Photo: The Geological Survey of Israel

Earthquakes pose greatest threat to Israel after war, says expert

There have been 30 earthquakes in Israel’s immediate region since 19 June 2020.

The most recent reported earthquake in Israel was on Tuesday 11 August, according to the Seismology Division  of The Geological Survey of Israel (GSI). “Event 20200822089” consisting of 3.3 magnitude tremors and a 9 km depth were felt in the Galilee region at 8:40:2 a.m., with no reported injury or damage.

There were also 4 in the eastern part of Samaria 8 August – 30 June, ranging between 2.4 and 2.0 on the Richter scale; 4 in the Dead Sea Basin 8 July – 19 June, 2.5-2.0 in magnitude; a 2.5 on 23 July in the Jordan Valley and another 2.5 in the Yamun Region on 26 June.

The highest number of quakes occurred in the East Mediterranean Sea. There were 9 between 28 July and 20 June, ranging between 3.0 and 2.1 in magnitude. The island of Cyprus had 3 between 30 July and 28 June, 3.5 to 3.2 in magnitude. Syria also had 3 between 2 August and 22 June, the highest of which was a 3.6 and the lowest a 2.7. There was a 2.5 on 7 July the Wadi Sirhan Region in the northwestern Arabian Peninsula between Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and a 2.8 in Turkey on 22 June.

Seismic activity occurs worldwide on a daily basis, and Israel is no exception. As pointed out, however, by Amir Yahav, who is the Director of the Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee for Earthquake Preparedness [hereinafter “the Steering Committee”], earthquakes are so “commonplace” that “tens of thousands” are felt globally each year – “the vast majority of which are weak in intensity and do not cause any damage.”

Mr. Yahav said that earthquakes nevertheless remain such a “great concern in Israel” that “according to government resolutions it is the second most dangerous scenario (after war scenario).”

While such occurrences cannot be prevented, authorities can undertake precautionary measures during and immediately after the event to minimize damage and facilitate greater recovery.

In a written statement, the Steering Committee Director specified that the government has ordered preparation of adequately response to cover “7,000 casualties, 8,600 badly wounded, 37,000 lightly wounded, 170,000 homeless, 28,000 destroyed/heavily damaged buildings, 290,000 medium to light damaged buildings.” The basis of such great concern, he explained, is due to the construction of some 80,000 buildings prior to the enactment of the national earthquake building code in 1980.

The Steering Committee was appointed by the Israeli government in August 1999 following a devastating earthquake in neighboring Turkey that same year, “that once again illustrated each country’s vulnerability to the enormous destruction” that could result, reads its official website. This professional advisory body supervises all aspects pertaining to preparation for earthquakes and tsunamis.

40 representatives of government ministries including the Home Front Command, emergency bodies, research institutes and civic organizations participate in the Steering Committee. Focus is on the prevention of disaster by improving construction and infrastructure to withstand shocks, including the initiation and funding of development and updating of building standards, studies dealing with the development of construction methods with high earthquake resistance, and formulation of a budgeted government plan for the reinforcement of existing residential and public buildings housed by government ministries.

Even though “all critical infrastructures have programs of earthquake preparedness,” Mr. Yahav said, “it is not enough” and more needs to be implemented. He cited findings of the 2018 state Comptroller report that dealt with that issue.

Other Steering Committee activities include geological, seismological and geographical research to “increase the knowledge base” through initiation and funding of research to “map geological fractures, characterize tsunami risks and characterize geographical areas according to their soil acceleration potential, liquefaction and slope gliding.” This data is combined with engineering expertise to “form an information base that enables risk assessments and earthquake scenarios to be performed in various directions.” It also works to integrate the national and local earthquake warning systems, promote the creation of national capacity to support local authorities through ASL (Population Assistance Site), and coordinate with the GSI on an operational seismological unit.

Historical data indicates that a strong earthquake will occur even though its timing and intensity are impossible to predict. Mr. Yahav said that research reveals energy accumulation capable of potentially producing a “massive 7-7.5 magnitude earthquake” in some areas along the the Dead Sea Fault in which “we estimate that all countries in the region will be afflicted.”

“Global experience shows that citizens’ proper preparation for an earthquake and behaving according to the defensive guidelines during an earthquake, have saved many lives,” stresses the Committee’s website. Toward that end, advisories in Hebrew, Arabic and English are regularly issued to the general public by the Committee for the Production of Public Information and the Execution of Public Information on television, radio, the internet and other materials disseminated in cooperation with local authorities. Advisories  mapping escape routes in all three languages have also been posted along the beach fronts of all coastal Israeli cities, and the European Commission has reportedly helped to install equipment to measure sea levels at different locations along the shoreline.

There is also vocational training with government agencies, emergency and civilian groups toward the improvement of preventive deployment programs and the response capabilities; including “the fields of engineering, rescue, population needs assessment, international assistance, information, and study missions to earthquake sites around the world.”

Training programs are also held in schools, organizations and workplaces in the private and public sectors, as well as among security officials in the various systems. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), more than 2.5 million children participated in Israel’s first national tsunami simulation as part of a wider national earthquake drill in Israel on 12 March 2019. The mass exercise was jointly organized by the Steering Committee with the Ministry of Education, and “involved schools located on the 271 km of Israel coastlines considered as the areas most exposed” if an earthquake occurred in the Mediterranean Sea.

Mr. Yahav explained to the UNDRR that even though tsunamis may be rare in Israel, “We are sitting in a seismic region and by the sea, two reasons to be alerted.” He stressed that “We do not know when the next tsunami will happen or where, but we prefer to be prepared rather than taken by surprise as happened in the past.”

A convergence of the Eurasian and African tectonic plates in the Mediterranean could trigger a major earthquake in either Greece, Turkey, Cyprus or Egypt – subsequently creating tsunami waves in Israel. On average, Israel reportedly receives tsunami alerts about every three months, but the last real warning followed an 2 May 2020 earthquake near Crete, Greece.

The UNDRR reports that “the last tsunami was recorded in 1956 and was the result of a large earthquake in Greek waters. Prior to that, tsunamis were also recorded near Acre in the 19th century and Caesarea in the 12th century.”

The sea remains “one of the most vulnerable areas in the world from tsunamis” say UNDRR experts, who found that roughly 25% of all cases recorded worldwide have occurred there. Warnings of tsunamis approaching Israel are received from international warning centers scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin. Israel is a subscriber to the North Eastern Atlantic, the Mediterranean and Connected Seas system that provides regular and essential data on the seismic and sea level activities in the region and allows Israel authorities as well to trigger or not a warning alert,” reports the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction.

“Earthquakes or tsunami can occur any given time in our region. Preparedness, exercising possible scenarios and making rehabilitation plans are key elements for saving lives of thousands of people,” concluded Mr. Yahav.

— By Erin Viner