A powerful earthquake struck a remote area of western China along the border with Kyrgyzstan on Monday, January 22nd, collapsing buildings, triggering landslides, and injuring at least 6 people.
Quake Strikes Sparsely Populated Region; Limited Damage and Casualties
The 7.1 magnitude quake hit early Monday morning at a depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles) in a mountainous area of Xinjiang region’s Taxkorgan county, which is home to nearly 1,300 square miles of national parks showcasing glacier peaks, pine forests and grasslands, according to Chinese state media (source). While the area is sparsely populated, the quake was felt as far away as the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi and in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.
At least 47 homes collapsed and 120 more were damaged in Taxkorgan, though only 6 people were reported injured so far, local authorities said Tuesday (source). The limited damage is likely due to the area’s small population. With most residents living in scattered villages and largely one-story homes, the death toll has been minimal compared to past quakes in more densely populated areas of China.
Strong Aftershocks Continue; Mass Evacuations Underway
Over a dozen aftershocks have continued rattling the remote region, including one measuring 5.1 magnitude, China’s earthquake monitoring agency reported Tuesday morning (source). With freezing winter temperatures plunging to -4°F (-20°C) at night, authorities have evacuated hundreds of residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed.
Local media showed footage of people including the elderly and young children bundled up in thick coats and hats as they were transported to temporary shelters and relief camps set up in nearby towns. “Some villages near the epicenter are suffering from disruption of telecommunications and the situation is being assessed,” said an official from the region in a press conference Tuesday (source).
Officials warned of possible secondary disasters like landslides over the next several days as aftershocks continue and daytime temperatures rise above freezing, which could melt mountain snow and trigger mudflows.
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Table showing initial quake event and some of the largest aftershocks recorded so far. Additional tremors are likely in the coming days and weeks. (Source: China Earthquake Networks Center)
Quake Felt by Millions Far From Epicenter
While the heaviest shaking was limited to southern Xinjiang province, the earthquake’s waves rippled outward for hundreds of miles. Tremors were felt as far as the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, over 620 miles from the epicenter, where highrises swayed for up to a minute. Vibrations were also reported in major cities including Kashgar, Hotan, Shihezi, and Karamay (source).
In neighboring countries, the quake shook buildings for 30-40 seconds in some areas of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Islamabad, Pakistan (source). Tremors were even felt as far south as New Delhi, India over 750 miles away, where minor shaking led some residents to temporarily evacuate buildings in the capital region (source).
While damage outside of China appears very limited, the wide reach demonstrates the earthquake’s tremendous amount of released energy. The epicenter lies along a major fault zone between the Eurasian tectonic plate and the subducting Indian plate, which frequently produces large quakes.
Response Efforts Accelerated; Warnings Issued Across Asia
China’s national earthquake response plan was activated within 30 minutes of the initial rupture. Military troops stationed in Xinjiang were deployed for relief efforts alongside specially trained earthquake response teams sent from major city centers in western China.
Equipment convoys carrying emergency supplies, satellite communication gear, excavation tools and temporary shelters headed toward Taxkorgan county by early Tuesday. Officials warned icy winter road conditions were hindering highway access to some of the remote mountain villages nearest the epicenter (sources 1, 2).
Across much of Asia, earthquake monitoring centers have urged the public to prepare for potentially dangerous aftershocks over the next several weeks. Officials say the likelihood of a similarly intense quake in the region remains elevated, warning local governments in western China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and central Asia to accelerate safety preparations.
Long Recovery Expected in Impoverished Region
Rebuilding efforts in the rural villages near this quake’s epicenter are expected to be lengthy and costly due to the region’s high elevations and remote terrain. Taxkorgan county lies more than 13,000 feet above sea level atop the Pamir Plateau, straddling China’s border with Tajikistan near the mountain junction of Tian Shan, Kunlun Shan and Pamir ranges.
The area is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities including Tajiks and Kyrgyzs, who mainly live in high mountain villages working as herders and farmers. It remains one of China’s most impoverished regions, with rugged terrain, bitter winters and few modern infrastructure connections with the rest of China.
While Beijing has invested billions in recent decades to spur development in its Western regions, much of the progress has centered around urban areas. Rebuilding efforts in the rural villages affected by this disaster could lag for months or years due to difficulty accessing materials.
History of Destructive Quakes
The area frequently experiences large quakes due to tectonic plate collisions along the border region. Over the past century, numerous devastating temblors have struck this portion where the Indian plate presses into the Eurasian plate near western China.
In the 1950’s, a pair of 7.4 and 7.6 quakes devastated parts of Xinjiang and Tajikistan resulting in over 10,000 casualties. A decade later, a massive 8.2 quake in nearby Kashgar prefecture killed over 60,000 people, injuring another 160,000. In 2008, another huge quake leveled entire communities across western Sichuan province causing over 100,000 deaths.
While this most recent quake struck one of western China’s most sparsely inhabited regions, experts warn that seismic risk remains high for many of the nation’s bustling inland cities also built atop fault lines, including Chengdu, Lanzhou, Xi’an and Urumqi. They say this latest event serves as another reminder that stronger building codes and emergency preparedness are vital across all quake-prone regions.
Outlook: Further Analysis Needed as Aftershocks Continue
In the coming days, scientists will carefully analyze readings from GPS stations, seismic sensors, satellite imagery and computer simulations to better understand the earthquake’s characteristics and aftermath. This forensic data will provide details on the direction of rupture, the amount of energy released, and refine maps showing the greatest land deformation and aftershock potentials.
Officials urge the public to remain cautious over the next several weeks, avoiding entering any quake-damaged structures and preparing emergency response plans. With frigid winter weather settling in and more tremors likely, delivering humanitarian aid and preventing secondary casualties will remain challenging in towns and villages near this quake’s epicenter. Longer-term remedies entail costly infrastructure campaigns across China’s rural western regions in order to bolster earthquake resilience.
For up-to-the-minute updates as this situation continues developing, be sure to check our Earthquake in China coverage page with the latest news reports and official announcements gathered from sources across the affected region.
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