Why a Magnitude 11 Earthquake Would Destroy the Planet | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
Could an earthquake ever destroy the world?? Join us... and find out!

Earthquakes can be devastating natural disasters, and for anyone living along a fault line they're a constant source of anxiety. So, these seismic events are already bad enough... but what if one were to break the scale that we measure them by? In this video, Unveiled asks; what would happen if an earthquake more powerful than ever before, were to strike our planet?

Why a Magnitude 11 Earthquake Could Destroy the Planet

Earthquakes can be devastating. They happen when there’s a conflict between two of the Earth’s tectonic plates, which leads to an immense build-up (and release) of pressure and energy. During that release, the ground shakes and is sometimes totally ripped apart, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. But could an earthquake ever destroy the entire world?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; could a magnitude eleven earthquake destroy the planet?

According to the National Earthquake Information Center in America, roughly twenty thousand earthquakes happen every year, with a small percentage of them being classed as high magnitude. These are generally the ones that cause most damage, and feature on news channels all over the world. But how is magnitude - high or low - measured? The current preferred method is the Moment Magnitude Scale, which is a modern development of the more famous Richter scale. It measures the amount of ground shaking (and the amount of seismic energy released) by an earthquake, to give an idea of size and scope. But there are other ways of understanding an earthquake, too, including the modified Mercalli scale - which measures the intensity of Earth tremors during a seismic event, for even greater accuracy as to the damage a quake can cause. Nevertheless, while it’s true that high-magnitude earthquakes don’t always lead to high death tolls, and that low-magnitude quakes aren’t necessarily non-lethal, the overriding rule is the bigger the number attributed… the worse an earthquake is.

Today’s question refers to a magnitude eleven earthquake but, actually, in the real world, we haven’t yet had one that was magnitude ten. It’s a matter of mathematics, in some ways. The points on the magnitude scale are all ten times greater than the previous one… which means that a magnitude ten quake would see ten times more ground shaking than a magnitude nine, while a nine would see ten times more than an eight, and so on. In terms of energy released, though, every level up the scale sees roughly a thirty-two-fold increase in power - which is why the top end can have such dire consequences. And there have been some truly terrible disasters in the past, hitting those higher numbers.

The most powerful recorded in history was the 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile, which was a 9.6 magnitude quake, and led to the deaths of an estimated 6,000 people. Every single one of those deaths was, of course, a tragedy, but Valdivia is far from the most lethal earthquake on record. That happened five hundred years ago in Shaanxi, China. The Shaanxi quake is believed to have had a magnitude of around eight, meaning it was considerably less powerful than Valdivia, according to the magnitude scale. Yet… it may have killed as many as 830,000 people. The deadliest modern earthquake, by comparison, happened in Haiti in 2010. It had a magnitude of 7.1 – so notably lower than Valdivia and Shaanxi – but it killed more than 300,000 people. Meanwhile, the costliest earthquake economically on record did have a seriously high magnitude, of 9.1. This was the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami that caused a nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, in Japan. As a result of Tohoku, parts of Japan are still irradiated and dangerous today, while almost 20,000 people died… and the bill for the damage reportedly sits at around $360 billion dollars.

But, back to our question, and since the most powerful earthquake in history was a 9.6 magnitude, it means that our magnitude eleven quake is far, far larger than even Valdivia was. In some respects, it’s actually an impossible event. It can’t happen, because there are no known fault lines on planet Earth that are big enough to enable it to happen. In fact, many doubt that a magnitude ten quake could ever truly transpire, for the same reasons. So, perhaps what this video is more closely imagining is a kind of spontaneous earthquake event, where fault lines shift in unison, huge amounts of seismic energy is released, and all hell breaks loose. Or we’re imaging a future time when a large enough fault line has formed in Earth’s crust, and plate tectonics move in such a way that the very worst happens.

But still, so much would depend on where the quake (or quakes) strike. Earthquakes almost always do more damage if they, or the tsunamis they trigger, hit urban areas, for example. Not only does this mean that there are more people at risk, but there are also more homes to lose, communities to destroy, and economies to obliterate. There are more buildings, roads and bridges to collapse inside of cities, too, creating yet more hazards for anyone caught in the midst. And it’s well-known that there are already active fault lines running through some densely populated regions on the world map, like through the cities of San Francisco and Tokyo, as well as coastal regions on the Indian Ocean. If a magnitude eleven quake were possible, then even the best-prepared cities would be at risk, and even technologies such as earthquake-proof buildings could fail. But, also, cities with no prior earthquake history could be caught in the middle. We’re imagining a disaster, here, that totally reshapes the surface of our planet… so the safest places could also be the most remote (where there’s less chance of buildings collapsing), and the flattest regions (where there’s less chance of landslides). But, then again, the remote places could be more easily cut off, and the flattest regions could be more prone to tsunamis... This would be wholly uncharted territory and, while we have seen so-called megaquakes before, this would reach another level where no one is safe.

However, as we’ve seen in real life with the terrible events of the Fukushima disaster, perhaps the most dangerous and volatile places of all would be anywhere surrounding a nuclear power plant. If a large enough earthquake really were able to catastrophically shake the entire globe, it could cause many, many plants to go into simultaneous meltdown… thereby bathing Earth with widespread nuclear fallout and radiation. The Chernobyl meltdown is probably the most famous of all time, and it saw the effects of radiation spread across thousands of miles in just a few days. And today, more than three decades after it happened, there’s still a massive exclusion zone in place around the reactor. If, due to a large enough, all-encompassing earthquake, similar events were happening all over the world, then we could reasonably argue that the deadliest period wouldn’t come until after the earthquake had hit. Earth, then, would be ruined, but for anyone left behind it would also be as though a nuclear apocalypse had taken hold.

But still, how could any of this happen? How would the event itself start? A quake such as this could be caused by natural plate movement, in an alternate world where a long enough fault line has formed. But it might more readily be caused by a massive impact event. And not just your standard asteroid strike, either, but something greater than Earth has ever seen before. Failing that, there are some theories that a large enough nuclear war could also trigger multiple, massive earthquakes… releasing energy to at least match a magnitude eleven disaster. It would have to involve essentially all of our nuclear stockpiles, though, because just one or two bombs would never likely be enough. The largest nuke ever detonated was the Tsar Bomba in 1961, which had an incredible blast yield of up to fifty-eight megatons, and was more than 1,500 times more powerful than both of the bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War Two combined. But, not even Tsar Bomba triggered an earthquake… which just goes to show how monumentally huge earthquakes are. And, again, if this was how the scenario played out, then probably the quake itself wouldn’t be our chief concern, because the planet would once more be ravaged by radiation.

As far as doomsday scenarios go, this one is right up there with the most devastating of all. In today’s world, a magnitude eleven earthquake thankfully isn’t something that we expect to happen. The planet just isn’t built to make it possible. But, in an alternate reality, or in a future time when things have geologically changed, we’re imagining an event of unparalleled power and destruction. But probably the worst aspect of all is that if you were able to survive it, then the post-quake Earth would be a brutal place. With nuclear meltdowns happening all over the map, and once great cities disintegrating as you walk through them, you’d be forced to live day by day… never knowing if you’d survive to see tomorrow. And that’s why a magnitude eleven earthquake would destroy the planet.
What%u2019s the point we are already living day to day not knowing if we will survive tomorrow.