Could A Catastrophic Earthquake Similar To The One That Struck Morocco Occur In Spain?

Image of seismograph.

Image of seismograph. Credit: Andrey VP/

THE Kingdom of Morocco is currently in the middle of a massive search and rescue operation to locate potential survivors of the recent earthquake.

A huge tremor measuring 6.8 magnitude on the Richter scale was registered about 60 km southwest of the city of Marrakech late on Friday, September 8. It had an epicentre in the town of Ighil, near Al Haouz.

According to the latest data from Morocco’s Interior Ministry, a total of 1,305 people are confirmed to have perished with another 1,832 injured, including 1,220 seriously.

Shockwaves were felt as far afield as Mauritania, the Western Sahara, and Algeria’s Sahrawi refugee camps. Several provinces in Spain also reported feeling the tremor, especially in Malaga, Huelva, Cadiz, Jaen and Sevilla, as well as the Canary Islands.

It was also noticeable in most of Portugal, with data from the Portuguese Institute of the Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA) reporting that the quake was felt with maximum intensity in Lisbon, Cascais, Almada, Castro Marim, Faro, Loulé, Portimão, Vila Real de Santo António, Torres Vedras, Vila Franca de Xira, Setúbal and Sines.

Portugal especially has reason to pay attention to this awful catastrophe that occurred in Morocco. On November 1, 1755, the capital city of Lisbon was practically destroyed by an enormous seismic tremor.

It was followed by a tsunami that also affected the southern Algarve region of the country. Between 12,000 and 50,000 people were estimated to have died as a result.

Many experts have suggested that such a natural phenomenon could repeat itself in the Portuguese capital. As a precaution, IPMA admitted the possibility of issuing new statements on the matter in the near future.

Morocco’s last big quake destroyed the city of Agadir in 1960 when more than 15,000 people died.

Large earthquakes have occurred in Spain previously

As explained by the National Geographic Institute (IGN): ‘Fortunately, our country does not represent an area where large earthquakes occur’. It added though that there was a: ‘ moderate seismic danger’.

However, on March 21, 1829, a powerful quake believed to have been of 6.6 magnitude hit the Valencian Community. A total of 389 people died, with at least 2,965 houses totally destroyed and another 2,396 damaged in the Torrevieja region of Alicante province.

In the towns of Almoradi, Benejúzar, Dolores and Guardamar, their bridges over the Segura River were also destroyed.

The 1884 Granadan earthquake of 6.7 magnitude occurred on December 25, 1884, at around 9 pm. Due to the fact that they had been poorly constructed, a total of 10,715 buildings were badly damaged, of which 4,399 were completely destroyed.

In excess of 1,200 people died, with another 1,500 seriously injured. This figure could have been a lot higher had it not been Christmas day and residents were outside celebrating in the streets at the time the tremor struck.

The Iberian Peninsula sits between two tectonic plates

Located between two large tectonic plates – the Eurasian and the African – is the Iberian Peninsula. It sits on what is known as the Iberian Microplate, which the experts say is currently joined to the Eurasian plate.

Seismic activity that occurs in Mediterranean countries such as Algeria, Greece, Turkey and Morocco is the result of tectonic movement between both continents.

Spain is connected to the westernmost part of the union between these two continental plates, on what is called the Azores-Gibraltar-Tunisia fracture.

The contact zone between the Iberian microplate, the African plate and the Alboran microplate lies in the south and the east, which is where most earthquakes will occur.

Map showing registered earthquake locations. Credit: IGN

The Alboran microplate is connected to the Valencian Community and the interior of the province of Malaga. A glance at the map shown above reveals that the largest concentration of red dots is located in Malaga, Granada, Almería, Murcia and Vega Baja in Alicante province.

Other areas of Spain that also have a higher incidence are the Canary Islands, the Pyrenees and Galicia. In the case of the Canary Islands, the experts point out that their seismicity is mostly the result of volcanic activity and not so much from the movement of tectonic plates.

Seismic activity in the Pyrenees relates to the fact that the Iberian Microplate sinks under the Eurasian plate in that region, which can cause earthquakes to occur frequently.

Galicia sits on the Azores transform fault

Galicia also has a lot of seismic activity, which is associated with the Azores transform fault of the central Atlantic ridge explained the experts.

According to data from the IGN, several earthquakes are registered every day in these areas, although very few are noticed by the population.

It is estimated that around 90 per cent of the total are what they call ‘invisible earthquakes’. A tremor has to be quite strong before members of the public will notice it.

What are the chances of a large tremor occurring in Spain?

Antonio Ruiz de Elvira, a Professor of Applied Physics at the University of Alcalá de Henares, was asked by what he believed the real risk was of an earthquake similar to the recent one in Morocco happening in Spain.

He explained: ‘Although in Spain we have not had such large earthquakes, we must keep in mind that about 300 years ago, in 1755, an earthquake occurred in Lisbon that left the city completely destroyed. And Lisbon is not far from our big cities’.

For anybody interested in learning more about the types of earthquakes that occur in Spain, the National Geographic Institute hosts the Next Earthquake Viewer. It features a map showing live seismic movements.

This map allows you to precisely locate where a tremor occurred, its magnitude and the depth at which it originated. Likewise, more information can be found on the website of the National Centre for Geographic Information.

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Written by

Chris King

Originally from Wales, Chris spent years on the Costa del Sol before moving to the Algarve where he is a web reporter for The Euro Weekly News covering international and Spanish national news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at