Why Was There Minimal Major Damage in Taiwan Despite the Strong Earthquake?

A strong earthquake hit the island of Taiwan on April 3, 2024. The results, still provisional, indicate around ten deaths and hundreds of injuries. However, the damage seems relatively contained. An observation which can be explained by the particular geographical situation of the country.

9 dead, 882 injured and 77 people trapped in rubble. This is the situation what did the NFA draw up? (National Fire Agency), an agency attached to the Taiwanese Ministry of the Interior, following the earthquake which struck the island on April 3, 2024. A provisional toll, therefore, which could increase in the hours and days to come .


These first figures contrast with the intensity of the earthquake which shook Taiwan. The magnitude of the quake is estimated at least 7 — the United States Geological Survey (USGS) displays a measurement of 7.4 18 km south/southwest of the coastal town of Hualien. A 6.5 magnitude aftershock was then detected.

taiwan earthquake earthquake
The situation in Taiwan. // Source : USGS

A devastating earthquake in 1999

Although it is not yet definitive, this first count of victims contrasts with the earthquake that the Taiwanese experienced in 1999. With an epicenter located in the center of the island, the Chichi earthquake (magnitude 7.7) caused the deaths of 2,415 people and damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of buildings.

The statistics emerging from the earthquake that occurred on April 3 on the other side of the world are also very far from the terrible results. what Morocco experienced in 2023, in Al Haouz, despite a lower magnitude, estimated at 6.9. The country lost almost 3,000 people during this episode, and the intensity of the shock massively destroyed houses and buildings.

Geographically speaking, Taiwan is located not far from a contact zone between two tectonic plates — the Eurasian and the Philippine. “At the location of the earthquake, the Philippine plaque” moves northwest relative to the Eurasian plate at a speed of about 78 mm/year “, notes the USGS, which describes the region as ” tectonically complex. »


The city of Hualien, in October 1999. // Source: Mfpan9389115

The entire region borders an area called the Pacific Ring of Fire, where we find numerous active volcanoes, but also the limits of various tectonic plates. Japan, for example, is at the crossroads of four plates (Eurasian, Philippine, Pacific and North American). Others run along countries like Indonesia and New Zealand.

Fact, “ many other large earthquakes of magnitude 7+ » are observed in the region, notes the USGS. In the past fifty years, six earthquakes exceeded magnitude 7 within a 250 km radius of the April 3 quake, including Chichi, which was the strongest among them.

The Chichi earthquake occurred 59 km from the current one and caused damage estimated at $14 billion. Further back in time, in 1920, an earthquake of magnitude 8.2 had already been recorded in the very close vicinity of this earthquake. Here again, the movement and contact of the plates are involved.

The fact remains that the toll from the earthquake of April 3 is relatively low in view of its intensity, in comparison with the disaster of 1999 or the terrible toll that other equally exposed regions of the world may record. The damage to buildings also seems rather contained — 125 damaged buildings were reported.

Anti-seismic measures in Taiwan

Several elements of response can explain this assessment.

Where the earthquake was triggered, there was a low population density in the area. It took place along the east coast of the island, in a region much less populated than the west coast of the country. The largest city, Hualien, which has 100,000 inhabitants, was about twenty kilometers away.

The country also benefits, given its geographical problems, from particularly strict anti-seismic standards compared to the rest of the world. This is what Antoine Bondazresearch fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, in a posted comment on X (formerly Twitter) on April 3.

The earthquake in Taiwan is above all a reminder of the island's preparation and resilience to this type of natural disaster. In other countries, the human and infrastructure toll would have been much heavier », writes this specialist in East Asia, and more particularly in Taiwan. In fact, Taiwan is comparable to Japan when it comes to earthquake regulations.

In 2018, cited by the Los Angeles Times, Lai Ching-te, the current president of Taiwan, affirmed, while he was prime minister, that more than 99% of public structures are safe. New standards were indeed established after 1999 — even though the local press still points holes in the racket.

Spectacular videos are circulating on social networks, which show the effects of tremors in buildings, in particular. Impressive swings, but expected: seismic constructions absorb the shock by counterbalancing its effects with a certain flexibility – we saw this in 2011 in Japan:

These standards, when respected and applied, reduce the risk of a collapse and, consequently, that of causing casualties. However, this does not always provide absolute protection. In 2018, Hualien experienced a 6.4 magnitude earthquake. Seventeen people lost their lives during the disaster.

Taiwan has a difficulty: the age of its real estate stock. If new buildings meet anti-seismic standards without major difficulty, there are buildings and houses that are decades old and cannot easily benefit from renovation. There are 4.6 million residential homes over 30 years old.

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