Atmosphere And Weather

Why Earthquakes cause more Damage than Hurricanes



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Natural disasters fascinate mankind. They are a stark reminder that despite all man’s achievements as a species on Planet Earth man can so easily be humbled by nature and its awesome power. In the last few years the frequency of these devastating events has appeared to increase. While there is potential for debate around whether the increase in the extremity of natural disasters such as hurricanes is linked to overarching changes in the climate no such debate is possible for Earthquakes. Earthquakes are not linked to the Planet’s climatic system but instead Earth’s tectonic system. The debate, however, about which causes more damage, an earthquake or a hurricane is one to be considered with some thought.

Determining how much damage a natural disaster causes depends on the four Ps: Perception, Prediction, People and Protection. This model can be extrapolated for any natural disaster, however, here hurricanes and earthquakes only will be considered to conclude why it is earthquakes cause more damage than hurricanes or are certainly perceived to do so.

Perception: The first ‘P’ to consider for a natural disaster is perception. The damage caused by such an event can be perceived in several ways: the cost of the damage, the loss of life, the size of the area affected. These are three possible ways in which the perception of damage can be seen. The most costly disaster in US History was Hurricane Katrina, however, four of the top five most expensive natural disasters of all time are earthquakes (Katrina is the only hurricane in the top five in third spot).

Earthquakes themselves can be perceived in two ways dependent on which scale is used to measure them. Most commonly earthquakes are measured and certainly reported in the media according to their strength on the Richter scale. The Richter scale for many is a misunderstood metric. An earthquake that measures 6.0 on the Richter scale may not sound  much more destructive than one measuring 5.0; it is, however, 10 times more powerful. The Richter scale is an exponential scale with each point along the scale 10 time more powerful than the previous, an earthquake measuring 8.0, therefore, is in fact 10 000 times more powerful than an earthquake measuring 4.0 .

The second scale for measuring earthquakes is the Mercalli scale. This scale measures an earthquake in terms of the damage that it actually causes with the value given corresponding to a descriptive amount of damage. An earthquake measuring very high on the Richter scale can cause very little damage because it may occur deep under the ocean. In contrast earthquakes measuring much lower on the Richter scale cause more damage because of their locality to humans.

Another fact to consider is what is perceived to be the earthquake and hurricane. Hurricanes involve strong winds and flooding waters with the floods doing the most damage, both of course are capable of causing death. Earthquakes involve dramatic movement and shaking of the ground. If one experienced an earthquake stood in a huge open field then one may be shaken to the floor and indeed the ground may move around you but chances of fatality from the earthquake are low. What kills people in an earthquake are the collapsing buildings they are in, the broken gas lines which explode, the damaged electrical wires which start fires and as  has been seen in recent years the tsunamis that follow. It is the damage to the infrastructure from an earthquake which is usually more irreparable than from a hurricane.


Prediction: The second P is one of the most fundamental in why earthquakes cause more damage than hurricanes. Very simply earthquakes are much harder to predict and impossible to track. Both earthquakes and hurricanes have localities where they are more common. Earthquakes are more common along tectonic plate boundaries which are known. Hurricanes of course have hurricane alley. In contrast to earthquakes hurricanes are usually identified before they reach human settlements. What’s more satellite weather systems allow us to track them and measure them as they move. Areas affected by hurricanes have warning systems in place which are well drilled and can inform residents of a hurricane’s progress. Hurricanes have a season for which people can prepare and take precaution earthquakes are far less predictable. Hurricanes are a part of the weather and climate system and as such are reported on everyday to the public across news and weather channels. There is no such similar service for earthquakes.

The earthquakes which are most destructive are those which at least expected. While seismologists may measure tremors which could precede an earthquake many earthquakes come with no warning in one unexpected catastrophic lurch. People have the chance to batten down the hatches when a hurricane is on its way. They have the chance to move to specially constructed shelters and option not available before an unknown earthquake.

People: If there are more people where a disaster hits there is more damage. More people mean more buildings and more buildings in an earthquake means more deaths, the deadliest natural disasters in history have of course happened in areas with a greater population density. Deaths and damage are magnified further when those events occur in areas of high population density with poor construction standards or worse still areas where there are no standards at all. An earthquake happening in the developing world will always cause more damage and fatality than a similar sized earthquake happening in the developed world. Indeed earthquakes of much smaller magnitude have caused more damage in the developing world than stronger earthquakes in the developed.

The deadliest hurricane ever to hit the US was Galveston, 1900, with a death toll estimated between 8000 and 12 000. This is dwarfed by the death tolls of the deadliest earthquakes in history which are hundreds of thousands people. In countries where the population density is high and infrastructure poor the fatality rate will be higher than a developed country where the infrastructure is superior thus making them less susceptible to damage and more capable to deal with the aftermath and rescue.

Protection: The final ‘P’, protection, is interconnected to the previous 3. It of course refers to limitation of damage. It is not possible to truly protect yourself from either hurricanes or earthquakes. However, the ability to predict hurricanes with greater ease than earthquakes allows now for better the prevention and protection by the people who will be affected. Protection from earthquakes is of course limited by the lack of prediction but also the fact that the protection which is available is far more expensive. ‘Earthquake resistant’ technologies similar to those used now in some Japanese buildings are costly. They rely on engineering skills and high quality materials which are simply not as readily available in the developing world meaning that developing countries will always be less protected for an earthquake.

Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes are markers in time by which mankind can judge both its success and failure as a species. They demonstrate the strength of man’s will to survive. They define his ability to be courageous and do great things to help one another. Equally, though they demonstrate his lack of consideration for the most vulnerable in the world and society and his stubbornness to learn from his mistakes. All natural disasters have the potential to be catastrophic indeed the  most cataclysmic natural disasters in the geological past have perhaps been the explosion of supervolcanoes like Yellowstone. However, earthquakes and hurricanes are the disasters which grab the public attention the most and certainly in recent years this has been true. And of the two it is earthquakes which will always have a greatest potential to be destructive.


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