Dramatic Images Show How Turkey’s Giant 2023 Earthquake Broke The Earth

On February 6, 2023, one of the worst earthquake sequences of the 21st century rocked Turkey and Syria, killing over 59,000 people and displacing many more. It can be hard to imagine the colossal geological forces that produce these disasters, but a new collection of photography from the wake of the disaster manages to illustrate just that. 

In the days following the quakes, scientists from the China University of Geosciences, the US Geological Survey, and the Middle East Technical University rushed to eastern Turkey to document the surface deformations caused by the earthquake.

One of their photographs shows how a once-straight railway track became bent with a prominent curve as a result of both ground shaking and liquefaction. Likewise, drone photography of farmland shows how the quakes radically shifted the fields, so much so that rows of crops have become dramatically offset.

Earthquakes are primarily caused by the sudden release of energy in the Earth’s crust due to tectonic plate boundaries (known as fault zones) crashing into each other and/or grinding past one another. The built-up stress can exceed the strength of the rocks, leading to a sudden rupture and the release of energy in the form of seismic waves that shake the ground.

Drone image of the ground in farm fields offset by the February 2023 earthquake sequence in eastern Turkey, taken just 18 days after the earthquakes.
Image credit: Jiannan Meng

When major geological upsets like this happen, soil liquefaction can occur. Strong shaking can disturb the strength and stiffness of the ground’s top layer, causing it to behave like an oozing syrup. This is how we see surface deformations like the bent train track, which defies our everyday perception of “trusty old Earth” being rigid and immutable. 

The 2023 Turkey–Syria earthquake was, in fact, two earthquakes. The initial rupture occurred in the early hours of Monday, February 6, around the Dead Sea fault zone, but the most intense shaking (magnitude 7.8) happened 24 seconds later when the rupture reached the East Anatolian fault zone (EAFZ). Some 7 hours later, a magnitude 4.5 aftershock hit the junction of the EAFZ with the Çardak-Sürgü fault, sparking a second major earthquake (magnitude 7.5) 86 minutes later.

A rip in the Earth after the 2023 Turkey–Syria earthquake taken 32 days after the incident on March 10, 2023.
Image credit: Jiannan Meng

Using their imagery, the researchers were able to gain an even more detailed idea of how the February 2023 earthquake unfolded. 

“The surface deformation, together with the geophysical data show that the rupture sequence started slowly on the Africa/Arabia plate boundary, and when the rupture hit the Arabia/Anatolia boundary, it exploded, like a bullet hitting a bomb, and activated the entire East Anatolian fault system, causing the vast destruction,” a press release about the project explains. 

“Lessons learned will help protect other communities in earthquake-prone areas in the future,” it added.

The study is published in the journal Science.

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