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The great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755: lessons from the recent Sumatra earthquakes and possible link to Plato's Atlantis

  • M.-A. GUTSCHER (a1)

Great earthquakes and tsunami can have a tremendous societal impact. The Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755 caused tens of thousands of deaths in Portugal, Spain and NW Morocco. Felt as far as Hamburg and the Azores islands, its magnitude is estimated to be 8.5–9. However, because of the complex tectonics in Southern Iberia, the fault that produced the earthquake has not yet been clearly identified. Recently acquired data from the Gulf of Cadiz area (tomography, seismic profiles, high-resolution bathymetry, sampled active mud volcanoes) provide strong evidence for an active east dipping subduction zone beneath Gibraltar. Eleven out of 12 of the strongest earthquakes (M>8.5) of the past 100 years occurred along subduction zone megathrusts (including the December 2004 and March 2005 Sumatra earthquakes). Thus, it appears likely that the 1755 earthquake and tsunami were generated in a similar fashion, along the shallow east-dipping subduction fault plane. This implies that the Cadiz subduction zone is locked (like the Cascadia and Nankai/Japan subduction zones), with great earthquakes occurring over long return periods. Indeed, the regional paleoseismic record (contained in deep-water turbidites and shallow lagoon deposits) suggests great earthquakes off South West Iberia every 1500–2000 years. Tsunami deposits indicate an earlier great earthquake struck SW Iberia around 200 BC, as noted by Roman records from Cadiz. A written record of even older events may also exist. According to Plato's dialogues The Critias and The Timaeus, Atlantis was destroyed by ‘strong earthquakes and floods … in a single day and night’ at a date given as 11,600 BP. A 1 m thick turbidite deposit, containing coarse grained sediments from underwater avalanches, has been dated at 12,000 BP and may correspond to the destructive earthquake and tsunami described by Plato. The effects on a paleo-island (Spartel) in the straits of Gibraltar would have been devastating, if inhabited, and may have formed the basis for the Atlantis legend.

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European Review
  • ISSN: 1062-7987
  • EISSN: 1474-0575
  • URL: /core/journals/european-review
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