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Deadly Earthquake Strikes Northwest China

Gansu and Qinghai Provinces in western China were rocked by a magnitude 6.2 earthquake around midnight on December 18, 2023, causing over 700 injuries and at least 127 deaths, with hundreds left without homes on a frigid winter night. 

The Cause Of The Quake

A scientist at China's Academy of Geological Sciences blamed the earthquake’s strength and deadliness on the shallow depth of its epicenter, only 6 miles below the surface, which allowed more energy to reach the surface through destructive seismic waves. These waves wreaked havoc on Jishishan County, Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, near the Qinghai-Gansu provincial border; they could be felt as far away as Gansu’s provincial capital, Lanzhou, located 100 kilometers to the northeast of the epicenter. 

This region of China, the Qilian mountain range, has a long track record of seismic activity owing to its location atop several strike-slip and thrust faults between the Eurasian and Indian plates. The most notable earthquake in the region was a magnitude 7.6 quake, which ravaged Gulang County, Gansu in 1927, killing nearly 41,000 people. 

Western China has been the victim of multiple major seismic disasters in recent decades, especially in the province of Sichuan, south of Gansu and Qinghai. In 2022, a quake in that province killed 93, and in 2008, 69,000 people were killed in the strongest Chinese earthquake since 1950.

The Extent of the Destruction

According to local officials in Gansu, over 5,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed, primarily due to the archaic and fragile construction of many structures in the impoverished and underserved Gansu region. The quake’s tremors damaged some structures, while others, including roads, were swamped by tremor-triggered mudslides.

According to Chinese state media sources quoted by the Associated Press, the earthquake’s exact death toll is 113 dead and 536 injured in Gansu, with 14 dead and 198 wounded in neighboring Qinghai. Most of the local population was asleep in their homes when the violent earthquake occurred; while some were able to rouse themselves and their loved ones to escape as their buildings crumbled around them, many others were not so lucky. Many of those who survived are now trapped in rubble or left without shelter in makeshift first responder camps as temperatures around them drop to -13 to -15 degrees Celsius. 

The Government Response

After news of the quake reached Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a full-scale search and rescue operation. 4,000 emergency personnel, including firefighters, soldiers, and police officers, have been dispatched to the disaster zone, and the People’s Liberation Army has erected a command post to coordinate rescue efforts. 

Copious supplies have also been sent to assist the people of Gansu and Qinghai--portable tents, beds and bedding, food and water, generators, coats, and stove fuel. Rescue personnel recommended that halal food be sent since most of the local population is Muslim. 


Image Credits: Getty Images via BBC, CNSPhoto via Jerusalem Post

Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke


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