Massive Earthquake Strikes Morocco, Leaving Over 2,000 Dead

The North African nation of Morocco was struck by a devastating 6.8-magnitude earthquake on Friday night, resulting in a tragic loss of life and widespread destruction. The earthquake has left at least 2,012 people dead and another 2,000 injured, with many in critical condition, according to the interior ministry’s latest report.

The earthquake’s epicenter was located in a mountainous area, approximately 72 kilometers southwest of the popular tourist destination of Marrakesh. The province of Al-Haouz, near the epicenter, witnessed the highest number of casualties, with more than half of the reported deaths occurring there. Taroudant province, located farther from the epicenter, recorded 452 fatalities, making it the second worst-hit area.

Emergency services and authorities are in a race against time to intensify rescue operations and evacuate the injured, especially in remote mountain villages where survivors may still be trapped beneath debris. In response to this national disaster, Moroccan authorities have declared three days of national mourning as the country comes to grips with the aftermath of its deadliest earthquake in decades.

While the earthquake has claimed the lives of over 2,000 people, it’s important to note that it did not strike Morocco’s most seismically active region. A French expert pointed out that Morocco has a history of seismic activity, citing past earthquakes such as the devastating Agadir earthquake in 1960 (magnitude 5.7) and the Al Hoecima earthquake in 2004 (magnitude 6.4). These events serve as a reminder of the seismic risks in the region.

“Morocco is one of those countries where the question is not whether there will be earthquakes,” said Philippe Vernant, a specialist in active tectonics at the University of Montpellier. “Looking further back in history, there were earthquakes in the 18th century, probably around magnitude 7 in the Fez region.”

The recent earthquake’s epicenter is not located in the most active seismic area of Morocco, but the High Atlas mountains play a significant role in shaping the region’s geological landscape.

Comparing the Morocco Earthquake to Turkey’s

Questions arise about how this earthquake in Morocco compares to the one that struck Turkey in February. Philippe Vernant, the tectonics specialist, sheds light on the differences. In Turkey, the earthquake resulted from horizontal movement, driven by the country’s westward shift toward Greece. This movement caused horizontal sliding of the tectonic plates.

However, in Morocco, the earthquake is characterized by more of a convergence between Africa and Eurasia, with overlapping faults. Despite these differences, both regions are situated near plate boundaries, making them susceptible to seismic activity.

“Here, we’re seeing more of a convergence between Africa and Eurasia or Iberia, the Spanish part, and overlapping faults… But we are still dealing with plate boundaries,” Vernant explained.

Understanding the Intensity of the Morocco Earthquake

The earthquake in Morocco registered a magnitude of 6.8 to 6.9, which is considered quite strong. This magnitude corresponds to an average displacement of about one meter along the fault line in just a few seconds and over several kilometers. The violent shaking caused by such an event has a profound impact on the affected region.

Additionally, the depth of the earthquake is a critical factor. Initially estimated to be between 25-30 kilometers, it has since been adjusted to a shallower depth, around 10 kilometers. The closer an earthquake’s epicenter is to the surface, the more significant its effects on the ground.

Potential for Aftershocks in Morocco

Aftershocks are a common occurrence following a major earthquake, and Morocco is no exception. While these aftershocks may be less intense than the main event, they pose significant risks, particularly to buildings already weakened by the initial earthquake.

Philippe Vernant highlighted the potential for a cascade effect, where the first earthquake’s rupture could trigger another fault’s rupture, potentially leading to a stronger earthquake. This phenomenon emphasizes the ongoing seismic hazards that the region faces.

“Traditionally, we tend to say that aftershocks diminish in intensity… But in Turkey, one earthquake triggered another. The first tear can lead to the rupture of another fault through a cascade effect, which is why there is sometimes a risk of a stronger earthquake after the first one,” Vernant cautioned.

Can Earthquakes Like This Be Predicted?

Despite advancements in seismology, predicting earthquakes remains an elusive goal. Scientists can estimate recurrence periods for earthquakes of different magnitudes, but the behavior of seismic events can be highly unpredictable. Periods of heightened activity can be followed by long periods of relative quiet, making it challenging to anticipate when and where the next earthquake will strike.

Philippe Vernant emphasized the inherent unpredictability of earthquakes, stating, “Unfortunately, we can’t predict anything. We try to estimate recurrence periods according to the different magnitudes of the earthquakes, but then the behavior can be chaotic, with two strong earthquakes over a short period and then nothing for a very long time.”

In conclusion, Morocco’s recent devastating earthquake serves as a stark reminder of the seismic risks faced by regions near tectonic plate boundaries. While the event has raised questions about its causes and potential aftershocks, it also underscores the ongoing challenges in predicting and preparing for such natural disasters.

Our hearts go out to the people of Morocco as they grapple with the aftermath of this tragedy, and the international community stands ready to provide assistance and support during these difficult times.

Image: Residents rest in central Marrakesh following a powerful earthquake in Morocco, on September 9, 2023. (Reuters)

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