A nepalese man can be seen through a doorway of a collapsed house in Bhaktapur. Broken timber beams are in foreground

An earthquake centred in Nepal in 2015 killed about 10,000 people, but the toll could be much higher if the region experienced a repeat of powerful quakes that hit the Himalayas centuries ago. Credit: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty

Geophysics

The devastating death toll forecast for Himalayan quakes

Hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk as a result of population boom in seismic zone.

An earthquake similar to one that struck the Himalayas five centuries ago could kill almost 600,000 people in the region today, most of them in India.

The Indian plate of Earth’s crust rams into the Eurasian plate, pushing the Himalayas upwards and raising the risk of large earthquakes, such as the magnitude-7.8 quake in Nepal that killed about 10,000 people in 2015.

A team led by Max Wyss at the International Centre for Earth Simulation Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, analysed what might happen if either of two massive historical Himalayan earthquakes was to occur today. Many more people live in the region now than when those quakes struck.

A quake in the western Himalayas in 1555 may have been as large as magnitude 8. Today, a quake of this magnitude could kill 221,000 people and injure 884,000. Meanwhile, the 1505 earthquake that struck the central Himalayas may have measured as much as magnitude 8.7. A repeat could kill 599,000 people and injure more than one million.

Understanding the scope of possible disasters helps society to better prepare for such events, the team says.