By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Monday, March 9, 2009
One of Saudi Arabia’s leading geologists and the former deputy minister of minerals says the Western Province may be in for a mild tremor, but there is absolutely no reason to panic.
“Saudi Arabia is part of the Arabian Plate, and this plate shares a border on the west with the Red Sea fault,” said Dr. Zohair A. Nawab, president of the Jeddah-based Saudi Geological Survey (SGS).
“We call this a spreading center, meaning at this fault in the Red Sea, the Arabian Plate is moving away from the other plate, i.e. the African Plate. The Arabian Plate is moving away from the African Plate exactly in the middle of the Red Sea, and the Red Sea is expanding. We don’t see it on a daily basis. We feel it and measure it with our instruments. Some movements happen all of a sudden and that is when earthquakes happen. This seismic activity is stronger in the northern part of the Red Sea.”
He said the biggest effects of these plate movements were felt in Iran. “Since the Arabian Plate is moving one to one-and-a-half centimeters per year, there is a collision with another plate — the Persian Plate. The effects of this collision between the Arabian Plate and the Persian Plate are felt in the Zagross Mountains in Iran where there are big earthquakes, and also in the Makran mountains in west Pakistan. All these are a result of this collision.”
As the Red Sea is expanding, something else is shrinking. “The Red Sea is opening up and getting wider and wider,” Nawab told Arab News. “As a result, the Arabian Gulf is shrinking and getting smaller and smaller. Several million years ago the Arabian Gulf was a big sea but in the last 25 million years, with the expansion of the Red Sea, it has shrunk to its current size.”
Nawab said people in the Western Province had to get used to living with seismic activity. “Simply because the Western Province is closer to the spreading fault line in the Red Sea, most of the earthquakes take place in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the Kingdom with milder ones in the middle of the western part,” Nawab said. “We also have some mild ones in the central-eastern part of Saudi Arabia. All this seismic activity is action and reaction — action in the Red Sea and reaction in the eastern part.”
The well-known geologist, whose specialty is plate tectonics, noted that the earthquakes, many of which are so minor as to escape the notice of most people, come and go.
“It comes like waves,” Nawab said. “Two years ago we had such a wave leading to earthquakes in the western region. This was announced on television, and newspapers wrote about it. Nobody can predict earthquakes. You can only notice some kind of activity. When will it explode? Nobody knows — not here, not in Japan or in the United States.”
Fortunately, Nawab says the Saudi Geological Survey and Civil Defense constantly monitor the Kingdom’s seismic situation. “Here in the Kingdom, the Civil Defense is always on alert,” he said. “We provide them with continuous seismic activity data. If they receive any report from citizens about unusual earth movements, they contact us immediately. Sometimes people call the Civil Defense and it later turns out to be construction activity. We basically tell the Civil Defense what exactly that activity is.”
Nawab said the biggest danger from earthquakes was ignorance about them. “We cannot run away; we have to educate people to accept these facts. There is always a possibility of an earthquake, but one need not panic. We have to make people aware about the building code for earthquakes. If buildings are not planned according to the international earthquake building code, then these structures will collapse in an earthquake with a magnitude of only 4 or 5 on the Richter scale. If there is no good building code, then there will be a lot of casualties. If you take care and you apply the building code strictly, many lives will be saved, and you will prevent a huge loss of investment.”
Nawab made his remarks in the run-up to the four-day Saudi Geosciences Conference which begins today at the Jeddah Hilton. As geologists and researchers from around the world gather for this event, the former deputy minister is particularly excited about getting to see the man who originally got him interested in geology in 1962 when he was a student at King Saud University in Riyadh.
“I thought I should take geology because it was a totally new subject,” Nawab said. “I wanted to explore it. I had a feeling that since it was a new subject in the Kingdom, maybe at a later stage the country might need people who were experts in the subject. The world-famous Dr. Zaghloul El-Najjar was teaching in King Saud University’s Department of Geology at the time. It was El-Najjar who unraveled the mysteries of this new science to us in a language that we understood. He got us hooked to the subject through clear, concise and simple explanations in Arabic. I fell in love with geology. I graduated from King Saud University with a major in geology.”
El-Najjar will be the conference’s keynote speaker. “It will be interesting to hear from him as to how far we in Saudi Arabia have come in the world of geology since those early days in the 1960s,” Nawab said.
The Saudi Geological Survey maintains a website with a wealth of fascinating information about the Kingdom’s unique features. For more information, visit http://www.sgs.org.sa/