State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Gauging Losses and Lessons in Turkey’s Unfolding Earthquake Tragedy

The following is an excerpt from a Sustain What blog post.

map of earthquake impacts
Source: USGS

Here are some wider implications and ideas to weigh as the awful news continues to emerge from the world’s latest great seismic jolt: the 7.8-magnitude major earthquake (and a 7.5-magnitude aftershock and dozens more) that shattered hundreds of cities, towns and villages and has taken thousands of lives across southeastern Turkey and over the border in Syria.

Social media and news reports are filled with absolutely chilling and horrific video showing countless buildings collapsing and all-too-familiar images of frantic searches for trapped relatives and colleagues.

Pause for a second to ponder what you’ve seen on TV or news websites.

As earthquake engineers stress, most of the time, buildings kill people, not the shaking itself.

I first reported on this reality from Istanbul, Turkey, in a 2009 front-page story for the New York Times on megacities facing megarisk from impending great earthquakes. I spent a day exploring poor and middle class neighborhoods in the sprawling metropolis with Mustafa Elvan Cantekin, who at the time directed a Neighborhood Disaster Support Project funded by a Swiss development agency.

Over and over Cantekin would point to buildings with “soft floors” – ground-level retail spaces with very little reinforcement supporting far heavier residential floors above, or buildings where, for tax purposes, higher floors jutted out beyond the dimentions of the ground floor, or homes where floors were added as families expanded.

He and some other earthquake engineers I’ve interviewed over the years call such structures “rubble in waiting.”

Sadly, video of many of the deadly collapses in southeastern Turkey shows buildings just like the ones we toured.

There’s an enduring worldwide challenge facing communities that have expanded over many decades into zones facing extreme, but sporadic, threats like major earthquakes, resulting tsunamis, big volcanic eruptions or — for climate — megadroughts or the most extreme atmospheric river floods.

It’s exceedingly hard to unbuild, move back, or retrofit at scale.

Read the rest of the post on the Sustain What blog.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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