Island on rim of perpetual danger

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The Independent Online
TAIWAN AND the rest of the islands in the northern Pacific are especially prone to earthquakes because they lie on a complicated system of faults, caused by the collision of tectonic plates, the enormous components of the Earth's crust.

The same collision of plates that led to the creation of the Himalayas in India has left Taiwan and Japan with a legacy of tsunamis - the huge waves caused by undersea quakes, as the two tectonic plates slip past each other - and land-based earthquakes. Most of Taiwan's quakes originate in the Pacific.

Quake watchers had noted that Taiwan had been "too quiet" for some time. A big quake (above six on the Richter scale) had been expected since March, on the basis that there had not been a sizeable one since July 1998, when more than 20 people were killed by the effects of one of magnitude 6.2 in the less populated, mountainous central region of the island.

The new quake, estimated to be just 90 miles south-west of the capital, Taipei, one of the world's most densely populated cities, will have had more dramatic effects. While the Taiwanese live with the knowledge that earthquakes happen, there is only so much that building design can do to protect them. The taste for high-rise design grew as their economy boomed in the Eighties. And while civil engineers assure clients that they can build earthquake-proof structures, the truth is that clay turns into something like liquid under a powerful earthquake.

With the devastating effects of the 1994 Kyoto earthquake, even the Japanese learnt the truth, that nothing stands in the way of the moving earth.