring of Fire. More than 450 volcanoes and 90 per cent of earthquakes occur along its path.

San Andreas is the most famous, thanks to about 22 Hollywood films on or around it. The most famous of these films are Earthquake with Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner (1974) and Towering Inferno with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, also (1974). The latter was thought-provoking because its theme of “cutting costs” in construction, thus causing the inferno.

Both were the highest grossing films of the year, so obsessed are Californians with the occurrence of earthquakes — notably the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It is predicted that California will be levelled due to its proximity to the San Andreas Fault, within 30 years.

We hope California funds more research on quakes instead of climate change, which does not destroy hundreds of thousands of lives within 10 seconds.

Could it be that earthquakes are infrequent and soon forgotten? Could it be that they are not popular, crowd-pleasers? They certainly do not procure any political votes not “sexy” enough as they say, therefore little attention is paid them.

It is already an established fact, “you can never ever predict earthquakes”, and that’s that. No, it is not. And, yes you can predict earthquakes.

The Chinese did it in February 1975. Chinese seismologists predicted that a large earthquake would hit Haicheng province within 72 hours. The populace was quickly evacuated to safer ground and within 65 hours a 7.3 magnitude earthquake hit the area and destroyed thousands of buildings, but fewer than 30 lives were lost, due to the massive evacuation, instead of 300,000.

There was one caveat. The next year, the very same seismologists failed to predict an earthquake in July 1976, devastating the city of Tangshan, which was completely levelled and fatalities reached 225,000.

If at first you don’t succeed. Try, try again. No need to give up trying. If it worked once, it can work again, More equipment is needed, modalities, sound instruments, personnel and money, money, money.

While the rich sit comfortably in their solid, re-enforced buildings, puffing cigars, totally safe from earthquakes, it is the poor that pay the price. Is that not always the case?

Nature will have its way, but we could and we should be able to never again see a child half dead in the rubble of an earthquake.


“Opinion has caused more trouble in the world than plagues and earthquakes.”

  Voltaire, Francois Marie Arouet (1694-1778)

* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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