BEIRUT: Although it probably passed you by, Lebanon was one of many countries to experience an earthquake this week.
A quake registering 3.8 on the Richter Scale hit 50 kilometers off the coast of Sidon at just after 2:30 Tuesday morning. No damage was reported and, according to Ata Elias, assistant professor at the American University of Beirut’s (AUB) Department of Geology, it was in no way related to recent larger tremors.
“The earthquake that happened off the coast of Sidon was very small,” he told students at AUB Thursday.
Already in 2010, huge earthquakes have killed thousands of people and caused billions of dollars worth of damage in Haiti, Chile and most recently Turkey. Elias was keen to point out these tremors were not part of a wider trend of earth movements:
“These have nothing to do with our faults. There are on very different faults and not related,” he said.
But that’s where the good news ended.
The eastern Mediterranean basin lies next to the boundary between African and Arabian tectonic plates, forming one of the most volatile seismic regions on earth.
“The Mediterranean has lots of earthquakes … especially the eastern Mediterranean because this area is surrounded by major faults,” Elias said.
Lebanon is particularly vulnerable to tremors; it is bisected by the Yammouneh fault and Mount Lebanon Thrust fault lines, which produce hundreds of minute shocks a year.
“Earthquakes happen everywhere and everyday in Lebanon,” Elias said.
Most of these are too small for concern – around 1,000 times weaker than the last major quake to strike Lebanon, in 1759 at a magnitude of 7.4, which killed tens of thousands of people. In 1956, the 5.7M Chim earthquake caused loss of life and significant material damage.
Scientists believe that a colossal quake occurred off the coast of Lebanon in 551, producing a tsunami that razed Beirut to the ground.
Elias and Abdel-Rahman, professor and chairperson at AUB’s Department of Geology, warned that another earthquake of this magnitude could occur any day.
“The Yammouneh fault produces major earthquakes about every 1,000 years; the Mount Lebanon Thrust every 1,500 to 1,750 years. But we can have earthquakes before and after these dates and that’s the only scientific account we can give of a possibility of earthquakes in the area,” Elias said.
“In other words, if we learn that there was a large magnitude earthquake [in 551], we are expecting one with a similar magnitude around now,” Rahman added.
“Obviously we cannot do to much predicting. We still cannot predict to any reasonable degree when an earthquake will happen.”
Elias said that the current lull in major earthquakes in Lebanon was not uncommon, nor did it mean the area’s seismic activity had ceased. “The fact that today we are not witnessing major earthquakes is not unusual, but it tells us that maybe the stress is loading … and a major earthquake will happen. Maybe we are close to the end of a seismic cycle,” he said.
It is a danger humans in Lebanon have faced since the first inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent – even the architects at Baalbek’s Temple of Bacchus designed its keystone to withstand seismic activity – and Elias said it was each homeowner’s responsibility to ensure modern buildings could stand up to future jolts.
“It’s up to everyone among us to check whether their house is well built or not,” he said.
He added that Lebanon’s seven seismic activity monitor centers made it one of the best placed countries in the region to come up with viable methods of reducing earthquake-induced damage.