Turkey Earthquake Reflections

Turkey Earthquake victims share a hug

Geological engineers and engineering geologists are fascinated by the occurrence of natural hazards such as landslides, debris flows, rockslides, and earthquakes. At times we can feel almost giddy when looking at the destructive videos, and photos. I’m sure most people temper that enthusiasm when there is a human toll, as I do. But do you also feel that sense of awe at the power that nature can exhibit with these events? It’s a frequent reminder that our human inhabitation of this planet exists only with Mother Nature’s permission, subject to revocation at any time.

It’s a morbid curiosity, I believe borne of a noble desire to learn as much as we can about these natural phenomena. We hope that armed with that knowledge, we can work in our respective fields to help prevent them from occurring, discourage human development where these hazards cannot be mitigated, or try to apply engineering solutions to lessen the impact of these events if we can’t do the other two. This is an incredibly important part of our obligation as geo-professionals, but I can’t help but feel a little sense of shame at this sometimes cavalier evaluation of these events when the people affected by them experience so much pain, hardship, and loss.

The recent 7.8 Magnitude earthquake in Southern Turkey, not to mention the subsequent 7.5 Magnitude aftershock, has brought this into focus even more for me. I can’t bring myself to look at the photos or read the new reports about the mind-blowing death toll. The only scientific article I’ve been able to read (from Space.com) does put this event into some context. The longer of the two fault ruptures expressed at the surface was over 190 miles long.

“These were very large and powerful earthquakes that ruptured all the way up to the surface over a long series of fault segments… This generated extremely strong shaking over a very large area that hit many cities and towns full of people. The rupture length and magnitude of the magnitude-7.8 earthquake was similar to the 1906 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco.”

Eric Fielding, geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labortory, via Space.com

For me, what brought home what this disaster really means was an interview with a survivor. She is Assalah Shikhani, a 35-year-old Syrian refugee who fled from the Syrian war 12 years ago and is now homeless again along with her two daughters. She had been a teacher at a school for other Syrian refugees. The anguish in her voice as she recounts her story is heartrending.

I urge you to force yourself to listen to this or similar stories, to let yourself feel it, and imagine that her story is but one of the thousands if not millions of similar stories in Southern Turkey and Northern Syria. There will be many important scientific and engineering lessons to come from this event, and they will come in time. I applaud those individuals and organizations already trying to gather and preserve data and start that process. But for me, now is a time to mourn the dead, pray for those that survived, and to do what we can to help in the aftermath. Our family has decided to make Valentine’s day donations to one or more charities that are helping with immediate humanitarian needs as well as longer-term recovery. I hope at least a few people who took the time to read this post will consider doing the same. Readers of this blog are humans first and geo-professionals second.