Aftershocks: Recent seismic activity in the region remains public concern in Armenia

Dozens of relatively strong quakes and aftershocks that have hit the region in general and Armenia in particular in the past several months have caused anxiety among the population of the landlocked South Caucasus country where many remember the devastation and massive loss of life brought about by a powerful tremor more than two decades ago.

Seismic protection agency specialists, however, do not see reasons for panic, discarding all short-term predictions of a powerful earthquake as false.

Earthquakes in the region (Georgia, Azerbaijan, northern Iran, eastern Turkey) have been more frequent and intense since last October when a destructive magnitude 7.1 earthquake occurred near the city of Van in modern-day Turkey. In May alone seismic monitoring agencies have registered about two dozen earthquakes in the region, with seven of them in the territory of Armenia.

Some of the most powerful of these tremors were registered in the territory of Azerbaijan where panic started among the population of some western areas in recent days amid vast destruction caused by the quakes. The most powerful of the tremors, measuring 7 in the epicenter, occurred near Azerbaijan’s town of Zakatala last Friday.

In Armenia, a number of tremors occurred in the small hours of May 21. A magnitude 3.2 earthquake hit Armenia’s second largest city of Gyumri, and then magnitude 2.7 quakes followed in the Shirak region’s Ashotsk and Amasia areas, raising concerns about a possible heavy strike similar to the one that razed whole towns and villages to the ground in northern Armenian provinces in 1988. (About 25,000 people were killed then in Gyumri (then Leninakan), Spitak, Vanadzor (then Kirovakan) and other towns and villages of Armenia. The devastation caused then still remains a social concern in Armenia as some who lost their homes in that earthquake still have to live in makeshift housing today).

“It was at 3.10 in the morning [Monday], we felt a strong shake that woke us up. The glass of the bookcase was trembling and the chandelier hanging from the ceiling started swinging and went on swinging for a while,” says Gyumri’s 21-year-old resident Naira Gevorgyan. “We were very scared, but we couldn’t go outside at that hour.”

At a press conference in Yerevan on Monday Director of the National Service of Seismic Protection (NSSP) Hrachya Petrosyan said that their analysis shows the entire region is now in the seismic regime activation phase.

“We have a certain deficit in seismic energy release, which may recover with one magnitude 7-8 earthquake or through a series of weaker seismic shocks that are more likely to occur in the territory of Azerbaijan in the zone of recent tremors,” said Petrosyan, adding that weak tremors typical of recent days are not excluded in the time to come.

According to Petrosyan, the NSSP works in a 24-hour mode to study in detail the data received from seismic stations located in the territory of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh and monitoring the changes in underground waters, the geophysical magnetic field and others, as well as other phenomena that could predetermine earthquakes so as to take appropriate preventive measures.

A few days ago one of the local seismologists told media that “a strong earthquake is expected in Armenia”. That word spread quickly among the population, causing great concerns and even panic. The Ministry of Emergency Situations, however, refuted the information, urging the public to “keep calm and pay no attention to false statements made by panic-mongers.”

“Different types of disasters have different timeframes for forecast. No seismic station in the world, no scientist or agency can yet make a grounded short-term forecast of earthquakes. Only long-term forecasts of seismic activity are possible,” said deputy head of the Emergency Situations Ministry’s Rescue Service Nikolay Grigoryan. He added that as part of a program being jointly implemented with Japanese specialists, citizens in Armenia will soon be informed through text messages to their mobile phones about earthquakes in their area within minutes after their occurrence.

“Thus, being aware of the situation, members of the public will be less likely to fall victim to misinformation and unnecessary panic,” said Grigoryan.

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