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Earthquake Catastrophes and Fatalities Projected to Rise in Populous 21st Century

Earthquake Catastrophes and Fatalities Projected to Rise in Populous 21st Century

MENLO PARK, Calif. — “Predicted population increases in this century can be expected to translate into more people dying from earthquakes. There will be more individual earthquakes with very large death tolls as well as more people dying during earthquakes than ever before, according to a newly published study led by U.S. Geological Survey engineering geologist Thomas L. Holzer.”

Holzer and his USGS coauthor James Savage studied earthquakes with death tolls of more than 50,000, which they define as catastrophic, and reported global death tolls from roughly 1500 A.D. to the present. Comparing those events to estimates of world population, they found that the number of catastrophic earthquakes has increased as population has grown. After statistically correlating the number of catastrophic earthquakes in each century with world population, they were able to use new (2011) 21st-century population projections by the United Nations to project that approximately 21 catastrophic earthquakes will occur in the 21st century, a tripling of the seven that occurred in the 20th century. They also predict that total deaths in the century could more than double to approximately 3.5 million people if world population grows to 10.1 billion by 2100 from 6.1 billion in 2000. 

“This prediction need not be a prophesy: the National Earthquake Hazard Reduction Program (NEHRP) in the U.S. can be a model for how science can inform engineering designs that are adopted into life-saving building codes in earthquake-prone regions,” said USGS Associate Director for Natural Hazards David Applegate. “I also cannot stress enough the value of educated citizens — those who understand the natural hazards of this planet and are empowered to take action to reduce their risk.”

Four catastrophic earthquakes have already struck since the beginning of the 21st century, including the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman earthquake (and tsunami) and 2010 Haiti earthquake that each may have killed over 200,000 people. The study explains this increase in lethal earthquakes. It is not that we are having more earthquakes; it is that more people are living in seismically vulnerable buildings in the world’s earthquake zones. 

Holzer’s study underscores the need to build residential and commercial structures that will not collapse and kill people during earthquake shaking.

“Without a significant increase in seismic retrofitting and seismic-resistant construction in earthquake hazard zones at a global scale, the number of catastrophic earthquakes and earthquake fatalities will continue to increase and our predictions are likely to be fulfilled,” Holzer said.

The study, “Global Earthquake Fatalities and Population,” is available online.

USGS Newsroom

More information

Parameter Value Description
Magnitude mb The magnitude for the event.
Longitude ° East Decimal degrees longitude. Negative values for western longitudes.
Latitude ° North Decimal degrees latitude. Negative values for southern latitudes.
Depth km Depth of the event in kilometers.
Place Textual description of named geographic region near to the event. This may be a city name, or a Flinn-Engdahl Region name.
Time 1970-01-01 00:00:00 Time when the event occurred. UTC/GMT
Updated 1970-01-01 00:00:00 Time when the event was most recently updated. UTC/GMT
Timezone offset Timezone offset from UTC in minutes at the event epicenter.
Felt The total number of felt reports
CDI The maximum reported intensity for the event.
MMI The maximum estimated instrumental intensity for the event.
Alert Level The alert level from the PAGER earthquake impact scale. Green, Yellow, Orange or Red.
Review Status Indicates whether the event has been reviewed by a human.
Tsunami This flag is set to "1" for large events in oceanic regions and "0" otherwise. The existence or value of this flag does not indicate if a tsunami actually did or will exist.
SIG A number describing how significant the event is. Larger numbers indicate a more significant event.
Network The ID of a data contributor. Identifies the network considered to be the preferred source of information for this event.
Sources A comma-separated list of network contributors.
Number of Stations Used The total number of Number of seismic stations which reported P- and S-arrival times for this earthquake.
Horizontal Distance Horizontal distance from the epicenter to the nearest station (in degrees).
Root Mean Square sec The root-mean-square (RMS) travel time residual, in sec, using all weights.
Azimuthal Gap The largest azimuthal gap between azimuthally adjacent stations (in degrees).
Magnitude Type The method or algorithm used to calculate the preferred magnitude for the event.
Event Type Type of seismic event.
Event ID Id of event.
Event Code An identifying code assigned by, and unique from, the corresponding source for the event.
Event IDS A comma-separated list of event ids that are associated to an event.

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