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Indonesian Earthquake of February 17, 1996

Portions of the background information for this article were contributed by Alex Adema, a twelfth grade student intern at NCEER, participating in the Education Project.

According to the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) of the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado, a MW 7.9 earthquake occurred at approximately 2 pm (local time) on Saturday, February 17, 1996 in the Irian Jaya region of Indonesia. The event occurred off the coast of Irian Jaya about 106 km (66 miles) northeast of the island of Biak (pop. 32,000) and about 3,200 km (2,000 miles) northeast of the capital city of Jakarta.

There were numerous casualties including more than 100 dead, 423 injured, 58 missing, and thousands left homeless. Damage included the destruction of more than 5,000 homes, collapsed buildings, airport shutdown, and temporary loss of communications. By February 20, there had been approximately 11 aftershocks greater than magnitude 5.0, including aftershocks of magnitude 6.7, 6.3 and 6.4. This continuous activity drove many residents to sleep outside.

Biak and west Irian are located in a mountainous, oceanic, and heavily seismic region of southeast Asia. Tsunamis and mudslides are common to this area as is evident with the destructive tsunamis of as much as seven meters produced by this event. Tsunamis caused extensive damage on the islands of Biak and Supiori, sweeping hundreds of homes out to sea, as well as damaging the north coast of Irian Jaya from Manokwari to Sarmi.

Part of a complex island arc system, the motions of several plates result in subduction, crustal shortening, strike-slip faulting and back arc spreading all within a relatively small region. Regional geologic structure was largely formed in response to episodic Cenozoic tectonism along the convergent boundary between the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates.

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