Why Earthquakes have Doubled this Year

If you think there have been more earthquakes than usual this year, you may be right. A new study recently found there were more than twice as many big earthquakes, worldwide in the first quarter of 2014 as compared with the average since 1979. So should we be worried?

After living in Turkey for a few years there are certain things you do almost without thinking about it: You never drink the tap water, you always, always check your restaurant bill and you notice every once in a while, the odd shake of the ground or just occasionally feel a jolt that can make you uneasy on your feet. These are of course earth tremors from deep underground or they are the reduced energy of a more distant bigger earthquake. On the whole people don’t tend to dwell on them too much and just accept that earthquakes will always be an issue in this region, and so you get on with your lives hoping that the next ‘Big One’ will be far, far away from you and yours. However, this head in the sand approach has been a little harder to achieve these past months after several TV news items about earthquakes, one after the other, have filled our TV screens.

Photo by Leonardo Hendler

Tom Parsons, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, California, and co-author of the study with Eric Geist, told us last week that we have recently experienced a period that has had one of the highest rates of great earthquakes ever recorded.
But even though the global earthquake rate appears to be on the rise, he said the number of quakes can still be explained by random chance. With so many earthquakes rattling the planet in 2014, Parsons actually hoped his study might find the opposite — that the increase in big earthquakes comes from one large quake setting off another huge shaker. Earlier research had shown that seismic waves from one earthquake can travel around the world and trigger tiny temblors or aftershocks elsewhere and must admit that this was also my own pretty set view until now.

When I first moved to Turkey, many years ago, I was very aware that it was a higher than normal earthquake risk area. The reason for my awareness was because the fringes of Istanbul, the city I initially moved to, where rattled by two large earthquakes within weeks of each other in 1999. The first quake that hit with a magnitude 7.4 on the 17th August was centred close to the nearby city of Izmit. It caused extensive damage, and it was estimated that up to 17,000 people were killed, with a further half a million made homeless. The second quake struck less than 3 months later with a magnitude 7.2 shake near the city of Duzce, which lies about 100km further east from Izmit. This time the death toll was less than a thousand but the affect of two large earthquakes, so close together understandably made people believe that one must have set of the other. And so it created a climate of fear for quite a while after the events. Indeed, I often saw people testing walls with their hands, or perhaps after a heavy lorry drove by rattling windows, some people would actually run out into the open, if only to confirm that the shake had nothing to do with the Great Anatolian fault, which cuts right through Istanbul.

Photo by Yelingyang

In the days that followed the Duzce quake I remember many world seismology experts coming and going and making various predictions. The one I remember most of all was an assessment that Istanbul itself would suffer a similar if not more devastating earthquake within the next 25 years. That expert, whose name I have long forgotten dramatically told us that because of the unpredictability of earthquakes, it could be in 25 years time or it could happen the day after tomorrow. That was in 1999, so by his estimation, the next big quake must hit Istanbul sometime in the next 10 years. The other thing that sticks in my mind from all of those news items back then was learning just how difficult it was to make any prediction at all, other than those based on historical records of earthquakes past. While some still declared that the Duzce earthquake must have been triggered by the Izmit earthquake, that seemed to be based on nothing but supposition.

Anyway, fifteen years on few people seem to be as bothered as much as they were in 1999 and a certain fatalism has taken over. If it happens it happens – what can I do?’ or from the more religious minded ‘If it kills me, then of course it is simply Allah’s will.’ Although that later statement has been used for as long as I can remember as an excuse for many different things and is often put forward as a big factor in the way many people drive so badly here, with little care and attention to the road to the point that the death rate on the roads is so many times higher than in most other countries.

As I said earlier I had gradually leaned towards the belief that some earthquakes do set each other off, but according to the study I seem to be wrong. Despite the recent earthquake storm, they concluded that the world’s great earthquakes still strike at random. The average rate of big earthquakes — those larger than magnitude 7 — has been 10 per year since 1979, the study reports. That rate rose to 12.5 per year starting in 1992, and then jumped to 16.7 per year starting in 2010 — a 65 percent increase compared to the rate since 1979. This increase accelerated in the first three months of 2014 to more than double the average since 1979, the researchers report.

“The rise in earthquakes is statistically similar to the results of flipping a coin,” Parsons finally declared, “sometimes heads or tails will repeat several times in a row, even though the process is random. Basically, we can’t prove that what we saw during the first part of 2014, or since 2010, isn’t simply a similar thing to getting six tails in a row.”


Whoops, He Did it Again!

After last week’s blog on Fifa I didn’t expect to get hooked into another football story quite so soon. But who could resist the drama and uproar caused by a single incident on the pitch during the final crunch Group D game between Italy and Uruguay. Louis Suarez has gone and done it again – for the 3rd time in his career he has actually bitten another player.

Photo by Calcio Streaming

Since it happened hundreds of pundits and talking-heads have put their own spin on the incident, from mild amusement through to total abhorration. Not even the press in Uruguay have attempted to defend the player, such is the damning nature of the TV footage of the incident, but should we not also at least consider that Mr Suarez might be suffering a mental health problem such as the thankfully very rare Morsusmania, which is the uncontrollable urge to bite someone or something.

The incident itself seemed clear-cut from the TV footage taken from several angles. Suarez head bears down on the shoulder of the Italian Giorgio Chiellini, who immediately reacted as if in pain. Unfortunately, the only person in the whole world who seemed to have missed the incident was the match referee, who just waved play on despite Chiellini running after him and pulling down his shirt to show the bite mark on his shoulder. Fifa have now placed a four-month ban on Suarez participating in all football related activity as a result, although the Uruguayan FA is presently lodging an appeal.

After the game Chiellini said “Suarez is a sneak, I’d love to see if Fifa has the courage to use video evidence against him. The referee saw the bite mark, but he did nothing about it.”

Suarez, who committed a handball on the line to stop Ghana from scoring at the 2010 World Cup, told Uruguayan television: “These are just things that happen out on the pitch. It was just the two of us inside the area and he bumped into me with his shoulder. “There are things that happen on the pitch and you should not make such a big deal out of them.” Although to some people that’s a little like saying, he was standing on the edge of the train platform so I just couldn’t resist pushed him onto the track.

Photo by Dajabec

If we look at the bite from a purely scientific direction all of the previous incidents tended to happen in the height of the action, when we have to assume that Suarez was in a very aroused state both physically and mentally. Like most creatures with a mouth the ‘urge to bite’ is written deep inside our DNA. Biting is one of the most damaging things the average untrained human body can do; not all of us know martial arts, but most of us could easily sever a finger. All primates are ferocious biters but as humans have evolved and been socialised we have gradually learned to control those urges, to the point that when it does happen in public it is roundly condemned as somehow, sub-human, something only animals do. So we teach our children fists over fangs. All of that said, there are historical reports from the 15th Century of an epidemic of mass psychogenic illness in which the compulsive urge to bite people spread among groups throughout Germany, Holland, and Italy, so who knows, perhaps Louis Suarez behaviour is somehow the canary in the mine warning us of this bizarre illnesses imminent return?

Of course not all biting is meant to hurt or damage, play biting is common and many animals and indeed quite a few humans bite each other during sex. For many the pleasure of chomping on something can be quite visceral, just as many people, especially mothers will readily admit to an overwhelming urge to bite the cheek of a baby or even their bottom. Where others may experience a meaningless drive to pick at a scar with a fingernail, or to pluck grass when we’re sitting on a lawn.

Of course for every person who believes that Suarez simply succumbed to a temporary bout of morsusmania because his hyper aroused state made him temporarily lose control of his urge to bite, there will be many, many more who will say Suarez is just plain bad; a person who knew what he was doing in order to gain an advantage over his opponent. Anyway, the only thing we do know for sure, is that once his ban is over, a lot of defending opponents are going to be just that little bit more worried, if not quite scarred, every time Mr Suarez enters the penalty area at speed.