The Upside of Afghanistan’s Quake: It Struck Deep

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The Hindu Kush region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is mountainous, poor, and mired in conflict. Today, it is also digging itself out from the rubble of a monster quake.

At around 1:30pm local time, a 7.5 magnitude earthquakeemanated from an epicenter about 130 miles below the surface in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. The quake occurred on the Indian/Eurasian plate boundary—the same subduction zone that caused the Nepal quake earlier this year, and the Kashmir quake from 2005. Currently, the human toll ranges from conservative official estimates of around 100 deaths to on the ground reports as high as 215.

The death toll might not rise as high as the Nepal quake from earlier this year, with an official death toll of nearly 10,000. Geography played some role in the devastating consequences of that quake; it struck near Kathmandu, which is both densely populated and in the middle of a liquefaction zone. But even more important was the quake’s geology.

The Kathmandu quake was very shallow—only 11 miles below the surface. “If you have a shallow quake you will have more damage, and greater potential for injuries,” says Julie Dutton, geophysicist for the USGS. Similarly, the 2005 Kashmir quake—which killed more than 80,000 people—was barely nine miles deep.

By contrast, today’s slippage was of intermediate depth. “A deep earthquake is felt widely, and it has to do with the transfer of energy through the earth’s crust,” says Dutton. Its depth was enough to soften some of the violence of the shaking, but the effects were more widespread than if it were a shallow quake. In Islamabad, 200 miles from the quake’s epicenter, people felt shaking for more than two minutes.

The ultimate toll will probably have a long tail. As winter creeps closer, people in quake-affected regions will have a harder time getting the aid and supplies they need to make it through to spring. In that sense, the most critical figures determining how many people survive this quake will be number of homes destroyed, miles of ruptured road, and dollars of international aid.

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