Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit northern Armenia, nearly twenty-five thousand people were killed as many poorly constructed buildings collapsed in towns and villages across the region.

Summary of Event

At 11:41 a.m. local time on December 7, 1988, a major earthquake occurred in the Lesser Caucasus highlands of northern Armenia, about 80 kilometers south of the main Caucasus range. Fault rupture began 8 to 10 kilometers below the surface and produced 2 meters of slippage. Strong motion continued for about thirty seconds, reaching magnitudes of 6.2 to 6.9 on the Richter scale. A magnitude 5.9 aftershock occurred four minutes after the main earthquake, causing further damage to buildings and the land surface. The official death toll was 24,944, although unofficial estimates put it much higher, and some 31,000 people were injured, of whom 12,200 required hospitalization. Disasters;earthquakes Building codes Spitak earthquake Leninakan earthquake [kw]Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform (Dec. 7, 1988) [kw]Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform, Armenian (Dec. 7, 1988) [kw]Building Reform, Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for (Dec. 7, 1988) [kw]Reform, Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building (Dec. 7, 1988) Earthquakes;Armenia Disasters;earthquakes Building codes Spitak earthquake Leninakan earthquake [g]Central Asia;Dec. 7, 1988: Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform[07040] [g]Soviet Union;Dec. 7, 1988: Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform[07040] [g]Armenia;Dec. 7, 1988: Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform[07040] [c]Disasters;Dec. 7, 1988: Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform[07040] [c]Urban planning;Dec. 7, 1988: Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform[07040] [c]Engineering;Dec. 7, 1988: Armenian Earthquake Leads to Calls for Building Reform[07040] Chazov, Yevgeny Ivanovich Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;Armenian earthquake Ryzhkov, Nikolai Ivanovich Marchuk, Guri Ivanovich

The earthquake affected about 40 percent of Armenian territory and damaged 150 settlements. Among these, destruction was almost total in 58 villages and was very serious in 3 towns: Leninakan (population 290,000), Spitak (population 20,000), and Kirovakan (population unknown). Approximately 17 percent of Armenia’s housing stock was destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, and 514,000 residents were made homeless. In Leninakan alone, 72 tall buildings collapsed, and 60 more were damaged beyond repair. In Spitak, which was only 9 kilometers from the epicenter of the earthquake, no habitable buildings remained.

The largest portion of the $15 billion in losses caused by the quake was accounted for by damage to industrial and commercial facilities. Some 130 plants were affected, including sugar mills, granaries, power stations, and chemical, machine tool, and food-processing plants. Armenia’s two 440-megawatt pressurized-water nuclear reactors were undamaged; they had been retrofitted to withstand moderate earthquakes. If these facilities had been damaged, the effects would have been extremely serious, as the reactors lacked emergency core-cooling systems and containment vessels.

Thousands of slope failures were caused by the earthquake, principally in the form of rockfalls, slumps, and debris or soil slides. Liquefaction of water-saturated sands also occurred. Near Nalband in the Caucasus Mountains, several million cubic meters of rock were mobilized in a single movement, and some loss of life occurred when remote mountain villages were struck by large landslides. Moreover, lifelines such as roads, railroads, and water mains were swept away in several places.

The 1988 Armenian earthquake caused the collapse of this old stone masonry Armenian church in Leninakan.

(C.J. Langer/U.S. Geological Survey)

The worst damage at Kirovakan occurred in a small area of land that had been reclaimed from marshes by backfilling. (Similar conditions pose a seismic hazard in Boston, Massachusetts, and San Francisco, California, where poor seismic performance of foundations is likely on the soft sediments of reclaimed land.) Although soft sediments 300 meters thick amplified ground motion under Leninakan and Spitak, damage to buildings depended to a greater extent on construction type and quality. Older buildings were constructed mainly of load-bearing stone masonry composed of soft, porous volcanic rock that split or sheared easily during the tremors. Some buildings had heavy reinforced concrete and hollow-brick floors. Lack of reinforcement caused such buildings to crack at their corners until the end walls fell out and the floor beams collapsed. More modern buildings were constructed of reinforced concrete frames, often with precast concrete panels. In many cases, however, these elements were so poorly spliced together that the deformations caused by the tremors resulted in total collapse of the buildings. In buildings that did not suffer complete destruction, precast concrete stairs tended to detach themselves during the shaking, reducing opportunities for evacuation.

Rescue activities were slow to begin and initially chaotic, although they gradually gained in momentum. Rescue workers’ efforts were undermined by weather conditions that alternated from fog to snow and by temperatures that fell to -20 degrees Celsius at night. Of the estimated forty thousand people who were trapped in collapsed buildings, about fifteen thousand were rescued alive. Of these, the majority were extracted from the rubble by survivors who had no tools at their disposal more sophisticated than picks and shovels. Although living victims were rescued as late as nineteen days after the earthquake, about 90 percent of those saved were found within twenty-four hours of the main tremors. After that time, hypothermia claimed the lives of many of those who remained trapped.

Nearly all the hospitals and clinics in the disaster area were destroyed by the earthquake, and 80 percent of local doctors and nurses were killed. Inclement weather and a shortage of vehicles slowed the transportation of injured survivors to hospitals outside the area, which were mainly in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, and Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. Bad weather and inadequate air traffic control resulted in two fatal crashes of aircraft bringing relief workers and supplies to Yerevan airport; eighty-five lives were lost.

International relief operations began on the third day after the earthquake and gradually built up until about seventy countries had donated money, supplies, expertise, and human resources. Within one week of the disaster, the main airport at Yerevan was handling 150 flights per day and had opened thirty-two new warehouses for the storage of donated supplies.

Foreign donors sent some five thousand metric tons of drugs and consumable medical supplies, constituting 25 to 30 percent by value of the total aid supply. Less than one-third of the drugs, however, were immediately usable; of the rest, 11 percent were inappropriate medicines, 8 percent were past their expiration dates, and many of the remainder were inadequately labeled, with some 238 brand names in twenty-one different languages. Indeed, only 33 percent of donated antibiotics were labeled with generic names, few of which were in Russian and virtually none of which were in Armenian. By the end of the month, one-fifth of donated medical supplies had to be destroyed, as the useless materials were taking up valuable warehouse space. It took two weeks for an efficient management strategy for medical relief to evolve.


Experts agreed that there was little prospect of accurately predicting the 1988 Armenian earthquake because the mechanisms of thrust faulting in the Caucasus are notoriously complex. The general seismicity of northern Armenia is well understood, however; the record of severe earthquakes there extends back to 863 c.e., with serious earthquake disasters in 1899, 1926, and 1940. Information on such events gives an ample basis for specifying antiseismic construction measures, but Soviet seismologists were quick to point out that Armenian authorities had ignored a 1975 report on the earthquake hazard. Earthquakes;Armenia

Much was learned from the 1988 Armenian earthquake about the forms of injury caused by seismic disasters and about the management of large-scale medical emergencies. Earthquake injury epidemiology Earthquake injury epidemiology began with the 1976 Guatemala earthquake (which had a death toll of some twenty-three thousand), which had much in common with the Armenian disaster in terms of inadequate relief efforts, inappropriate supplies, and predominance of crush injuries. The lack of progress that was made in the intervening twelve years is significant.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control studied three Armenian villages located close to the epicenter and found a death rate of 49.5 percent and an injury rate of 14.6 percent among the villages’ eighty-five hundred inhabitants. Postmortems confirmed that some victims were asphyxiated by the dust of collapsed buildings, but many others, including some who were rescued alive, died from kidney failure as a result of crush injuries. Crush syndrome occurs when myoglobin protein is released into the bloodstream from ruptured muscle tissue and clogs the kidneys. Crush syndrome can also occur if the body’s electrolytes are disturbed by large releases of potassium from damaged tissue. With this in mind, U.S. authorities sent 176 metric tons of dialysis equipment to Yerevan, enabling twenty-five to thirty-five treatments to be carried out each day.

The first two days after the disaster revealed a chronic lack of injectable analgesics, antibiotics, anesthetic agents, intravenous fluids, syringes, and equipment for handling and transporting injured survivors. These shortages highlighted the need to create and maintain secure stockpiles of such items in all areas where major earthquake disasters can be expected. As noted above, drugs arrived unsorted and improperly labeled; many were in the wrong doses or not relevant to the sorts of injuries that needed treatment. This situation led many observers to question the integrity of the manufacturers and donors of the drugs.

Deaths in the Armenian earthquake were caused primarily by building collapses, which led to entrapment and crush injuries. Mortality rates exceeded 90 percent in the sudden, spontaneous failure of modern structures built with precast concrete frames. When a sewing factory fell, 205 of 215 workers died; 285 out of 302 children died when a school collapsed. Typically, the floor plates of such buildings disintegrated into small fragments that left little room for victims to survive beneath partially fallen columns and beams. Similar building collapses have occurred in other earthquakes. It is significant that most of the collapsed buildings in Armenia were less than fifteen years old; many older stone buildings survived.

Had a seismic event with characteristics similar to the Armenian earthquake occurred in California, it would probably have killed fewer than one thousand people. Building codes and construction methods have much to do with the severity of earthquake-caused damage. Investigating engineers argued that the Armenian building codes underestimated the possible severity of ground shaking, permitted the use of standardized precast concrete building designs that were inappropriate in a seismic zone, and did not adequately specify material and construction standards. The serious aftershock that occurred within four minutes of the main earthquake knocked down buildings that had been weakened by the initial shock. The official Soviet postdisaster investigating team concluded that there had been “insufficient study of the seismic situation” before modern urban development took place in northern Armenia.

The Armenian earthquake must also be viewed in the context of momentous political events, principally the thaw in international relations that culminated in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of nationalism that intensified soon afterward in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1988, it was still unusual for the republics and the Soviet Union to accept international aid. Initially, visas were refused to foreign medical and search-and-rescue experts, although a reversal of the old policies occurred shortly after the catastrophe. When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev arrived in Spitak on December 10, 1988, normal protocol was abandoned, informality mingled with compassion, and Gorbachev announced that a commission of inquiry would investigate the construction of modern buildings to aseismic, rather than antiseismic, standards. This attitude represented a notable advance in glasnost, or transparency, in a country that for decades had been unwilling to admit its mistakes and shortcomings.

When, on December 8, 1988, Gorbachev cut short a successful visit to New York and flew to Armenia, he had to guide a relief effort that was horrifyingly inadequate and a local political situation that was gradually spinning out of control. It appeared that some survivors expropriated heavy equipment for personal search-and-rescue operations rather than leaving the authorities to decide where to dig for survivors. Meanwhile, Azerbaijani relief workers were pelted with stones, and Gorbachev spoke to the news media of ultranationalist “demagogues and adventurers” who were “waging a battle for power.” In Yerevan on December 10, seven nationalist leaders were arrested and Soviet troops fired on one thousand demonstrators. One week after the disaster, a nightly curfew was imposed, ostensibly to quell looting but actually as a form of martial law to reduce interethnic disturbances. Ultimately, the presence of thirteen thousand Soviet troops could not contain the tensions.

The Armenian catastrophe of December, 1988, provided the international scientific and relief communities with much vital data on earthquake epidemiology, the performance of substandard reinforced concrete buildings, and the logistics of medical relief. This information was widely shared and discussed in subsequent years, although little progress was made in Armenia in indicting the politicians, architects, engineers, and planners who had created a situation of such vulnerability in an area of such well-known seismic risk. The disappearance of the authoritarian centralized state and the rise of ethnic conflict meant that very little reconstruction took place during the first few years after the disaster. Survivors, therefore, had to grapple with the problems of temporary accommodation in both a harsh climate and a state beset by warfare and economic crisis. Earthquakes;Armenia Disasters;earthquakes Building codes Spitak earthquake Leninakan earthquake

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alexander, David E. Natural Disasters. New York: Chapman & Hall, 1993. Presents a condensed account of the 1988 Armenian quake set in the context of an extensive treatment of the physical and human aspects of earthquake disasters. Includes discussion of seismology, earthquake damage, logistics, shelter, reconstruction, and the social and psychological aspects of such events.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borunov, A. K., A. V. Koshariov, and V. V. Kandelaki. “Geoecological Consequences of the 1988 Spitak Earthquake (Armenia).” Mountain Research and Development 11 (1991): 19-35. Examines the effects of the earthquake on land and settlement. Notes that sites for reconstruction and for the dumping of waste and rubble were selected indiscriminately, without regard to the sites’ possible value as farmland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coburn, Andrew, and Robin Spence. Earthquake Protection. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002. An architect and an engineer provide an integrated account of the effects of earthquakes. Emphasizes the relationships among structural damage, human behavior, socioeconomic factors, and casualty patterns. Includes brief references to the lessons of the Armenian earthquake.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    Earthquake Spectra 5 (August, 1989). Special supplement titled “Armenia Earthquake Reconnaissance Report” contains detailed descriptions of findings by the team of nineteen U.S. scientists and thirteen Soviet researchers who arrived in Armenia on December 19, 1988. Covers seismology, surface faulting, site conditions, damage patterns, performance of structures and lifelines, construction codes, search and rescue, social impacts, and medical responses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerr, Richard A. “Notes About the Armenia Earthquake, 7 December 1988.” Earthquakes and Volcanoes 21, no. 2 (1989): 68-78. Succinct, informative, and well-illustrated article summarizes many aspects of the Armenian earthquake, compares it with contemporary seismic disasters in Asia, and describes the U.S. scientific mission to Armenia after the catastrophe. (Earthquakes and Volcanoes is the U.S. Geological Survey’s bimonthly magazine for general readers.)
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Donald E., and Lorna Touryan Miller. Armenia: Portraits of Survival and Hope. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Documents the lives of Armenians at the end of the twentieth century with both words and many photographs by Jerry Berndt. Chapter 1 is devoted to the earthquake of 1988.

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