Climate and Environment

Earthquakes in Mexico

Earthquakes, Illustration, Richter Scale

Earthquakes are naturally-occurring phenomena most commonly caused by a sudden release of energy from the planet’s crust, or movement of ‘fault lines’ deep beneath the Earth’s surface which cause seismic waves to occur.

Other events—such as volcano eruptions and major landslides can also cause them.  The Richter Scale (RS), popularly quoted to convey the magnitude of earthquakes, does so using a non-linear scale, which can confuse the untrained ear when hearing about magnitudes of earthquakes. For example, a magnitude of 2 on the RS is equivalent to about the power of 450 kilograms of dynamite, whereas a magnitude of 8 is equivalent to 15 million tons of dynamite; and an 8.5 equivalent to 84 million tons of dynamite.

Although all countries are subject to earth tremors and quakes, some countries are more prone to large earthquakes than others.  Mexico is susceptible to potentially very large earthquakes, along with most the western edge of the entire North American continent, due in part (but not exclusively) to the tectonic boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate that resides near there.

The most memorable Mexican earthquake in living memory is the ‘big one’ registering 8.1 on the Richter Scale that came to pass in September 1985—when some buildings in Mexico’s capital city were reduced to rubble.  Although that sounds frightening, the 1985 damage was nowhere near as catastrophic as the 2010 earthquake that virtually wiped out Haiti’s entire physical infrastructure; that quake registered 7 on the RS.  Many factors beyond magnitude must be taken into account: one example, Mexico City’s buildings, which although not all were built to regulation standard even then, were overall much better prepared for the quake than Haiti’s.  Indeed, most of the worst damage in 1985 was caused to old, unstable, buildings and to makeshift structures often seen in the shanty towns on the peripheries of the capital proper.

Large modern buildings in Mexico are built to exacting standards, and just as major modern building works along Mexican coastlines are designed and built to withstand force 10 hurricanes, so too are modern edifices in Mexico are built to withstand earthquakes.  The chances of finding yourself caught under concrete after an earthquake—even a powerful one—in a modern building in Mexico are very, very slim.

If you’ve never experienced an earthquake (you really need a magnitude RS 4 or greater to feel anything), your first experience of seeing and sensing a building or vehicle move (or shake) with you inside of it can be quite unnerving.  Public buildings throughout Mexico (which includes hotels) have evacuation procedures and routes in place, clearly advertised on wall postings.  Look for the words Sismo” or “Temblor—instructions are otherwise presented using illustrations, so you don’t need to read any Spanish beyond that to understand them.

Safer places to find yourself if you happen to be in a large building when the earth starts to move are under large doorways/doorframes or under a solid table.  Move away from objects that can fall (lights, tools, books and tall furniture), and away from windows and mirrors.  If you’re near an emergency exit, use it—never use the elevators.  Emergency exit stairwells in modern buildings are often outside—affixed to the side of the building.  Power cuts might follow an earthquake; power outages are quite frequent in Mexico as a matter of course and even a reasonably small earthquake can cause some damage to electrical equipment.

If you are outside, keep away from tall buildings—especially those which are enclosed in glass, and if you can, find refuge in an open space until the earthquake passes.  An earthquake in Mexico earlier this year claimed two lives: one was a person who panicked and ran outside into the path of an oncoming vehicle.  Stay calm, keep your cool and make considered movements. Earthquakes don’t tend to last more than a minute or two at most.

If you live in Mexico, and want to prepare your home for potential earthquakes, you may find a useful resource.  It’s a US-focused website, but the practical planning information and advice it shares is, of course, relevant wherever you are.

See Also: Mexico’s Rainy Season

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