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Europe’s Earthquake Powder Keg

Earthquakes. They are unpredictable. They sometimes happen near the earth’s surface or can occur deep underground. Sometimes they are the harbinger of tsunamis forming on the high seas. Most go undetected by humans or seismographs, while some are the deadliest natural disasters the world has to endure. 

But how exactly are earthquakes formed? The most common answer is the subduction process. Deep inside the earth’s lithosphere (the space between ≈ 100 km below the sea level and the earth’s surface), tensions are formed due to the bumping along fault lines of different tectonic plates. These are put in motion by magma currents of different temperatures and densities inside the asthenosphere. Now, because some tectonic plates are heavier than others, they manage to “get under the other plate’s skin” and make the lighter plate burst with fury. When the tension in certain contact points has built up enough momentum, a shockwave of energy is released, travelling at a few kilometres per second towards the earth’s surface and lasting a few dozen seconds, violently shaking and swinging the ground and all that is rooted in it.

But you might be saying: what about Groningen? There are no subductions going on here, are there? Where do earthquakes in this corner of Europe come from? Indeed, there are no major tectonic plates fault lines bumping between one another around the Netherlands, but instead, according to the saying that “God created the Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands”, this holds true for natural disasters also. Earthquakes in the country’s north are also man-made, caused by gas extraction, forcing the ground to reclaim the void left by underground drills.

But overall, there are much more earthquake-prone regions in Europe, predominantly along the Mediterranean mountain ranges. According to a team of seismologists, geologists, and engineers at the European Facilities for Earthquake Hazard and Risk (EFEHR), the countries with the highest earthquake hazard in Europe are Turkey, Greece, Italy, Albania and Romania. The Balkans have had catastrophic precedents in recent history: North Macedonia’s capital city of Skopje was completely destroyed by a 6.1 magnitude earthquake in 1963, causing over 1.000 deaths and resulting in 200.000 people losing their own homes. Only just in 1999, Turkey was hit by a series of earthquakes very close to Istanbul, culminating with a 7.4 magnitude earthquake in Izmit, killing more than 17.000 people. Even more recently, the much-mediated august 2016 Central Italy earthquake erased a small town (Amatrice) and many lives in the heart of the Apennines mountain range. But perhaps the most intense earthquakes took place beneath the Carpathian Mountain chain’s southeast curvature, in the sleepy Romanian province of Vrancea.


Vrancea is one of Europe’s most active seismic zones. The area is subject to not two but three separate mini-tectonic plates which collide against each other: the East European plate slides from Moldova’s direction, the Pannonian plate bumps from the west to the east, while the Moesian plate, consisting of the Black Sea’s heavy oceanic plate, manages to subduct the two plates in the SE-NW direction. Periodically, this results in unprecedented devastations, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake of 1940 being the first in the country’s modern era. Romania’s architects and structural engineers who studied abroad were, in fact, trained in non-seismic countries like France or Germany, so their country did not have the knowledge or rules aimed at surviving damages caused by earthquakes like Japan, for example, has. At the same time, reinforced concrete was a popular new building technology in the interbellum period, gaining prominence in Paris’ 1928 Art Deco World fair. Romania enthusiastically embraced the new steel and concrete technology, but it turned out that unflexible rigid structures are not what you want to have during an earthquake. Proof of this was the 14-storey modernist Carton Block which completely collapsed in 1940 whilst killing ±200 humans, while the small brick buildings survived. But the most disastrous earthquake to hit the country was on March 4, 1977, when a 7.5 magnitude quake collapsed 33 mid and high-rise buildings and killed more than 1.500 people.

Bucharest in ruins after the earthquake of March 31, 1977. Source: Replica - INFO HD
Bucharest in ruins after the earthquake of March 31, 1977. Source: Replica – INFO HD

To this day, this was Romania’s single worst natural disaster and the one with the most consequences. One can only mention the radical urbanism which was born from the ashes of Bucharest’s ruined neighbourhoods, to make room for the Palace of Parliament and the Unirii boulevard, an architecture inspired by North-Korean communism, as well as from Haussmanian Paris.

In the present day, the vulnerable countries of Europe have drills and plans in place for when the next disastrous earthquake will strike. And while some places such as Istanbul take disaster planning and response very seriously, Europe’s inhabitants are not prepared to the extent of other seismic countries, say, Japan, where the public consciousness is kept awake by regular ground shakes. And as for Vrancea’s next imminent rendezvous with destiny, let’s hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

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Thommy Pantis
Thommy Pantis
Bachelor student of Spatial Planning and Design at RUG's faculty of Spatial Sciences. Interested in public administration, local politics and media.


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