Worldview: Earthquakes in Munich?

By Katrin Kleemann

If you followed the news over the weekend, you will have seen that several serious earthquakes occurred over the past few days. The Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in Japan was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Saturday morning (local time). On Thursday the region had already suffered a series of foreshocks, including magnitude 6.0 and 6.2 earthquakes. The death toll is still rising—at the time of this publication, over 40 people have been reported dead, and aftershocks are still occurring.

This image from the US Geological Survey (USGS) illustrates areas effected by the earthquake in Japan on the 16 April 2016. Source: USGS, in the public domain.

On Saturday night (local time) the central coast of Ecuador was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a tsunami warning was issued for the Pacific. Several aftershocks occurred as well and at least 235 people lost their lives. Both Ecuador and Japan are located on the so-called Ring of Fire, which is not really a full ring, but a 40,000 kilometer-long horseshoe around the Pacific, which includes 75 percent of all active volcanoes. Around 90 percent of all earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire.

An illustration showing the so-called Ring Of Fire around the Pacific. Source: gringer, wikipedia, in the public domain.

So when you think of countries prone to earthquakes, Germany probably does not come to mind. It is not located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, but in contrast to what’s commonly assumed, Germany is not an aseismic country—meaning earthquakes do in fact occur here. Below is a map of Germany, showing the regions in which earthquakes can occur:

Map of potential earthquake areas in Germany: zone 0 is a region not under threat, zone 3 is at high risk of an earthquake. Source: Storfix, wikipedia, CC by 2.0 DE.

As you can see from the map, earthquakes have occurred in the Upper Rhine Graben and the Cologne Bight, as well as in the neighboring countries of Switzerland (around Lake Constance), Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Another seismically active zone is the Vogtland in the east of Germany, around Gera and Leipzig. The most active zone is the Upper Rhine Graben, where earthquakes of up to magnitude 7.0 are theoretically possible, according to seismologists. The strongest recorded earthquakes to have affected Germany took place in 1356 in Basel, Switzerland, with a magnitude of 6.2 to 6.9, and in Düren, which is located between Cologne and Aachen, in 1756, with a magnitude of 6.4. The earthquake in Basel reached a death toll of 100 to 2000 people—depending on the historical source—and affected the German territories due to its proximity. The earthquake in Düren took two lives.

So, fortunately, in most parts of Germany you will never actually feel a strong earthquake. In Munich, however, you do have the opportunity to experience six different examples of earthquakes all within a high-tech, safe environment. The Museum Mensch und Natur in Schloss Nymphenburg now hosts an earthquake simulator. On 3 February 2016, a group from the RCC visited the Museum Mensch und Natur. The trip was organized by LMU geology professor, Anke Friedrich. We were given an introductory tour by the museum’s director, Michael Apel. The earthquake simulator looks like a simple container from the outside. It is located outside the museum—this is for reasons of monument preservation, as the simulator could potentially harm the structural integrity of the building. The simulator imitates earthquakes from Japan, Napa County in California, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Chile. While you are in the simulator you can feel the shaking of the different earthquakes while simultaneously watching a twenty-minute video about the history of plate tectonics. You then see original footage from shops and offices (recorded by surveillance cameras) during the appropriate simulation. The simulator only allows movements from left to right, back to front, and vice versa, but not upward and downward. But trust me, it’s enough to make you feel uneasy.

The earthquake simulator, which looks like a simple container from the outside. In the photo you can see the Museum’s director, and Carson fellows Carrick Eggleston and Kirsten Wehner. Image source: Katrin Kleeman. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Japan is an example of a country that is already applying simulators and similar technology to prepare people for earthquakes: in Tokyo there is a facility called The Toykio Rinkai Disaster Prevention Park which houses emergency response facilities as well as simulators, to provide training in self-help and mutual assistance, to survive the first 72 hours after a disaster when rescue operations are difficult. Japan has recently been hit by several very strong earthquakes. In the aftermath of the Great Hanshin earthquake in Kobe in 1995—a magnitude 6.9 earthquake—an Earthquake-Defense (“E-Defense”) simulator was developed and it currently stands as the world’s largest earthquake platform simulator: so Japan not only has an earthquake simulator for people, but also to test the structural safety of buildings during earthquake simulations of up to magnitude 7.0. The greater loss of life in the recent earthquake in Ecuador resulted from the fact that the earthquake there was six times stronger than the one in Japan, but also because the regulations in Ecuador for earthquake resistant building are not as strict as those in Japan.

In Germany, stronger earthquakes (of magnitude 5.5 to 6.0) are rare and occur roughly only every 200 years. In Switzerland there are about 80 years between big earthquakes. That time interval is too great for most of the population to experience a high magnitude earthquake and to be appropriately prepared for the next “big one.” Therefore, an earthquake simulator could prove a great way of preparing the population and giving people the opportunity to experience what it feels like when an earthquake actually occurs. In 2019, the Museum Mensch und Natur will be closed for renovation and expansion until 2021/22. So visit the museum, and the earthquake simulator, in the near future in order to have a chance to experience it.


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