How Mexico City's Unique Geology Makes Deadly Earthquakes Even Worse

Rescue workers search for survivors among the rubble of a collapsed building in Mexico City. Structures throughout the capital were devastated during yesterday's earthquake. (Associated Press)

Rescue workers search for survivors among the rubble of a collapsed building in Mexico City. Structures throughout the capital were devastated during yesterday's earthquake. (Associated Press)

Each year, Mexico City commemorates the anniversary of its devastating 1985 tremblor by holding a series of evacuation tests. This annual rite both honors the 10,000 people who lost their lives in that disaster and prepares the city’s current residents for the next natural disaster. But yesterday, soon after business had resumed, central Mexico was rocked by a real—and deadly—7.1-magnitude earthquake.

As buildings began to sway, crowds poured into the streets. In videos posted to Youtube and Twitter, many structures seemed to disintegrate under the vibrations. At least 200 people died, according to the Associated Press and other news outlets.

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s tremblor is just the latest chapter in Mexico’s long and tragic history of earthquakes. Two weeks ago, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake—the strongest in a century—jolted southern Mexico, killing nearly 100 people. What many don’t realize is that there’s a simple reason behind this region’s propensity for cataclysms: The geology of Mexico—and particularly that of Mexico City—makes it a perfect storm for seismic catastrophe.

These latest quakes were caused by the movement of tectonic plates, the pieces of Earth’s crust that move and jostle against each other. Mexico sits atop a complicated juncture of tectonic plates, which have been engaged in a slow-motion collision for over a million years. As these plates scrape against one another, tension builds until they reach a breaking point—which is when an earthquake strikes. The sudden release of energy causes seismic waves to radiate out from the epicenter.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, who tracks earthquake activity worldwide, over the last century there have been roughly 19 other earthquakes over 6.5 magnitude within just 155 miles of the epicenter of the latest quake. Hundreds more have shaken the thousands of miles that make up the country's coastline, many topping eight on the equivalent Richter scale.

This latest quake was centered on a region where the Cocos tectonic plate, which sits beneath the Pacific Ocean, is slowly being shoved beneath the continental North American plate. This movement is causing extreme tensions as the slab is rammed into the Earth.

It gets worse. Mexico City, the country’s densely-populated capital, is even more susceptible to earthquakes than the rest of the country. This holds true even if the epicenter of the quake is positioned far from the city’s boundaries, which was the case for both this latest earthquake (which originated nearly 100 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla), and the 1985 earthquake (whose epicenter was some 200 miles from the capital).

Though the fact that these quakes occurred on the same day 32 years apart is purely coincidence, their dramatic impact on the capital is not. The reason: Ancient sediments that underlie the city trap and magnify the vibrations that ripple through the region.

Read the Full Story at Smithsonian.com

EnvironmentMaya Wei-Haas