For a UAF seismologist, the Turkey earthquake is personal
Feb. 21, 2023
Ezgi Karasözen, a University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute research seismologist, was packing for a trip from her home in Colorado to Anchorage on a Sunday afternoon when her husband, Onur, came in.
There had been a devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake, he told her. She thought for a brief moment that he was telling her about a quake in Alaska, her destination.
No, he said, it had just struck their native Turkey and northern Syria, both 12 hours ahead of Alaska.
“He told me the magnitude and I was like, just wait a second, can it be 7.8? Is the magnitude correct? Is it going to be bigger? How did they estimate it?”
That was the seismologist in her. She soon learned the early morning quake occurred on a major fault, one she knew from her own research to be of a kind that can lead to catastrophic damage.
An email alert soon arrived from the U.S. Geological Survey confirming the 7.8 magnitude.
“And then I burst into tears,” she said.
Those tears quickly turned to frustration and anger that she poured into her Twitter account that same day.
“I am speechless. News from Turkey are heartbreaking. 17 August 99 was when I learnt what an earthquake was. And after so many years studying them, that footage never left me. Now we are reliving it. Again. So many people are waiting to be rescued. Cok cok uzgunum.”
That simple last Turkish phrase, cok cok uzgunum, translates in English to four words in which you can feel her pain.
“I am so sorry.”
Karasözen, born in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, knows her nation well, having lived there most of her life. She and Onur have friends and family there. His mother is from Kahramanmaras, just 14 miles from the main earthquake’s epicenter, though she lives in Ankara now.
Karasözen also knows Turkey’s land and the tremendous seismic activity it sees, for Turkey is a place where some of Earth’s many crustal plates collide.
The nation sits primarily on the Anatolian Block, a relatively small crustal fragment when compared to Earth’s major plates. It is moving slowly westward to the south of the Eurasian Plate in the vicinity of Greece and the Black Sea.
Turkey’s southeast is on the northern reaches of the Arabian Plate, moving incrementally northward and pushing into the Anatolian Block.
It is there, along the East Anatolian Fault, that those two plates collide in what seismologists call a strike-slip fault. Tension builds where the moving plates meet and lock, accumulating until they break free of one another and produce an earthquake.
Karasözen is well familiar with the East Anatolian Fault. A magnitude 6.8 earthquake, the largest on the fault in more than a century, occurred on Jan. 24, 2020. She is among the co-authors of a 2020 research paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that studied the fault’s motions during and after that earthquake and the aftershock sequence.
The research paper notes that scientists know little about the East Anatolian Fault because of the relative scarcity of large magnitude earthquakes there. They know much more about the North Anatolian Fault.
The research paper adds that understanding the East Anatolian Fault is “important for seismic hazard assessment in this region.”
Karasözen was lead author on two other research papers studying recent earthquake sequences in western Turkey.
Her 2018 paper, published in Geophysical Journal International, investigated the July 20, 2017, magnitude 6.6 earthquake that originated in southwest Turkey. The quake injured approximately 70 people in the port city of Bodrum. Two people died on the Greek island of Kos, 20 miles from Bodrum across the Mediterranean Sea, where people reported an intense quake.
Her 2016 paper in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth analyzed 50 years of notable seismic activity in the Simav-Gediz region of western Turkey.
That paper, for which she spent time in the field, notes that western Turkey has an extensive record of major earthquakes. It refers to the area as “a rapidly extending continental region with a long history of destructive normal faulting earthquakes, including several large instrumentally recorded events.”
Karasözen’s first tweet upon hearing of the Feb. 6 earthquake makes reference to a childhood earthquake: “17 August 99 was when I learnt what an earthquake was.”
A shallow magnitude 7.4 earthquake occurred at 3 a.m. that August day.
The earthquake caused considerable damage as far away as Istanbul, about 45 miles away from the epicenter.
Estimates put the death toll at about 17,000 people.
Karasözen was 13 and living in Ankara when security personnel knocked on the door of their campus housing at Middle East Technical University, where her father, Bulent Karasözen, was a math professor, and told them to go outside. She later did her undergraduate studies in geological engineering at the same university.
“I can’t forget the footage that I saw on the news that day,” she said. “I think we were all traumatized by that as a generation.”
With this month’s earthquake, she quickly suspected the outcome would be the same. Thousands dead. Buildings turned to rubble.
The Feb. 6 quake and one that followed a few hours later killed an estimated 46,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria, according to the latest estimate.
Turkey’s seismologists and engineers are as good as the best, Karasözen said. She knows many of them.
“Lots of good civil engineers, structural engineers, top-notch scientists, people who are trying to do whatever they can to provide the best information,” she said. “Turkey is an earthquake-prone country, they know where the areas of potential damage are, they know what to do.”
That knowledge, however, hasn’t resulted in stronger buildings and greater earthquake preparedness, she said. And that fuels her frustration.
“There's something not happening,” she said. “That seismic and engineering knowledge isn’t connecting to actually make things more resilient.
“We have the building codes, but still all those buildings collapse,” she said. “Why do we have to go through this again after 23 years? We could have done much better. Seismologists and engineers did our part.
“Why do we have to live through this again?”
Back in Colorado, where Karasözen and her husband have a home, volunteers with the nonprofit Turkish American Cultural Society of Colorado quickly organized relief efforts in the state.
Karasözen is the organization’s president.
A truckload of donated items, including sleeping bags and mats, has arrived in Los Angeles for shipment to Turkey. Three more loads are ready to be shipped. Lots of truck drivers have volunteered to transport items, she said.
The organization has also raised close to $60,000 in cash.
“Lots of communities are coming together in Colorado to help us,” she said. “It brings tears to our eyes.”
ADDITIONAL CONTACT: Ezgi Karasözen, email@example.com