March 21, 2018

Twitter #EarthquakeCup is in full swing

Posted by Austin Elliott

In the grand tradition of #MammalMarchMadness, the exceedingly popular Twitter-poll-based geeky sciencey alternative to the US’s eponymous basketball tournament, which grew to extraordinary popularity after its inception by evolutionary biologist @Mammals_Suck […milk] (a.k.a. Katie Hinde), natural scientists have spawned a staggering array of spinoff competitions in their own fields. As it sweeps through the subdisciplines of geology, the phenomenon has arrived at earthquakes. Having a poll-based competition among history’s “greatest” earthquakes could come across as a bit more tone-deaf than less disastrous tournaments, but the event marks an opportunity to take stock of the leaps and bounds each earthquake has provided us in knowledge and preparatory mitigation strategies. Plus, it’s worth remembering the times the forces of the planet have so profoundly intersected human society.

The following guest post by the hosts of the #EarthquakeCup explains more:


Having completed the group stages, we have reached the halfway stage of the Twitter #EarthquakeCup. But what is the Earthquake Cup & why are we running it?

Why are we running the Earthquake Cup?

Late last year Eddie Dempsey of the University of Hull ran the #MinCup on Twitter, a competition pitting 32 different minerals against one another in what turned out to be a fantastic example of impromptu science communication. Since then a Rock Cup, a Dino Cup, a Quartz Cup, a Fault Cup and a Volcano Cup have taken place hosted by other geoscientists. The aim of all of these competitions was to better communicate to the public the importance of these things in our lives (and in the case of the Volcano Cup to better illustrate and make people aware the dangers posed), to help educate people on the geology which is so critical to how we live our lives, and also to have a bit of fun!

Jens Skapski (Ruhr-Universitat, MSc student) & I (Plymouth University, BSc student) decided to run an Earthquake Cup with the express aim to increase awareness of seismicity in all parts of the world. Earthquakes are instantaneous events in that they do not last any longer than 10 minutes & most often only a few seconds at most. Despite their short duration (compared to a hurricane or a volcanic eruption) the destruction they can wreak is tremendous; for example, the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand only had a duration of about 5 seconds yet destroyed many buildings in the centre of the city & killed 185 people. Christchurch was only a moderate earthquake at magnitude-6.2; the largest earthquakes, such as the magnitude-9.0 Tohoku Earthquake off the east coast of Japan in March that year, can last as long as six minutes.

Earthquakes themselves do not kill, but the shaking generated by the rupture of an underground fault can cause many different problems on the surface which can kill people. Buildings of brick, stone or steel may seem incredibly sturdy, but when subjected to sudden motions, which can exceed the force of gravity in some cases, they suffer severe damage and even collapse. If your building survives the shaking it could well be the ground it is built on or near which dooms the structure; the forced motion of fluids in the rocks and sediments in the metres directly below the surface can lead to liquefaction or landslides in particularly susceptible geology (such as sandstones or mudstones). These can lead to structural failures or even bury buildings in the case of landslides. A haunting recent example was the destruction of the hiking village of Langtang in Nepal during the magnitude-7.8 April 2015 earthquake, when an avalanche triggered by the earthquake cascaded down a valley and obliterated the place, killing over 250 people.

Though earthquakes are known to kill and be a great risk to people who live in hazardous areas (such as California, Italy, Japan or Chile), many people do not realise the danger earthquakes pose in their own back yard. A striking example of this was given in January 2010 by the magnitude-7.0 earthquake which struck the capital of the Caribbean country of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. Two centuries earlier, in June 1770, a magnitude-7.5 earthquake struck the same area and killed at least 250 people. At the time the area was a French colony and in the years since Haiti gained independence the memories of that damaging and fatal earthquake were forgotten by most. Port-au-Prince, the capital of the one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean, was home to 2.3 million people. The earthquake in 2010 killed approximately 200,000 people, destroying much of the city; today only 1.3 million people live in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. The enormity of the catastrophe led to a struggle to give sufficient aid to those displaced and was followed by a further catastrophe, in this case the spread of diseases such as cholera. The people of Haiti at New Year 2010 had little idea that such a disaster could befall them, let alone would. Awareness of seismic hazards is the first step in mitigating them.

These examples hopefully help illustrate that earthquakes are a serious hazard to people in their daily lives – we cannot predict earthquakes as they could strike at any time (this is not to say that geoscientists cannot attempt to narrow down when a certain event could occur). What we wish to do is illustrate that these hazards are not just exclusive to certain well-known parts of the world – such as California or Japan – but many other regions which are perhaps less known in the public eye.

How does the Earthquake Cup work?

With the above stated aims we decided to list what we deemed were the most significant historical earthquakes based on three main criteria: their social, their cultural, and their scientific impacts. Social impact includes damage and casualties; cultural impact includes how the earthquake affects people’s lives immediately and for decades or centuries thereafter; and scientific impact relates more to the development of the science of seismology, our understanding of earthquakes and their causes.

The second decision was how many quakes would be in the competition. This was decided by figuring out the structure of the cup – the world was divided into eight different regions, broadly based on the continents of the world: North America (Canada & the USA), Central America (Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean), South America, Europe (including the islands of the Mediterranean), Middle East & Central Asia (including Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the ex-Soviet central Asian states & Mongolia), South East Asia (the Indian subcontinent, China, Indochina, Indonesia, Philippines & Japan), Africa, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and SW Pacific islands). Each of these regions would have eight representatives.

With a total of 64 earthquakes to aim for, a long-list was composed of over 120 quakes. After much deliberation and compromise these were narrowed down to the 64 in the competition; these earthquakes split into their eight regions, with the eight quakes representing that region divided into two groups of four (i.e. for North America, Group A had the 1964 Good Friday earthquake, the 1663 Charlevoix earthquake, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, & the 1992 Landers earthquake). In each group two quakes would progress, leaving 32 in the second round or second group stage (this is the stage we have just completed). Thereafter the Cup would be a knockout “tournament” until only two remained to be crowned the Twitterverse’s most significant earthquake.

In some cases the choice was fairly simple – Africa only had 15 suggestions made so only seven had to be ruled out. In the case of South East Asia this was far more challenging – no fewer than 26 earthquakes were suggested in the long-list, meaning that even such a recent significant earthquake as the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake in China did not make the final 8! Some other earthquakes were repeat events of previous ones suggested and so the quake deemed the more significant was included (for example the 1802 Bucharest Earthquake over the 1977 Vrancea Earthquake in Romania); only one example which may be regarded as close enough to be a repeat event did make it in, these being the 1509 Constantinople and 1999 Izmit earthquakes in Turkey.

Having representation from all over the world was important because this meant that the engagement in the competition would not simply be limited to certain countries. We attempted to include as much variation as possible – for example with North America we included three intraplate earthquakes (1663 Charlevoix in eastern Canada, 1811-12 New Madrid in the US Midwest & 2011 Prague in Oklahoma, USA), two subduction earthquakes (1964 Good Friday in Alaska, USA & 1700 Cascadia in western Canada and the US Northwest) & three shallow crustal California earthquakes (1906 San Francisco in northern California, 1992 Landers in southern California, & 1857 Fort Tejon in central California). These earthquakes also span 350 years of human history & repeat events of these quakes pose significant threats in their locations. All of these earthquakes have had a significant scientific impact (even if in the case of the earlier quakes their scientific impacts was widely retrospective), all had a social impact (in the case of 1906 San Francisco the destruction of much of the US western seaboard’s largest city at the time), and almost all a great cultural impact (1992 Landers probably didn’t change people’s everyday lives anywhere as much as the more famous and damaging 1994 Northridge earthquake).

It is our hope that we may succeed in our primary aims – if running this Earthquake Cup might make somebody aware or more aware of the hazards posed in their immediate area or increase their knowledge of earthquakes around the world then we would deem it a success. After all, earthquakes can be disasters of enormous magnitude and to communicate the risks and hazards posed by them to the public and scientific community is one of the most important tools with which to aid and enable mitigation.

Each round of the Earthquake Cup shall begin at 19:00 UTC throughout March. Look for new competitions daily on the Twitter pages of @JuskisErdbeben and @UKEQ_Bulletin on alternating nights this month.

About the Earthquake Cup Emcees

Jens Skapski (@JuskisErdbeben) studies Geosciences at the Ruhr-Universitat in Bochum, Germany. He has been compiling earthquake damage reports from media around the world in the Earthquake Impact Database since 2014 in a collaboration with others from around the world (Belgium, Germany, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Australia, Nepal, Mexico and Venezuela).

James Gurney (@UKEQ_Bulletin) studies Geology at Plymouth University in Devon, United Kingdom. He has been interested in earthquakes since the February 2011 Christchurch Earthquake in New Zealand, having visited the country and the city the year before. He has been running the United Kingdom Earthquake Bulletin (UKEQ) since September 2014 & has been actively compiling a database of all earthquakes over moment magnitude (Mw) 5.0 using GEOFON moment tensor solutions since January 2014.