The 6.8 magnitude earthquake wreaked great damage in a country unprepared for it. Here’s a brief guide to the disaster.
Ok, let’s start with the earthquake…
The quake had a magnitude of 6.8—and its epicentre was located in a remote region in the High Atlas mountains—some 72 km southwest of Marrakech. It struck at 11:11 pm—when many were sleeping. An aftershock of 4.9 struck 19 minutes later. You can see location on the map below:
The video below shows the extent of the devastation in the village of Moulay Brahim. The remote villages in the mountains have paid the steepest price. The houses made of mud brick, stone and rough wood were cracked open—leaving tens of thousands homeless. At least 300,000 have been affected by the quake.
You can see people scrambling over the ruins of their homes below:
A historic loss: Marrakech is home to medieval mosques, palaces and seminaries—which have long given it a romantic allure. The historic parts of the city—called Medina—are a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the Jemaa al-Fna Square, the minaret of the Kotoubia mosque is one of the prized jewels of the city. You can see it swaying during the quake below:
Many of the old buildings inside the Medina have been damaged and some have collapsed entirely. On Sunday morning, large piles of rubble were dotted around the area, with stray cats scouring them for food. Some sections of the city were cordoned off with fencing as the old building could be at risk of collapse.
And this 12th century Tinmal Mosque in the mountains may have to be rebuilt entirely:
The rescue efforts: The villages were so isolated that it was impossible to send rescue workers until the next morning. The fear is that there are many more trapped under the rubble in these areas:
Roads and access to this region are already difficult, before you compound that with difficulties like rubble or problems with the roads. It’s going to take a miracle to get immediate aid there.
The other problem: Morocco is ruled by a king who spends a great part of his time at his residence in France. No decisions could be made until he returned to convene an emergency meeting. As one historian explains:
Ultimately, nothing in the country gets done without the green light from the palace … so much time was lost because [the king] was physically not there. Fundamentally, this is a reflection of how ineffective Moroccan governance has been due to the fact it relies entirely on an authoritarian structure of a figure who is absent.
Quote to note: Recovery will take years:
UNESCO pledged to help repair damage to heritage in historic Marrakech, but the prospect of rebuilding in inaccessible remote towns and villages appeared even more challenging. “It won’t be a matter of a week or two … We are counting on a response that will take months, if not years,” said the Red Cross Middle East and north Africa director, Hossam Elsharkawi.
Morocco isn’t exactly earthquake country, right?
Earthquakes are indeed rare in Morocco—and that’s one reason why building codes have not kept up with the times. The last major one in 2004 killed at least 628 people. The deadliest was in 1960—when a magnitude 6.7 quake killed about 12,000. That said, this is the largest magnitude earthquake ever recorded in Morocco. The last one of this size occurred in 1624 AD near Fez.
What causes a quake: The Earth’s outermost layer is made of 15 slabs called tectonic plates. The boundaries between these plates—the fractures, so to speak—are fault lines. Movements along these lines cause earthquakes. Here’s a map of the tectonic plates:
Looking at Morocco: As you can see above, Morocco sits on the boundary between the Eurasian and African plates. Now, these two plates move very slowly—compared to the others:
Over millions of years, the movements have crumpled the landscape, raised the Atlas Mountains and crafted a complex network of fractures through the region. The rate of collision near Morocco is fairly slow, with the plates colliding at a mere 4 to 6 millimetres per year, which means earthquakes do not happen often in this region. For comparison, the land around the San Andreas Fault shifts some 50 millimetres each year.
But pressure builds up over time as the two keep rubbing against each other over millions of years. Unlike California—where there is a single clean fault line between the plates, the boundary between the African and Eurasian plates is messy—so it’s harder to figure out what exactly happened. Experts think the North Atlas Fault is the most likely suspect:
Point to note: Earthquakes in this part of the world are poorly understood—both because of the geology and because quakes are more rare. In fact, even in the case of this quake, scientists can’t agree on its location beneath the Earth’s surface:
The U.S. Geological Survey’s early assessment placed the depth of the Morocco quake at 11.5 miles, then updated it to 16.3 miles. The European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre currently places the depth at 7.2 miles.
FYI: By any estimate, this is a “shallow” earthquake—which causes the most damage. The reason: deeper quakes are felt across a bigger area—so they ripple out more, so to speak. But they lose potency as they reach the surface.
The bottomline: The destruction caused by an earthquake often has more to do with the quality of construction than the size of the tremors. People die because buildings collapse on top of them. A quake may be Mother Nature at her most unpredictable, but the extent of misery is entirely human-made.
New York Times is good at explaining why Morocco’s location is a problem. For a very nerdy take on the quake, read Earthquake Insights over at Substack. Vox has an interesting overview of what we know about earthquakes—and everything we don’t. Our previous Big Story on the earthquake in Turkey—which killed 4,365 people—tells you why construction matters.