A powerful 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck northwestern China’s Qinghai province on Saturday, December 17, leaving over 130 people dead and many more injured as of December 20. Frigid winter temperatures have compounded the suffering of survivors now lacking proper shelter.
The Quake and Aftershocks
The epicenter of the earthquake was located in Haidong city, Qinghai province, roughly 1,700 kilometers (1,056 miles) southwest of Beijing at a shallow depth of 10 kilometers, according to the China Earthquake Networks Center (CENC).
The area impacted is remote, mountainous, and prone to severe winters. Gansu province borders Qinghai to the north. Both rural provinces are located along the Tibetan plateau, which is seismically active.
CENC recorded a series of aftershocks following the main tremor, including a 5.1 magnitude aftershock around 10 minutes later.
Rescue and Recovery Efforts
Thousands of rescue workers were rapidly deployed to the disaster area despite heavy snow and rainfall. However, their efforts have been impeded by damage and power outages to telecommunications and transport infrastructure.
China’s Ministry of Emergency Management said more than 50,000 people were involved in the rescue work as of December 19.
|Rescue Workers Deployed
President Xi Jinping called for “all-out rescue efforts” in the aftermath, including relocation of survivors and restoration of damaged infrastructure.
Rescuers have been digging through rubble and debris to pull out survivors, many of whom suffered critical injuries. Around 300 people were hospitalized.
The race to find additional survivors has been made more urgent by the area’s high altitude and plunging winter temperatures, already as low as -16°C (3°F) at night.
Death Toll and Damage
At least 133 deaths have been reported so far, although the number may continue rising. Most of the confirmed deaths were in Maduo County, which felt the full brunt of the initial quake.
Over 10,000 houses and parts of several highways and bridges have collapsed. An estimated 200,000 people have been impacted based on damage across six cities and counties.
Wang Feng, a senior expert with China’s seismic administration, warned the actual number of casualties may be even higher as the quake struck remote communities during the night.
Southwest China sits along seismic fault lines and frequently experiences earthquakes, typically inflicting significant damage and loss of lives.
In 2008, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan province left nearly 90,000 people dead or missing. In 2010, a 6.9 magnitude quake in Qinghai killed over 2,000 people.
Saturday’s disaster was the deadliest since the Sichuan event and China’s worst earthquake since a 7.0 magnitude tremor killed 170 people in Yunnan province in 2014.
Professor Wang Tao from the China Earthquake Administration told state media that pressure has been accumulating around the Qinghai area, making it overdue for a strong earthquake.
Outlook and Aid
While the initial 72-hour critical rescue period has passed, emergency responders continue working to find survivors buried deep in rubble and prevent secondary disasters. Priorities include restoring utilities, evacuating the injured, and providing shelter and medical care.
With many survivors now homeless, China faces major reconstruction efforts to rebuild houses and infrastructure as winter sets in.
The central government has allocated one billion yuan ($146 million) for disaster relief efforts in Qinghai and Gansu provinces. Other areas in China as well as Taiwan have also pledged humanitarian assistance, despite recent political tensions.
Experts say the disaster zone may continue feeling aftershocks of magnitude 5 or higher in the coming days to weeks. Mountain roads blocked by landslides and snow could further impede transport of critical supplies.
As the scope of the devastation comes into focus, the death toll is expected to rise while those who remain homeless brace for difficult conditions ahead.
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