UCL Earth Sciences


Student Experience: Living through an earthquake

11 December 2020

Friday 30 October, at around 12:00 (GMT), I was at my family’s house, sitting on my desk working, when it started

Eve Tripoliti-Earthquake2020 damage

The course of the entire Greek civilization and culture would have been different if it weren’t for earthquakes. Ancient Greeks thought that active fault lines provided a passage to the underworld and built temples on them. The temple of Apollo, at Delphi, was the home of the oracle Pythia, who was gifted by the Gods with visions that could predict the future.  Her prophecies resulted to the Trojan war (Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey), the victory against the Persians, the sacrifice of Leonidas and the 300 Spartans and other events that lead to the formation of democracy and Greece as a whole. Little did the ancient Greeks know that her visions where simply a result of narcotic fumes coming out of the fault beneath the temple, including ethylene, as well as carbon dioxide and methane. We learned these stories as children in primary school and from a young age we knew that nature, and the earth around us, formed us to what we are today. Much like the ancient Greeks, we still ‘honour’ earthquakes, in the sense that we understand and respect their power… we do not inhale ethylene!

Eve Tripoliti-Earthquake2020 -location map

From the age of 5, kids at school, must be familiar with the local earthquake evacuation plan and practice a scenario every two months, where they must hide underneath their desks and move outside. As a kid I never took it seriously, as most things. For us, this act was like a game, and we were happy to play along as long as we were not in class. This attitude changes, of course, when you feel the first tremor. The first experience is confusing for everyone; everything starts shaking and you are left standing still trying to understand what is happening. Then realisation comes… and you run, fast! And, just like that, everything you learned at school is now making sense.  

The eastern part of the Aegean, especially the island where I come from, Chios, has been badly affected by strong earthquakes of 6-6.7 Mw. Events smaller than 5 Mw are so frequent that when we do not have an earthquake in 3 or 4 months, we know that there is a big one coming. On Friday 30 October, at around 12:00 (GMT), I was at my family’s house, sitting on my desk working, when it started . First came the noise. I am not talking about the noise during the tremor, but the one that comes before and leaves you numb - Around 2-3 seconds before everything starts going left and right, a loud rumbling noise comes from the ground and surrounds you. The louder the noise the bigger the earthquake - Then came the tremor.

Eve Tripoliti-Earthquake2020 warning message

This earthquake was a peculiar one, it was mild at first, it felt like a 4 maybe a 5. I did not even move from my desk chair, and then suddenly it got violent, the power went off and furniture fell on the floor. I do not know what scared me that moment the most, the tremor itself, or my mother’s and aunt’s screams! Fifteen minutes later, the civil protection informed us, with an automatic text message, that they were expecting a tsunami to arrive soon, and 20 minutes later it did. Luckily, it was not a big one, but pushed small boats inland. The earthquake’s magnitude was estimated 7, and it lasted 30 seconds. Which is a quite a long time! Unfortunately, in Izmir 22 people lost their lives and another 786 were injured. In Samos, we had 2 casualties and a few injuries. On my island no one was injured, but buildings collapsed, and a part of the port was cut in half.  My house seemed almost intact after the main shock, with one of our balconies being slightly uplifted and a few cracks on walls. So, we thought we were fine, but then came the aftershock sequence. Shockingly, a very weak one, with the strongest being a 5, proved strong enough to bring down the balcony and extend the cracks. The first day we had tremors every 15 minutes; they were weak, but they kept us on our toes for days. We spent the first few nights awake, worrying that a strong one will happen in our sleep. But we were, and still are, very lucky. One month after the main event, seismologists still believe the strongest aftershock hasn’t occurred yet or that it might trigger neighbouring faults.

Eve Tripoliti-Earthquake2020 damage
Caption: Earthquake October 2020, Chios

That has happened before, but there’s not much we can do but to be prepared. The weak aftershocks are buying us some time to restore what is broken - it’s not easy, but that’s what you get when you live with earthquakes! 

Eve Tripoliti  |  www.ucl.ac.uk/earth-sciences/people/research-students/evangelia-k-tripoliti