Plate tectonic processes not cosmic changes cause earthquakes


Apropos a report in the Kashmir Observer (Cosmic Changes Cause Natural Disasters like Earthquakes: Kashmiri Polymath).  Earthquake largely occur due to plate tectonic processes on the Earth, and not by cosmic rays.

The contention of Mr Naqash that the earthquakes occur due to cosmic changes, and the Indian Ocean Earthquake, and tsunamis of 2004 were a direct result of the cosmic imbalance, is not science. As it cannot be substantiated with any kind of scientifically robust, and reliable data. Such claims cannot be accepted because of a complete lack of plausible scientifically rationale to understand the occurrence of earthquakes on the planet Earth. In this piece I have discussed how the science of earthquakes grew, with decades of hard work put together by scientists worldwide. And there is absolutely no role of cosmic rays on plate tectonic processes that largely govern the occurrence of ~80% of earthquakes on the Earth.

The earthquake science has grown over the years, and it is believed the Lisbon earthquake of November 1, 1775 has stirred the advances of the modern seismology. This event occurred on All Saint’s Day, and the devastation is still fresh in Europe where a quarter of Lisbon’s population was lost. Therefore, after this event, people started to understand the science of earthquakes and it grew with time. The 1906, San Francisco earthquake of USA was actually the first major earthquake which was studied in great detail by a prominent scientist H. F. Reid, a professor of Geology at Johns Hopkins University at that time. His studies laid the foundations of the Elastic Rebound Theory, which until now remains the most valid explanation for the cause of earthquakes.

The earthquake science has thus greatly progressed and still continues with the advent of latest technologies. However, the prediction of earthquake has not gone far. Charles Richter, the developer of the magnitude scale, used to measure earthquake size, once remarked, “Only fools, charlatans, and liars predict earthquakes”. In 2008, this concern was again raised in a book on earthquake prediction, “Predicting the Unpredictable: The Tumultuous Science of Earthquake Prediction” by U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Susan E. Hough, who presents a critical anatomy of earthquake prediction as of today. It is clear from her writing that predicting earthquakes remains impossible for scientists and for reasons, which are discussed at length in the book.

Now, earthquake science is at a stage where scientists more or less understand the cause of earthquakes but are not very confident about the prediction of an incoming event. This means that there is a need to understand how to live with earthquakes without a successful prediction at sight. This can be achieved if we strictly abide by the strict construction standards, careful geological evaluation of building sites, and public education. This is best exemplified by Japan, which has successfully implemented and therefore achieved a milestone in building earthquake resistant structures and a scientifically aware society. However, a large number of people live in the developing world, where these techniques remain sadly out of reach, because of the various limitations to access information, coupled with poverty, illiteracy and poor administration. Some of these concerns were also highlighted in a recent contribution to Science journal by R. Bilham and V. Ghar (2013), wherein they discuss the earthquake risk in the developing world (e.g. India, Iran, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar).

It is true that developing world needs an enormous amount of work, which may take decades, to reach to the standards of California or Japan. However, the problem is not only about gathering of the data, it is more about the economic condition of a particular nation. A poor nation will always be more susceptible to the damaging consequences of natural disasters. This is best illustrated by the destructions caused by the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and of the Kashmir earthquake of 2005 etc. Therefore, it would be almost impractical to address the issues of natural disaster management without taking into account the economic facets of that country.

Similarly, it is equally challenging to think that government can easily impose available construction codes on private structures in developing nations, because, this will again depend on the economic, political and administrative responsibilities of a nation. Only a responsible and stable government will be able to implement suitable and effective procedures to counter natural disasters. Further, a literature and responsible society will help government to achieve such a goal. Likewise, in countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal etc. a significant portion of people take natural disasters as a punishment from God(s) and therefore, do not interfere or question such calamities.

Therefore, one has to learn to live with earthquakes, and it is more to do with the overall stability of a particular nation, which could only be possible if we take it as a collective responsibility and work together for a strong and stable nation. Also, earth science education could make a lot of difference to educate people about natural disasters and more specifically, earthquakes. This can be achieved by organizing various awareness programs and by introduction of earth sciences as a core field in the academic curricula.

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