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Potential catastrophe

January 30, 2010

Turkey's largest city rests on a fault between two massive plates of the earth's crust. Scientists say this could cause an earthquake even more destructive than the one which shocked Haiti three weeks ago.

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city
Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus and a major faultImage: picture alliance / dpa

Around 14 million people live in Istanbul, the city that literally bridges two continents over the Bosphorus, a strait between the European and Asian part of Turkey.

According to Ahmet Ercan, head of the Turkish Geophysical Society, the next massive earthquake to occur in the region will have an epicenter in the Sea of Marmara - around 25 kilometers (15 miles) south of Istanbul - at a depth between 7 and 10 kilometers (11-16 miles).

The tremor could result in a tsunami as well.

Though Ercan said the potential was not likely exceed 6.7 on the Richter scale, he warned that Istanbul's "particular geological makeup could enhance the power of the quake to somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0," with a radius of up to 90 kilometers.

The January 12 quake in Haiti has made it clear what an earthquake can mean for a large city like Istanbul. But this is a danger many Turkish citizens already know too well.

In 1999, a 7.4-magnitude quake hit the city of Izmit, which straddles essentially the same fault as Istanbul. According to official figures, the disaster killed over 18,000 people - over 10 percent of the population.

Izmit, after a quake in the Sea of Marmara
Over 10 percent of the population perished in an earthquake in Izmit on the Sea of MarmaraImage: picture-alliance / dpa

There have been 15 massive earthquakes recorded in Istanbul since the fourth century, evidence enough that the city cannot afford to neglect the risks of a future earthquake.

Construction issues

An Istanbul skyline
Precious architecture or potential danger?Image: picture alliance/Bildagentur Huber

The United Nations recently published a study looking into earthquake mortality risks among the world's largest cities. Scientists found that more people would be at risk of losing their life if a massive earthquake were to strike Istanbul than any other city in the world.

City officials say the deteriorating quality of Istanbul's buildings is partly to blame for the high risk citizens face.

The city is looking to rip down dilapidated structures and construct new buildings, but this has proved more difficult than expected.

"There are so many rules and laws here; it makes it almost impossible to accomplish anything," said Hasan Atas, a city official. "The entire city is full of dilapidated buildings that can't be torn down because they are protected by law."

Pure chaos

According to Segal Sengor, a leading geophysicist at Istanbul's Technical University, a massive earthquake would essentially destroy Istanbul: buildings would implode and most people would get buried under the rubble.

"Underneath the majority of the streets, there are pipelines that will most likely burst, and there will be fires," Sengor said. "The people will all attempt to flee: it will be a scenario of utter catastrophe and pure chaos."

Istanbul, Turkey's largest city
Leading geophysicists are aware of the dangers Istanbul's 14 million people faceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The city says it is taking measures to protect the metropolis and its inhabitants from the dangers of an earthquake. But as the devastation in Haiti has shown, there is not much one can do once disaster really strikes.

Author: Dorian Jones (glb)

Editor: Toma Tasovac