Earthquake Education

First, if you’re inspired to help those in Haiti, please see this list of organizations compiled by CBS News. This tragedy teaches us lots of things, about life, and the human condition, and vulnerability, especially as it relates to this planet on which we live. And sticking with the idea of linking teachable moments with topics on this site, today let’s consider plate tectonics and its relation to where and how people live.

Plate tectonics refers to the movement of Earth’s crustal plates. Earth’s surface, or lithosphere, is composed of about 12 of these plates, which can move next to, over, under, toward, and away from each other.

graphic showing tectonic plates and boundaries

All of these tectonic movements can cause earthquakes or volcanoes, and the infamous Ring of Fire is marked by the boundaries of the Pacific Plate with the North American, Nazca, Australian, Philippine, and Eurasian plates.

The January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti resulted from a break on the southern fault zone between the Caribbean plate and the Gonave microplate. While this area is not one of the more active earthquake zones on the planet, major earthquakes have occurred, often with devastating results. The January 12 event occurred on a “strike-slip” fault—one in which adjacent plates are moving against each other. Strike-slip events tend to be shallow and can therefore produce violent shaking over a sizeable area. According to the U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), the magnitude 7.0 earthquake caused strong and very strong shaking in Haiti, with moderate shaking in the Dominican Republic and weak or light shaking as far away as the Bahamas.

plot of shaking intensities for January 12 earthquake

Tuesday’s earthquake reminds us of something we sometimes forget: that oftentimes the regions we don’t consider vulnerable to earthquakes are indeed places where major destruction and loss of life can occur. Where could the next big one happen? Scientists have identified several places where geology and population combine with potentially dangerous results. A few of them are viewable here.


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