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   Volume 10 |Issue 11 | March 18, 2011 |


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The Quake Phenomenon


Ten years ago earthquakes were treated and considered as rare natural disasters. They were feared that's true, but news about earthquakes occurring were few and far between. Today, earthquakes have become a common topic of conversation and frequently aired in the news. The latest earthquake of 8.9 Magnitude in Sendai, Japan on the March 11, has been described as being a 'catastrophic' event, further followed by the 'apocalyptic' images of the resulting tsunami which hit afterwards. Waves sweeping everything in their path, swirling whirlpools, and the cries of people for rescue the images are practically impossible to erase. The disaster didn't simply end there, and with barely enough time for the Japanese citizens to recoup, a third shock followed the nuclear reactor explosion. The accumulated death and injury toll for all these events lie in the thousands. And the starting factor for this chain of events was the initial earthquake.

In 2011, we already have 162 earthquakes which have happened worldwide of over 5.0 Magnitude, of which 5 earthquakes are above 7.0 Magnitude. Even though the major disasters seem to be in other countries, Bangladesh has also not been unaffected in this respect. The increasing frequency of the earthquakes hitting Bangladesh has become a cause of concern, mainly owing to the fact that we are a developing nation and we do not possess the adequate resources necessary to enable us to recover from a massive scale disaster. Additionally, the population at risk is also increasing as well as the population density in all the major cities in Bangladesh (mainly Dhaka and Chittagong, which are both earthquake-prone areas). Even though everyone is familiar with the concept of earthquakes, the basic facts are not widely understood by the general population.

Whirlpools are caused by a tsunami in Fukushima prefecture, Photos: REUTERS Houses are swept by water following a tsunami and earthquake in Natori City in northeastern Japan. Photos: REUTERS

Misconceptions about earthquakes are extremely common. One common misconception is that the increased earthquake activity is a sure-fire indication that a major quake is looming on the horizon. A temporal increase in earthquake activity does not mean that a large earthquake is about to happen. Similarly, quiescence, or the lack of seismicity, does not mean a large earthquake is going to happen. A temporary increase or decrease in the seismicity rate is usually just part of the natural variation in the seismicity. There is no way for us to know whether or not this time it will lead to a larger earthquake. Swarms of small events, especially in geothermal areas, are common, and moderate-large magnitude earthquakes will typically have an aftershock sequence that follows.

Cars and debris pushed onto a runway after a tsunami and earthquake are seen at Sendai Airport in northeastern Japan. Photo: REUTERS

There is a theory that a majorly large earthquake may be avoided if we artificially generate several small earthquakes, whilst using triggered explosives in an attempt to do so. This is strongly not recommended as it would not be a successful alternate option. Even huge amounts of explosives almost never cause even small earthquakes and it would take hundreds and thousands of small earthquakes to equal a large one, even if it could be done. In addition, we wouldn't have any control over the size of the earthquake being created if it worked, since small and large earthquakes all start out in exactly the same way. This theory has been tested, albeit unsuccessfully, by the US in Central Nevada on January 19, 1968, under the operation codename “Faultless”. The codename was later deemed to be a poor word choice as a fresh earthquake fault line 1200 metres long was created as a result. If we follow the Chaos Theory (which follows the concept that minor details can often results in the occurrence of major events i.e. a butterfly flapping its wings in London can generate a tornado in the Middle-east), then we can predict that this experiment has already or will eventually result in a major catastrophic disaster, if not in the form of earthquakes then in some other form. Nature is not meant to be tampered with.

Since earthquakes have now shifted from being a rare occurrence to a fairly common one, it's a useful to have all the necessary facts regarding how best to deal in the event of an earthquake or even with the aftermath. In the event of an earthquake, it's usually advisable to leave your house immediately and seek refuge outside. Stay away from windows, chandeliers or any other glass items and, whilst heading for the doors, be careful that you do not let yourself get injured by swinging doors. Gather your family together and leave as a group. The theory is as simple as the one followed in the case of fire never stop to pick up personal belongings. Safety comes first. Just in case you are unable to get out in time, it also helps to be well equipped at home to deal with such a scenario. Emergency supplies should include first aid kits with instructions, emergency adequate medication, drinking water or chlorine purification tablets, canned and packaged food with a mechanical can opener, portable radio and extra batteries, walkie-talkies, etc. Earthquakes can happen anytime and anywhere so you may not necessarily be at home when it occurs. In this instance it is advisable to also have a few necessities such as canned food, liquid, comfortable shoes, etc. also at work, just in case.

The cumulative effect of a major earthquake happening in Bangladesh, and specifically in Dhaka, is unpredictable but foreseeably disastrous. The majority of tall buildings in Dhaka have been built with little or no strong foundations and therefore highly susceptible to destruction in the event of a strong earthquake. The buildings include both residential and commercial structures, destruction of which will result in calamitous consequences. Most of these buildings have lifts and possess no emergency exits such as fire escapes or staircases outside the building which would have been undeniably helpful. Health and Safety, in respect to dealing with natural disasters, is far from failsafe. Whilst the US instigated an evacuation programme for its coastal cities likely to be affected by the tsunami in Japan, the degree of success for any such evacuation procedure in respect to Chittagong and Cox's Bazaar is questionable in any such event. It is time for the Government to start seriously considering making a few necessary changes in regards to making foundations a compulsory part of construction and begin educating people about emergency evacuation instances.


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