Heartbreaking images out of Haiti show the destruction and devastation after Aug. 14's powerful earthquake, which leveled thousands of homes and left roughly 1,300 people dead.
Some news reports and social media posts claim this quake was even stronger than the one that hit Haiti in 2010 along the same fault line, killing close to 300 thousand people. It’s widely considered the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.
Was the Aug. 14 earthquake in Haiti more powerful than the one that hit the country in 2010?
- United States Geological Survey data
- William Barnhart, geophysicist in the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program
Yes, the Aug. 14, 2021 earthquake in Haiti was twice as strong as the quake in 2010.
WHAT WE FOUND
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) tracks earthquakes worldwide, including each one’s magnitude, the most common measure of an earthquake’s size. They recorded a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Haiti on Aug. 14, compared to a 7.0-magnitude quake in January, 2010.
“In terms of the energy released by [the Aug. 14] earthquake, it would have been about double the size of the 2010 earthquake, which is a fairly significant difference,” geophysicist William Barnhart said. “You likely would have felt stronger shaking from this earthquake if you were standing right on top of it than you would have in the 2010 earthquake.”
To measure earthquake magnitude, scientists use a “moment magnitude scale” that increases exponentially as the quakes get stronger. An earthquake one decimal point up the scale (in other words, a magnitude 7.1 compared to 7.0) is around 1.4 times stronger, making a 7.2-magnitude earthquake roughly 2 times stronger than a 7.0-magnitude. A magnitude 8.0 earthquake is 32 times stronger than a 7.0.
The recent quake also hit nearly two miles closer to the earth’s surface than the one in 2010, which would likely make the shaking even stronger, though Barnhart says estimates of earthquake depth can change over time as the USGS gets more data.
So the August 2021 earthquake was much stronger than the one in 2010.
But the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake was just outside Haiti’s densely populated capital, Port-au-Prince, which amplified the destruction. The quake brought dozens of aftershocks and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and buildings. Officials estimate the death toll as high as 300 thousand people.
Last weekend’s earthquake hit 60 miles further west, in a more rural area, so the destruction wasn’t as concentrated, though still horrific.
“Thousands of fatalities is an incredible number, but compare that to the 200 thousand or more that died in 2010” Barnhart said. “It did occur in a more rural area, further from big population concentrations, which has hopefully contributed to fewer fatalities.”
Those early estimates could change as search and rescue efforts continue. Damaged infrastructure and leveled buildings have made some roads impassable for crews that are working to save lives.
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