A Ministry of Home Affairs report has predicted that an earthquake of more than 8 magnitude will hit northern part of India very soon. (A ‘leading newspaper’ goes to the extent of putting it accurately at 8.2.)
The news spread like wildfire across social media and has, expectedly, left many worried.
Rescue operations on around a collapsed building in Imphal. Indian Express
An earthquake of such an intensity has the potential to flatten everything within its effective radius, which will stretch for more than a hundred kilometre.
The warning comes from the disaster management experts of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The experts are from the National Institute of Disaster Management (NIDM).
According to the experts, the earthquake will hit the states of the northeast which lie in the Seismic Zone 5 – a very high-intensity zone.
Bihar, western and parts of north Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, and Delhi lie in the Seismic Zone IV – a comparatively lower intensity zone but still dangerous.
The MHA prediction follows the earthquake that hit Manipur on Monday. The experts have supported their prediction citing previous earthquakes in the region – Manipur 6.7 (Jan 2016), Nepal 7.3 (May 2015) and Sikkim 6.9 (2011).
But such an analysis is nothing but pure speculation. It is true that the region is earthquake prone but there is no scientific way to ascertain when a quake will hit let alone its exact magnitude.
A similar speculation done by the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in December last year created a storm in the United States. After a 5.1 earthquake in LA, NASA had predicted that there is a 99 per cent chance of more quakes of a much higher intensity in the region by 2018. But this theory was disputed by the US Geological Survey (USGS), which stated that such a prediction is impossible to make.
Indeed predicting earthquakes and pinpointing their geographic location is impossible under existing technology. The only thing that any ‘expert’ can do is to speculate on the same based on a law known as the Gutenberg-Richter relationship.
Beno Gutenberg and Charles Richter (of the Richter Scale) studied the pattern of earthquakes that hit any region. According to them, for every 1,000 magnitude 3 earthquakes that hits a region, there are 100 magnitude 4 quakes, 10 magnitude 5 quakes, one magnitude 6 earthquake and so forth.
To be certain that the northeast part of India will face a magnitude 8 earthquake one needs to study whether the region has been hit by the other quakes of lower magnitude of the numbers according to the Gutenberg-Richter Law. And even if the chances of being hit by a magnitude 8 earthquake appear strong, it is still impossible to know when that might happen. Even the Gutenberg-Richter Law does not take into account the factor of time.
In the last 100 years, some 19 other quakes greater than magnitude 6 have been recorded within a 250 km range from Tamenglong – the site of Monday’s temblor. The largest was a magnitude 8 quake in 1946.
Yet the buildings in the region are being made in almost the same way as they were 60 years ago.
Such doomsday-kind speculations have been made till as recently in the aftermath of the Nepal earthquake. Yet there is no way to accurately anticipate a quake. What is true is that the tectonic plates of the world are constantly pushing against one another.
The Indian sub-continent is a part of what is called the Indo-Australian Plate and it is pushing against (technically, sliding under) the Eurasian Plate.
The fault line of the two plates pass through the lower half of the Himalayas underneath all the north Indian states, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. So, yes, all of these states face a danger. But this has been the case for millions of years!
Yes, this constant push of the tectonic plates has put a severe strain on them. So there will be more earthquakes. But earthquakes might not cause extensive loss of life and property if proper building measures and disaster management are done. Japan faces the highest numbers of earthquakes every year for any country, yet since 1950s the country has taken extensive measures to minimize the number of deaths.
In the last 65 years, Japan has been hit by almost 40 earthquakes averaging 7.5 on the Richter Scale. (There wouldn’t have been any building left in India’s north if this were the situation here.)
Yet it was only the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011 that took the death toll to 15,000 plus in Japan. If it were not for Japan’s measures, such as making more earthquake resistant buildings and educating people on how to respond to emergencies, the death toll would have been much higher – exactly the reason why the death toll from much lower magnitude quakes is very high in countries such as India. For a start, the NIDM can stop passing off road accidents as ‘disasters’: