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Cyprus quake

A map showing reports following a 6.6-magnitude earthquake in Cyprus on Jan 11, 2022. 

The magnitude 6.6 earthquake that shook Cyprus early on Tuesday morning, and which was felt throughout Israel, again raised the question of the Jewish state’s preparedness for major tremor.

This was the second tremor to reverberate across the Mediterranean in three weeks, with the previous one, magnitude 5.7, hitting Crete on Dec. 29.

Israel is one of the countries located along the Great Rift Valley—a series of contiguous geographic trenches running approximately 7,000 kilometers (4,300 miles) from the Middle East in the north to Mozambique in the south. The area is seismically active and features volcanoes, hot springs, geysers and frequent earthquakes.

Professor Zohar Gvirtzman, who heads the Geological Survey of Israel, a public-sector organization that advises the government on all aspects of geoscience—told Channel 12 News on Tuesday that while there is no reason to panic, attention should be paid to the recent quakes.

“If a magnitude 6.5 earthquake were to hit Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona, or Eilat, we can expect massive damage nationwide,” said Gvirtzman.

“We are gearing [up] for a severe event of this nature, and while we hope it doesn’t happen, we have to be ready for it. Our buildings must be up to code and it’s extremely important that all strategic infrastructure is up to code,” he added.

Revised building codes over the past few years mean that “we are much better off than we used to be, but there are thousands of buildings in Israel that predate the 1970s and they have to be reinforced,” he said.

Large earthquakes are rare in Israel, but minor ones occur frequently, Gvirtzman explained, adding that the last few weeks were no different.

“These [seismic] systems are active constantly. Are we heading toward a cluster [of quakes and aftershocks]? We have very advanced equipment, but it is still hard to say. In any case, this is not a coincidence. Something is happening there,” he said, referring to the fault.

For all of its advanced systems, the Geological Survey cannot predict when or where a tremor could hit, or its magnitude, said Gvirtzman.

“We can offer a statistical analysis and we know that every few years there’s a major earthquake along the Great Rift Valley—this is what prompts revisions to building codes. We know that on average, the Great Rift Valley area experiences a magnitude five earthquake every 10 years, a magnitude six quake every 100 years, and a magnitude seven one every few thousand years.”

A 2018 state comptroller report deemed Israel grossly unprepared for a major earthquake, as tens of thousands of buildings were not up to code.

Israel and the region experienced two major quakes in the relatively recent past, in 1927 and in 1837.

The July 11, 1927, Jericho quake was a devastating event that caused extensive damage to the cities of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Jericho, Ramle, Tiberias and Nablus, killing 287 people.

The epicenter of the magnitude 6.2 earthquake was pegged in the northern area of the Dead Sea.

The Jan. 1, 1837, Galilee earthquake all but leveled the northern city of Tzfat, killing over 5,000 people.

To this day, it is considered one of the largest seismic events to have occurred along the Dead Sea Transform fault system, which marks the boundary of the African tectonic plate and the Arabian plate.

Experts studying the earthquake have said that its epicenter was most likely just north of Tzfat, and that it probably would have measured as high as seven on the Richter scale.

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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