A major earthquake, large enough to cause hundreds of fatalities, is expected to hit the country in the coming years, Tel Aviv University researchers warned Tuesday, unveiling the results of a study that bored deep into the bed of the Dead Sea.
“In the coming years, it is likely that a devastating earthquake will hit, causing hundreds of deaths,” the university said in a statement about the findings.
Researchers estimate the quake will have a 6.5 magnitude on the Richter scale, enough to destroy poorly built buildings, cause damage to stronger ones and be felt hundreds of kilometers away.
The study found an earthquake of that scale occurs in Israel, on average, every 130-150 years, but said there have been occasions when the lull was just a few decades.
“The geological record does not lie and a major earthquake in Israel will come,” said Prof. Shmuel Marco, head of Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, in the statement.
“Of course, we have no way of predicting exactly when the earth will shake under our feet — this is a statistical projection — but unfortunately, I can say that an earthquake that will cause hundreds of casualties will hit in the coming years,” Marco continued. “I don’t want to cause alarm, but we are living in a tectonically active period.
“It could be in ten years or in several decades, but it could also be next week, and we need to constantly be prepared for that,” he said.
The last quake of that magnitude, 6.2 on the Richter scale, hit the Dead Sea valley in 1927, killing 500 people and injuring 700 in Amman in Jordan, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the coastal city of Jaffa.
Researchers drilled to a depth of hundreds of meters under the Dead Sea and by examining layers of sediment were able to analyze the history of earthquakes in the region over the last 220,000 years.
They concluded that the frequency of earthquakes in the Dead Sea valley is not fixed and there have been periods when powerful earthquakes occurred just decades apart.
Israel is situated along the Syrian-African rift, a tear in the earth’s crust that runs the length of the Israel-Jordan border and is part of the Great Rift Valley, which extends from northern Syria to Mozambique.
A drilling rig was set up in the center of the Dead Sea in 2020 and began boring hundreds of meters down, opening the way to analysis of 220,000 years of Dead Sea geology, the statement said. The drilling was done under the auspices of the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, which carries out deep drilling operations in lakebeds around the world as part of ancient climate and environmental change research.
Layers of sediment, each about a millimeter thick, are alternately deposited each year by winter flash-floods and evaporation during the summer.
“As soon an earthquake occurs, the sediments swirl together, with the layers that had previously settled in perfect sequence blending into one another and resettling in a different arrangement,” the statement explained.
The record of events obtained by the study is the longest record of its kind in the world, according to the statement.
Even larger quake expected within centuries
The researchers also found that there is a “significant underestimation of the frequency of earthquakes in Israel.”
While a building-breaking quake could happen in the next decades, an even larger 7.5 magnitude quake, 10 times stronger on the exponential Richter scale, was also predicted for the coming centuries.
Previously it was thought that earthquakes of magnitude 7.5 or higher on the Richter scale occur every 10,000 years or so but the new study estimates the frequency could be closer to every 1,300 to 1,400 years. The last earthquake of that scale shook the region in 1033.
“This means that in the next few centuries, we can expect another earthquake of a magnitude of 7.5 or higher,” the statement said.
The study was published in November in the journal Science Advances.
Assisting Marco in the research was Dr. Yin Lu, also of TAU, Prof. Amotz Agnon of Hebrew University, Dr. Nicolas Waldmann of University of Haifa, Dr. Nadav Wetzler of the Israel Geological Survey, and Dr. Glenn Biasi of the US Geological Survey.
Last year the Israeli Navy held a major exercise to simulate dealing with a massive quake killing thousands. The IDF and the country’s emergency services have held other earthquake drills in recent years as experts have repeatedly warned that a quake was coming.
A 2018 State Comptroller report warned that Israel is unprepared to deal with a major earthquake hitting the country. The report found that an earthquake would cause serious damage to the underwater natural gas pipeline, the fuel lines, the water mains, airports, and general transportation. Schools, hospitals, tourist sites and public buildings are not equipped to withstand a big quake.
State Comptroller reports reviewing Israel’s earthquake response in 2001, 2004 and 2011 found that no funding had been allocated to reinforce older buildings and other precautionary measures, due to spats between ministries over responsibility for the work.
A 3.8-magnitude earthquake struck early this month near the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, and in June a 5.4-magnitude earthquake hit in the middle of the Red Sea, some 245 kilometers (150 miles) south of the town. The country has last seen at least three minor earthquakes around the Eilat area and nearby Arava region this year.