Earthquakes could kill upwards of 3.5 million people this century

This is the kind of statistic we would expect to see decrease over the coming years. But as the number of humans continues to climb, and as these populations increasingly concentrate themselves in tightly packed urban areas, earthquake fatalities could reach 3.5 million by the end of this century. This is the conclusion of Tom Holzer, a geologist working with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, California. And indeed, it's not because earthquakes are getting more frequent or worse, it's just that people are crowding into earthquake-prone regions.

To reach this conclusion, Holzer and his colleague James Savage analyzed the historic record of earthquakes dating back almost 1,200 years. Armed with this data, they got a sense of what we can expect in the coming decades. And in fact, the geologists concluded that we can anticipate at least 21 "catastrophic" earthquakes in the 21st Century.

Earthquakes could kill upwards of 3.5 million people this century

Next, the team looked at these figures against the backdrop of human population and geographic distribution. Disturbingly, they discovered that 62% of the world's population currently lives in countries with significant risk — countries in which buildings aren't designed to withstand earthquakes.

Speaking to OurAmazing Planet, Holzer said,

There are places, like along the front of the Himalayas, that are just waiting for another disaster. China, the Middle East and many of the cities in these places just don't design to resist earthquakes. If we don't address this, we're going to see many more catastrophes than we've seen historically, and humanitarian aid efforts are going to be stressed even more over this century. We're going to see more Haiti-type situations.

But the geologists also noted that high-density, urban areas aren't the only danger zones. As the 2005 tsunami demonstrated, even sparsely populated areas can be subject to wide scale devastation and high rates of fatalities.

The entire study can be read at Earthquake Spectra.

Images: Tom Wang / Shutterstock; arindambanerjee / Shutterstock.com.