7.8 quake hits Ecuador, but don't worry... it's not "earthquake season"

The aftershocks hadn’t even subsided from the Japan earthquake yet, when an even larger one hit Ecuador. During the night a magnitude 7.8 quake hit the northwestern coast of South America, killing dozens of people (from initial reports) and causing extensive damage. (Reuters)

A powerful earthquake killed at least 77 people, injured hundreds more, ravaged coastal towns and sent residents fleeing for higher ground in Ecuador on Saturday night.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck off Ecuador’s Pacific coast and was felt hundreds of miles (km) away in the capital of Quito as well as in the large commercial city of Guayaquil, where rubble lay strewn in the streets and some buildings were cracked or partially collapsed.

A bridge in the city collapsed on top of car, crushing it.

The earthquake was Ecuador’s worst in decades and officials said the death toll was likely to rise even higher as rescue teams headed into the hardest-hit areas.

The death toll is going to be tragic and the recovery from it will be lengthy and expensive. Still, this wasn’t unusually large for the region. The USGS is saying that this was a relatively shallow one, which unfortunately makes the shaking and subsequent damage at the surface worse. For the record, a “shallow” quake is generally considered to be one which originates less than about 45 miles below the surface. “Deep” ones can run more than 400 miles down.

We don’t always talk about natural disasters here, but there seem to be a lot of questions popping up on social media this morning about the close spacing between the Japan quake and this one, leading to speculation as to whether or not they are related or if we’re coming into some sort of “earthquake season.” The question was even popping up on CNN when I turned on the TV while having coffee. First of all, seismology remains a rather inexact science because it’s still impossible for us to see what’s going on deep down in the Earth’s crust, unlike watching the atmosphere to study the weather. But one thing we’re pretty sure of is that there is no such thing as an “earthquake season” such as we see with tornadoes, hurricanes and blizzards. They are caused by the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates and geologists maintain that we still can’t prove that events on opposite sides of the ocean along the ring of fire are related.

All of that uncertainty also explains why we are still essentially helpless when it comes to trying to predict major quakes. (Read more about why we can’t predict earthquakes here.) We can definitely identify most of the major fault lines and tell you where a quake is likely to happen eventually, but as far as giving you a few weeks warning to get out of town… not so much.

A 7.8 magnitude quake like the one in Ecuador last night is pretty big, but the US Geological Service reminds us that there are actually an average of three of this size each year. A quake needs to reach a magnitude of 8.0 to be considered a “Great Quake” and even those happen, on average, once per year. (The 2011 quake in Japan checked in at 9.0.) We get a lot of shaking on the west coast here in the United States, but don’t feel put upon. Everyone around the “ring of fire” gets hit and in term of the most frequent and largest quakes on average, America doesn’t even place in the top ten.

Keep an eye on both Japan and Ecuador over the next 24 to 48 hours. The USGS is already warning that there could be aftershocks from both of these which are well over 6.0 in magnitude. But that doesn’t mean that Los Angeles is about to fall into the ocean on Monday. (Of course, it also doesn’t mean that it won’t.)