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January 14, 2010

Dynamic Earth: Haiti

I'm sure most of you have heard about the massive earthquake in Haiti by this point. It was a devastating quake. The first shock was a magnitude 7.0, out of a scale of 10. It has been followed by numerous aftershocks, ranging from 4.0 to nearly 6.0. In the face of such a distaster, it's easy to ask why the earthquake occurred. I've seen three such explanations. The first two of these are completely ridiculous.

The first is a rather bizarre idea this was not a natural earthquake, but rather a weather weapon aimed at Cuba that missed. It claims that the fact that there was a little earthquake in California (presumably a test of the weapon?) followed by a huge earthquake in Haiti is too suspicious, and not coincidence. (source: NowPublic News)

The second is given by Reverend Pat Robertson. He believe that this earthquake was punishment, for Haiti's pact with the devil.
“They were under the heel of the French, uh, you know Napoleon the 3rd and whatever, and they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French. True story. And so the Devil said, 'Okay, it's a deal.’ And, uh, they kicked the French out, you know, with Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they have been cursed by, by one thing after another, desperately poor. That island of Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On the one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican Republican. Dominican Republic is, is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etcetera. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island." (Source: ABC News)

Both of these explanations are uninformed, poorly articulated, and make the Haitian earthquake someone's fault. In fact, the Haitian earthquake was caused by a slip-strike fault, between the North American and Caribbean plates. These two plates slide along each other at a rate of 7 mm per year. Tension has been building up in the fault, and it finally snapped on Tuesday. Along with being a strong quake at magnitude 7, it's source was only about 6 miles down. This means that the crust could not absorb and diffuse the shock. The ground shook at Port-au-Prince for as much as a minute, which is very long for an earthquake. The fact that there is so much devastation, therefore, isn't a surprise. (source: USGS)

Right now, the people of Haiti don't need condemnation or conspiracy theories. There is no evidence whatsoever for a working weather missile even existing. Plus, earthquakes aren't weather; they're a geologic force. And, earthquakes happen frequently in California: the whole state is caught on the boundary between two of the largest pieces of the puzzle. Any supposed pact with Satan occurred in 1803. The people there today are not being punished for something 200 years ago. Condemning them, saying this is their own fault, is not going to help their condition at all.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; at least 80% of their population is below the poverty line. Disease is a major problem, and will only get worse with the destruction. Children there were literally living off of mud pies; now, food will be even harder to come by. (source: CIA World Factbook) And, while the earthquake itself killed over 100,000 people, many more will die if they don't get help. We live on an indifferent planet. It is neither benevolent or malicious. These natural events will occur whether people are  there or not. But when it does hit a populated area like Haiti, we, as a species capable of supporting one another, can help. Please donate to one of the organizations below, if you haven't done so already.

Support Doctors Without Borders in Haiti

More on earthquakes and plate tectonics.