by Ross S. Stein, Ph.D., and Volkan Sevilgen, M.Sc., Temblor, Inc.
As of today, some 24 people are dead and 650 injured, and many more are unaccounted for in collapsed concrete buildings on the coastal plains surrounding the epicenter. The quake likely struck on a ‘blind thrust fault’ that does not reach the Earth’s surface but had nevertheless been previously identified by geologists.
CITATION: Ross S. Stein and Volkan Sevilgen (2019), Albania earthquake strikes highest-hazard zone in the Balkans, devastating nearby towns, Temblor, http://doi.org/10.32858/temblor.057
It could have been worse
On 26 Jul 1963, some 165 km (100 mi) east of the 26 Nov 2019 Mag. 6.4 Albania shock, a Mag. 6.1 earthquake struck Skopje, capital of Northern Macedonia destroying 80% of the city, killing over 1,070 people, injuring 3,000-4,000, and leaving more than 200,000 people homeless.
It would appear that the 26 Nov 2019 quake, although 5 times larger than the Skopje event, did much less damage, perhaps because it struck more than 35 km from the 375,000 people living in the Albanian capital of Tirana.
Immediate foreshocks and remote aftershocks
The M 6.4 quake was preceded during the previous 6 hours by four M3 shocks in the epicentral region, the largest of which was Mag. 4.4, striking 1 hour before the mainshock. While uncommon, this kind of activity does not make earthquake prediction any easier, because the foreshocks do not show any features that would distinguish them from typical shocks. Perhaps more surprising, there was a burst of seismicity 230 km (140 mi) to the northwest of the M 6.4 a little over 6 hours later near the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, capped by a Mag 5.4 shock. This might be a coincidence, but if these two distant events are indeed related, it would have to be by the stresses carried by the seismic waves of the M 6.4, which dissipate within several minutes.
A long history of large earthquakes
The high earthquake hazard of coastal Albania stems from tectonic compression of the crust that extends from Croatia south to Greece. The compression is evident in the contraction of the Earth’s surface measured by GPS, and by the long history of large earthquakes in the region. In fact, the southern Balkans are more seismically active than Italy.
Blind thrust fault a likely culprit
The contraction has produced a series of thrust faults, only some of which come to the surface. Those that do not cut the Earth’s surface instead fold the overlying strata. Croatia’s coastal islands are one example of these folds, and one of these folds lies at the epicenter of the 26 Nov 2019 quake.
Amplified shaking on the coastal plains
The shaking produced by the Mag. 6.4 shock was almost certainly amplified in the weak, unconsolidated basins and coastal estuaries surrounding the epicenter. Temblor’s STAMP model shows amplification factors of 4-5 over the shaking that was experienced at bedrock sites, such as at the epicenter itself. Compounding the weak soil are water-saturated coastal plains, which are susceptible to liquefaction. This is where the soil turns to quicksand, causing buildings to sink or tilt. Sandblows and eruptions of artesian water often accompany shaking in such regions, compounding the damage.
Undoubtedly, emergency responders, geologists, and seismologists will learn more about this quake in the days to come. But what we can say now is that the hazard was not unforeseen.
Acknowledgements. We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance of USAID for the ‘Balkans-OQ’ project, a collaboration of eight Balkans scientists, and for assistance from the GEM Foundation.
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