By Aline Reynolds — Discover Magazine, January 22, 2010*
January 22, 2010 | In the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, nervous citizens can be forgiven for wondering where the next Big One will hit. Major quakes strike with alarming regularity: Earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater occur approximately 18 times a year worldwide. They usually originate near faults where tectonic plates —tremendous fragments of the earth’s crust—collide or push above or below each other.
Geologists suspect that Haiti’s destructive quake resulted from 250 years of seismic stress that has been building up between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. In fact, a group of U.S. geologists presented a study in the Dominican Republic (which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti) in 2008 saying that the region was at risk of an earthquake potentially even bigger than last week’s magnitude 7.0 quake. Part of their presentation is particularly chilling in light of what would happen less than two years later: “This means that the level of built-up stress and energy in the earth could one day be released resulting in an earthquake measuring 7.2 or more on the Richter Scale. This would be an event of catastrophic proportions in a city [Port-au-Prince] with loose building codes, and an abundance of shanty-towns built in ravines and other undesirable locations.”
Earthquakes are still impossible to predict with precision; in the words of one of the geologists who predicted the Haiti quake, “It could have been the next day, it could have been 10 years, it could have been 100… This is not an exact science.” But researchers have identified a handful of seismic zones around the globe that are storing up especial amounts of stress and are particularly hazardous. Browse through the gallery for a world tour of the planet’s most seismically vulnerable regions.
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