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Deadly earthquake hits Iran-Iraq border: what we know

More than 400 are reported dead.

People inspect the debris of buildings and a destroyed vehicle in the Sarpol-e Zahab town of Kermanshah, Iran, on November 13, 2017, following a magnitude 7.3 earthquake that hit the Iraq-Iran border.
Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

On Sunday, at 9:48 pm local time, a powerful magnitude 7.3 earthquake struck northwest Iran near the border with Iraq. As of Monday, more than 400 people had been reported dead — with most of the reported deaths in the Iranian province of Kermanshah. Thousands more are injured, according to Iranian state media. There are also eight people reported dead in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region. Overall, 70,000 people may be in need of temporary shelter.

At this early stage, there are several estimates of casualties being reported, so consider these numbers preliminary. Even so, if there are more than 400 dead, that means this is the deadliest earthquake so far this year, worse than the powerful September quake in Mexico City that killed 369.

Earthquakes are scored on a logarithmic scale of 1 to 10, so a magnitude 7 represents an earthquake with an amplitude 10 times greater than a magnitude 6. For every number on the scale, “the associated seismic energy increases by about 32 times,” the US Geological Survey explains.

More simply: A 7.3 is forceful enough to destroy whole buildings or rip off their facades.

Based on the size of the quake and its proximity to population centers, the USGS’s automated earthquake reporting system predicts fatalities in the hundreds for this event. And costs could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.


The earthquake was triggered by the rupturing of a portion of the fault line that separates the Eurasian tectonic plate and the Arabian plate, which caused one of the plates to move downward suddenly, according to USGS. That sudden movement then propagated as a wave that shook the ground for miles around the epicenter.

According to the geological agency, the earthquake epicenter was almost exactly on the border between the two countries. The nearest city to the epicenter is Halabjah, Iraq — a Kurdish city home to 57,000 — which experienced “severe” shaking, according to the USGS. Light tremors were felt in Baghdad, some 150 miles away. More than 140 aftershocks were reported.

Rescue operations are underway, but are arduous because of the conditions on the ground, Agence France-Presse reports. Iran's emergency services chief Pir Hossein Koolivand told the news agency it was "difficult to send rescue teams to the villages because the roads have been cut off ... there have been landslides." Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “ordered the government and armed forces to mobilise ‘all their means’ to help the population.”

Rescuers search for victims amid the rubble in Kermanshah.
Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

According to the Los Angeles Times, which has reporters on the ground in Tehran, vital infrastructure has been knocked out, and search and rescue operations are still locating victims:

The quake caused damage that contaminated drinking water supplies and knocked out electricity, phone and gas services across a wide area of Kermanshah, most of which is rural. Landslides and scores of aftershocks delayed emergency crews and rattled residents as news media broadcast urgent appeals for blood donations.

Iran has a tragic history of earthquakes. In 2003, a magnitude 6.6 quake in the country’s western region killed more than 26,000 people, mostly due to poor building construction.

Civilians and soldiers search for the possible survivors trapped under the debris in the Sarpol-e Zahab town of Kermanshah, Iran, on November 13, 2017.
Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images