The scale of destruction caused by powerful earthquakes such as the ones that recently struck Turkey and Syria could be reduced through strict adherence to seismic building codes, better risk analysis and comprehensive site investigations, experts say.
As the death toll from the earthquakes continues to rise, passing 46,000 last week, the scientific and engineering communities are looking for answers, including a UK mission organised by the Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team that aims to uncover the causes of the extensive damage and loss of life.
The 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquake sequence that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February caused severe damage to infrastructure and the failure of thousands of buildings.
In the aftermath of the initial seismic event, United States Geological Survey scientist David Wald said that “an earthquake this size has the potential to be damaging anywhere in the world, but many structures in this region are particularly vulnerable”.
While the events took place in a seismically active region, many of the buildings that collapsed simply were not built to withstand such powerful earthquakes – even with Turkey last updating its building code for earthquake resilience four years ago.
Experts have thus raised questions about the quality of construction, older structures not being brought up to standard and buildings that were put up illegally.
Bournemouth University disaster management expert, researcher and geologist Henry Bang, among others, noted that “the strength of the building or structural design of infrastructure is a key factor responsible for the intensity of damage incurred”.
University of Hull vice-chancellor and landslide expert Dave Petley also noted that the building collapses happened “at a rate that was far higher than was anticipated for an event of this size”.
The earthquakes and the following aftershocks have also triggered landslides and liquefaction hazards.
Based on studies following previous seismic events around the world, Petley said powerful landslide patterns have already emerged.
“But what is noticeable is that in many parts of the world this scientific understanding is not translating into improved preparedness for coseismic landslides, or preparedness for post-seismic landslide,” he said.
“Understanding the landslides are likely to cluster along fault traces should allow the planning of better mitigation measures in these locations, and of course improved response to events in the immediate aftermath of occurrence. In very few places are we seeing this translation of scientific knowledge into engineering practice.”