Earthquakes and Society

977 words | 4 page(s)

There have been numerous earthquakes throughout history. In 2015, Nepal experienced one of the worst earthquakes in history (Hayes et al., 2015). A 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal in between the major cities of Pakhara and Kathmandu. The results were devastating. More than 5,000 people were killed, while more than 10,000 more were injured. Long before the earthquake in Nepal, a magnitude 8.6 earthquake struck just off of the coast of Japan (Lee, Jennings, Kisslinger, & Kanamori, 2002). This earthquake, one of the largest in history, triggered a giant tsunami that destroyed most of the coastal property in the coastal city of Nankia. The death toll is estimated to be between 25,000 and 30,000. In 1990, a massive earthquake hit an urban area of Iran, just north of Tehran. More than 40,000 people died from the earthquake and its aftereffects. However, these pale in comparison to the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1775 (Lee et al., 2002). Estimations have the earthquake having a magnitude between 8.0 and 9.0 with a death toll of possibly over 100,000. The earthquake all but completely destroy the city and its surrounding communities in Portugal. In fact, it is believed that this earthquake inspired the study of seismic activity, leading to the modern study of seismology. In this project, the Great Lisbon Earthquake and its effects on society are explored.

On November 1, 1755, an earthquake that would become known as the Great Lisbon Earthquake struck (Lee et al., 2002). The earthquake is estimated to have lasted between four and six minutes total with substantial aftershocks. Large fissures formed during the earthquake, some of which were reported to be as large as 16 feet wide. Within an hour of the earthquake, a large tsunami consumed many parts of Lisbon, especially those parts that were near the coast of the Tagus River. As individuals fled the crumbling city, many were engulfed in the tsunami which carried numerous ships with it into Lisbon. For those parts that were not engulfed in water, Lisbon caught fire and burned for five days. While Lisbon was most affected by this earthquake and its ensuing tsunami, many other cities, especially those on the coast, were also affected. Nearly cities were damaged, while coastal cities in Europe were affected by the tsunami. In fact, reports in England indicate that a ten-foot tsunami hit many coastal cities.

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With the Great Lisbon Earthquake affecting so many cities and communities, it has been difficult for scholars to get an accurate estimate of the number of casualties. In Lisbon alone, the death toll is estimated at right around 50,000 (Gutscher, 2004). Nearby communities likely had death tolls in the thousands as well, while Morocco is thought to have had a death toll of around 10,000. Some historians have even argued that the total death toll may have surpassed 100,000 given the magnitude of the earthquake and the total number of cities affected. Thousands of buildings and monuments were destroyed or damaged, while hundreds of thousands of artworks and books were damaged. Instead of immediately rebuilding Lisbon, the Lisbon government decided to raze the parts of Lisbon that were most affected and effectively build these areas from scratch. It took nearly an entire year for the debris to be removed from the streets of the city.

In addition to the damage caused and lives lost, the Great Lisbon Earthquake had many long-term effects on society (Lee et al., 2002). First, the earthquake was the most extensively studied earthquake of its time. Many scholars at the time took a scientific approach to explaining the earthquake and, consequently, many believe that seismology was created as a result of the earthquake. The advancement of science was one of few positive results to come out of the event. Second, many religious leaders and government officials believed that the earthquake was a divine signal to the city, while many scholars, especially philosophers, used the earthquake as inspiration for new ideologies and arguments. (Lee et al., 2002) Thus, there earthquake led to a divide between religion and science, while leading to a number of new philosophical claims. These ideological changes that resulted in large part from the earthquake have both positive and negative aspects. Finally, the earthquake had massive political effects. There was already a high amount of tension among prominent political leaders in Portugal. Yet, Portuguese politics had remained relatively stable leading up to the earthquake. Scholars disagree about the specific role that the earthquake played in the political events that followed the earthquake, but many argue that the ideological divide created by the earthquake contributed to political instability that would ultimately lead to a number of assassinations of political leaders. In addition, the King of Portugal at the time, King Joseph, was targeted for assassination in a failed attempt (Lee et al., 2002). The resulting political fallout included substantial political instability in Portugal for years.

The Great Lisbon Earthquake is one of the largest in history, though its exact magnitude is not known. The death toll for the earthquake may be over 100,000, while the property damage and loss of irreplaceable artifacts were massive. The earthquake had further effects on society, including ideological change, the creation of seismology, and political instability. The impact of the earthquake was so great, that scientists began exploring the underlying causes of earthquakes and become further interested in seismic activity, as religious leaders used the earthquake to make moral claims against the Portuguese government and the citizens of Lisbon. While less may be known about this earthquake than more recent earthquakes, the severe and long-term effects of the Great Lisbon Earthquake on society are well-documents.

  • Gutscher, M. A. (2004). What caused the Great Lisbon earthquake? Science, 305(5688), 1247- 1248.
  • Hayes, G. P., Briggs, R. W., Barnhart, W. D., Yeck, W. L., McNamara, D. E., Wald, D. J., … & Marano, K. (2015). Rapid Characterization of the 2015 Mw 7.8 Gorkha, Nepal, Earthquake Sequence and Its Seismotectonic Context. Seismological Research Letters, 86(6), 1557-1567.
  • Lee, W. H., Jennings, P., Kisslinger, C., & Kanamori, H. (Eds.). (2002). International handbook of earthquake & engineering seismology (Vol. 81). Academic Press.

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