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At least 328 killed in Iran-Iraq: Why Iran is vulnerable to earthquakes

Iran sits on many major fault lines and is prone to near-daily quakes.

world Updated: Nov 13, 2017 14:58 IST
HT Correspondent
A man reacts following an earthquake in Sarpol-e Zahab county in Kermanshah, Iran.
A man reacts following an earthquake in Sarpol-e Zahab county in Kermanshah, Iran.(Tasnim News Agency via Reuters Photo)

Major fault lines and collision between tectonic plates are why devastating earthquakes shake Iran.

An earthquake of magnitude 7.3 on Sunday killed at least 328 people in Iraq and Iran as rescue workers frantically searched for survivors. Most of the casualties (200) were traced to Iran, where at least 1,700 more were injured, the country’s National Disaster Management Organization said.

Magnitude-7 earthquakes on their own are capable of widespread and heavy damage, but the clash between the Arabia and Eurasia tectonic plates makes the region prone to tremors.

These plates are part of the Earth’s outer shell and glide over the planet’s rocky layer, called the mantle.

USGS says on its website the Arabia plate is pushing towards Eurasia at 26 mm per year. In Iran’s west, where Kermanshah province lies, this collision of the plates led to creation of Zagros mountains. The earthquake hit in the “Zagros fold and thrust belt” where the Arabian and Eurasian plates collide, USA Today quoted Jascha Polet, a seismologist at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona.

The Global Seismic Hazard Map shows Iran, marked mostly in in Red, as a high-risk hazard area. (Global Seismic Hazard Map)

Videos circulating online showed buildings shaking during the quake, which was centered 31km outside the eastern Iraqi city of Halabja, according to the US Geological Survey. It struck at a depth of 23.2km, a shallow depth that can have broader damage. More than 100 aftershocks followed the initial temblor.

Although tremors were felt in several areas of Iran, the hardest hit province was Kermanshah. More than 142 of the victims were from Sarpol-e Zahab county in Kermanshah, about 15km from the Iraq border.

History of quakes

Iran is located in the active Alpine-Himalayan seismic belt and has experienced more than 130 strong earthquakes with magnitude of 7.5 or more in the past centuries, according to a paper published by the Indian Institute of Technology -Kanpur. “High elevated topographies, volcanism and active faulting are some of the characteristics of the country.”

In June 1990, a powerful earthquake killed at least 16,000 in the country’s north. A magnitude-6.6 quake that struck early morning on December 26, 2003 devastated the historic city of Bam, killing about 31,000 people and damaging 90% of the buildings in the tourist hub.

In this photo provided by the Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA, a rescue worker searches debris for survivors with his sniffing dog after an earthquake at the city of Sarpol-e-Zahab in western Iran. (AP Photo)

Twenty-two years later, an earthquake in Iran’s East Azerbaijan province killed over 300 people.

While poor disaster planning was another reason for high casualties in the 2003 Bam earthquake, many houses in rural areas of Iran are still made of mud bricks that can crumble easily, adding to the area’s vulnerability.