Morocco Earthquake: UVA Professor Says Construction Techniques Created Worse Outcomes

September 11, 2023
Map of the Morocco Earthquake

The U.S. Geological Survey puts out interactive maps of the world’s earthquakes. The orange bands indicate significant ground failure. (U.S. Geological Survey image)

A University of Virginia engineering professor says relatively poor construction techniques and unpreparedness appear to be playing a role in the loss of life from a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck in Morocco on Friday.

The quake is the latest example of a year beset by natural disasters. As rescue teams continue to sort through crumbling and crumpled buildings, many more victims’ names are expected to be added to the list of the thousands of people already killed.

Osman Ozbulut, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering with expertise in how structures withstand stress, has been tracking the earthquake through the media and his professional network on social media.

Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia
Professional learning, without pause. University of Virginia, Northern Virginia

“From the reports and the images that we’re witnessing on television, it’s evident that a significant portion of the buildings in the affected region were aged structures, primarily constructed with either unreinforced masonry or mud-clay blocks,” he said. “These types of buildings lack the structural flexibility to absorb the lateral movements induced by earthquakes. Due to their substantial weight and rigid nature, the collapse of such buildings poses a severe threat to human life.”

The epicenter was about 50 miles southwest of Marrakech in the Atlas Mountains. Both the large, popular tourist city and rural towns in and around the mountains suffered building collapses.

Earthquakes occur because of natural cracks in the Earth’s crust and how the plates on either side sometimes move. The professor noted that Morocco’s geographical location straddles the juncture of the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate, resulting in significant seismic activity.

But for this part of Morocco, the quake was unexpected for at least two reasons, he said.

It didn’t occur along the primary plate boundary fault located in the northern part of the country. Instead, it struck at the country’s center, hundreds of miles away from the intersection of the African and Eurasian plates.

Secondly, according to the United States Geological Survey, earthquakes with a magnitude greater than six have not been documented within a 300-mile radius of the epicenter since its record-keeping began in 1900.

“Consequently, there may be a lack of adequate earthquake awareness and preparedness measures in the region,” he said.

Portrait of Osman Ozbulut
Osman Ozbulut is a professor in the UVA Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering who has expertise in how structures withstand stress. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

Ozbulut compared the earthquake to the Turkey-Syria earthquake that occurred in February, which he commented about extensively in the media.

Despite the strong forces that were at work, “the length of the rupture during the Morocco earthquake was about 10 times smaller than that of Turkey-Syria earthquake. Therefore, the extent of the affected area is smaller.”

“Furthermore,” he added, “it is important to consider that geographical conditions can exacerbate the destructive impacts of earthquakes. For instance, towns located on soft sedimentary ground in the region may have experienced more severe damage due to their susceptibility to ground shaking.”

The professor is among the many experts who now expect the death toll to rise.

“The collapsed buildings are not only heavy structures, but they are also located in mountainous areas, making it challenging to reach individuals who could be trapped beneath the rubble,” Ozbulut said. “Additionally, it is expected that aftershocks will persist in the region. However, typically, the magnitude of these subsequent seismic events tends to decrease over time.”

He stressed the importance of humanitarian relief considering the large amount of homelessness anticipated, and the basic needs that might otherwise go unfilled for Moroccans.

International organizations involved in charitable relief include The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Islamic Relief USA, Global Giving, UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders.

Media Contact

Eric Williamson

University News Senior Associate University Communications