13 April 2010

Junk natural hazards science of the month – earthquake risks to the World Cup in South Africa

Posted by Dave Petley

Although this is meant to be a blog on landslides, occasionally things appear in other areas of natural hazards that are so irritatingly ridiculous that I just can’t let them go.  And so in the last few days a story has been doing the rounds about earthquake risk to the forthcoming football World Cup in South Africa.  For example,  The Daily Star newspaper in the UK (not necessarily worth reading on a normal day) is carrying the story:

There are some extraordinary quotes, from the source of the story, Dr Chris Hartnady:

“A major earthquake disaster in the region is inevitable because wide areas of southern Africa are affected by the slow, southward spread of the East African rift system…It is not a question of if, but when. The consequences would be so expensive in terms of mortality and economic cost that the risk of being ill-prepared is unacceptably high.”

So lets take a look at the seismic record for South Africa.  First, here is the USGS seismic hazard map for Africa:

Whilst the seismic hazard for South Africa is not zero, it is comparatively low. For comparison, here is the similar map for Europe:

You will see that South Africa’s seismic hazard is similar to, and in many cases lower than, that of the UK.  Hardly a major source of concern.  Here is a map of earthquakes since 1990, again from the USGS:

Compare the number of recorded events in the Mediterranean area (top of the image) with that of South Africa to get an idea of the level of hazard in the latter.

Of course an earthquake can in theory happen anywhere and of course if the community is unprepared then the impacts of said event can be devastating.  However, the level of seismic hazard in South Africa is not high, and the likelihood of a large earthquake there during the four weeks of the World Cup is vanishingly small. 

Of greater concern is how any team can hope to cope with Argentina’s maestro Lionel Messi!