The Green Blog
The Environmental Impact of an Earthquake
All of us know about the devastation caused by the recent earthquake in Haiti. Human and economic losses mount as the country struggles to rescue, recover and rebuild. There is another toll taken, however, by natural disasters that isn't always reported in the media - that of the environmental impact a natural disaster such as an earthquake has on ecosystems.

Subsequent landslides are an immediate environmental hazard after an earthquake and can alter the characteristics of mountain slopes and drainage basins. Proper disposal of all the debris from buildings that were destroyed presents a large environmental and health challenge. Depending on the location of the quake, rubble may be destined to be dumped into fields and valleys of rural areas, though some may be recycled for rebuilding. Neighborhoods and croplands have also become dumping grounds for decaying debris, causing residents to worry about health impacts. Rock- and mudslides can cause arable land to be permanently lost. (Read Haiti Earthquake, Deforestation Heighten Landslide Risk from National Geographic.)

In a medical emergency of this scale, another prominent environmental and health concern is disposal of medical waste. Not all medical waste has infectious potential, but that which does needs to be handled especially cautiously.

Animals and plants that have habitats in a quake-stricken area can be severely affected by the event. Conversely, animals can often warn us of impending quakes. Changes in animal behavior before earthquakes have been observed and documented in different parts of the world, Dogs, cats, snakes, fish and horses have been known to behave strangely before earthquakes. (Visit the ASPCA's ARCH initiative to save the animals affected by the earthquake. The Humane Society is also on the ground helping animals.)

Contaminated water is always a concern, as are "quake lakes," huge pools of backed-up water. Landslides can fill in portions of rivers, creating the quake lakes that are a lingering threat to residents and the environment, especially if the water builds up and then barriers break. (Matt Damon's charity, water.org, is working to provide 50,000 people in Haiti with safe water and sanitation over the next three years. Live Earth also has the Run for Water initiative to provide clean drinking water to Haiti.)

Petroleum fuel contained in underground storage tanks can leak due to the earthquake. Such leakage results in soil contamination and eventual pollution of groundwater.

There is no known way to prevent earthquakes, but it is possible to lessen the impact. The amount of devastation from an earthquake can be greatly diminished by building structures using earthquake resistant design, making the interiors of buildings safe from falling objects, and educating people about earthquake safety.

Scientists, civil and environmental engineers, urban planners and others are studying additional strategies such as hazards mapping, overlay maps of buildings and roads that identify which ones are in areas that may see liquefaction or amplification during an earthquake. This information will help planning agencies in earthquake-prone areas better assess what types of structures should be built in various locations, and determine which areas should be avoided altogether. The information would also assist emergency response teams in dealing with the aftermath of a disastrous quake.

Other strategies include measuring soil properties, improving building codes, land use planning (to decrease both the amount and the vulnerability of development in the most hazardous areas), and protecting life lines -- those critical elements of a city's infrastructure which sustain life, society and the local economy. By listening and learning from our environment and employing these strategies, we can lessen the immense risk and environmental damage posed by major earthquakes.

Delta Zeta Sorority extends our support to our members, neighbors, friends and everyone affected by the earthquake which struck Haiti.
Delta Zeta encourages our members to consider donating to any reputable charity or organization of their choosing to help those who were affected by the earthquake and its aftermath. Whether your donation is at the national level to help those who suffered this tragedy, or to organizations in your own neighborhood to support relief efforts, we encourage our members’ generosity of spirit in supporting rescue and recovery efforts. To get started, visit Live Earth's How You Can Help Haiti Earthquake Victims for a list of reputable organizations that are helping in Haiti now. And you can download the original performances from the Hope for Haiti Now event at iTunes, and all proceeds will go to help the earthquake survivors.

Sources:  Reducing Earthquake Losses - The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network
                   EarthTrends Environmental Information
                   Center for Earthquake Research and Information (CERI)
                    Lessening the Earthquake Risk
                    Earthquake Engineering Research Institute