Turkey-Syria earthquake generated enough energy to power NYC for more than four days, expert says

A man walks among rubble as he searches for people in a destroyed building in Adana, Turkey. Credit: AP

By ITV News Digital Content Producer Elaine McCallig

The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday generated enough energy to power New York City for more than four days, an expert has said.

Southeast Turkey and northern Syria was devastated by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on Monday, followed by a second magnitude 7.5 quake nine hours after the main jolt.

More than 7,700 people have been killed in the wake of the earthquake, although the toll is likely to climb further as freezing weather and multiple aftershocks are hampering the rescue efforts, despite international assistance.

Januka Attanayake, a seismologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, told the New York Times the energy released by the quake was equal to around 32 petajoules - enough to power the most populated city in the US for more than four days.

Comparing the quake to a shake in Melbourne in 2021, he told the paper: "In terms of energy, the magnitude 7.8 that occurred is 708 times stronger than a magnitude 5.9."

Renato Solidum, the director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, previously told the paper in 2013 that a magnitude 7 earthquake has been described by experts as having “an energy equivalent to around 32 Hiroshima atomic bombs”.

Aerial photo shows the destruction in Hatay city center, southern Turkey Credit: IHA via AP

The quake occurred in a seismically active area known as the East Anatolian fault zone which has produced damaging earthquakes in the past.

The fault zone marks the boundary between the Anatolian plate - which makes up most of Turkey - and the Arabian plate.

The quakes caused three metres of horizontal movement, Professor Carlo Doglioni, president of the Italian National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology said.

The Arabian plate moved three metres along the north-east-southwest direction relative to the Anatolian plate, he told Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera.

Monday's quake was a strike-slip quake, where two tectonic plates slide past each other horizontally.

The Earth is divided up into different pieces, “kind of like a jigsaw puzzle,” said Eric Sandvol, a seismologist at the University of Missouri. Those pieces meet at fault lines, where the plates usually grind against each other slowly. But once enough tension builds up, they can snap past each other quickly, releasing a large amount of energy. In this case, one plate moved west while the other moved east - jerking past each other to create the quake, Hatem said.

Civil defense workers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Harem near the Turkish border Credit: AP

Professor Bob Holdsworth at Durham University said: "Earthquakes occur when sudden slip events occur along geological faults in the Earth’s crust. There is a fairly predictable, widely documented relationship between the magnitude of an earthquake and the typical offset that occurs.

"As a ‘rule of thumb’, a magnitude 6.5-6.9 event is associated with an offset of around one metre - whilst the largest known earthquakes can involve offsets of 10-15 metres.

"The faults that slipped yesterday in Turkey are strike-slip faults that involve mainly horizontal displacements and so the overall offsets in the region of 3-6 metres proposed here are perfectly reasonable."

These kinds of horizontal offsets can cause damage to major subsurface and surface infrastructure, such as water mains, electricity cables, gas pipelines and tunnels, he said.

He added: "There may also be surface ruptures developed where the faults break through to the surface - these can offset roads, rivers and other features – including built structures. All this is in addition to the damage caused by shaking, liquefaction of soft sediment in valleys/basins and landslides."

Monday's 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit southeast Turkey and northern Syria

Beyond the strength of the shake, the depth of the earthquake that devastated swaths of Turkey and Syria on Monday contributed to the impact.

Monday's quake was so destructive as it was considered a shallow earthquake, hitting at a depth of 11 miles.

Powerful shallow earthquakes are generally more destructive as there is less distance for the waves to travel to the surface.

On top of that, the quake hit near heavily populated areas. The epicentre was near Gaziantep, a major city and provincial capital in Turkey. The affected regions were also home to vulnerable buildings, said Kishor Jaiswal, a USGS structural engineer. While new buildings in cities like Istanbul were designed with modern earthquake standards in mind, this area of southern Turkey has many older high-rise buildings, Jaiswal said.

Rapid construction in Syria - plus years of war - may have also left structures vulnerable, researchers said.

Thousands of buildings collapsed in the wake of the earthquake, which included “pancake” collapses, where upper floors of a building fall straight down onto the lower floors - a sign that the buildings couldn't absorb the shaking, Jaiswal said.

The time of the earthquake caused further devastation. As it happened at approximately 4am while most people were at home asleep, residents had less time to react, Dr Henry Bang, a geologist, disaster management expert and researcher at the Bournemouth University Disaster Management Centre said.

"Had the earthquake occurred in the afternoon, fewer people would have been at home, or probably in buildings. This would have resulted in lesser deaths, but the damage, to infrastructure, nevertheless, would be the same," he said.

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