Earthquakes in Indonesia: what you should know

Alexis
Modified on December 28, 2023

Experiencing an earthquake while holidaying in Bali or anywhere in Indonesia is quite likely. Here is what to expect and what you should do.

How many earthquakes occur annually in Indonesia?

Let's get straight to the heart of the matter, which is the number of earthquakes per year across the Indonesian archipelago. Just to keep you on your toes.

Indonesia records an average of 5,000 to 10,000 earthquakes per year across the entire archipelago. 

Yes, that's a lot. 

However, this number covers a very large area and includes all intensities that can be detected by the national agency BMKG, which is responsible, among other things, for natural, seismic, volcanic, and meteorological risks.

Why are there so many earthquakes in Indonesia?

Indonesia is not, of course, afflicted by earthquakes by chance. 

A large part of the Indonesian archipelago is located directly on the aptly named "Ring of Fire": an area where tectonic activity is very intense due to the meeting of two plates. This not only explains the incredible number of earthquakes in the region but also, among other things, the number of volcanoes in the archipelago.

ring of fire indonesia

Are there regions in Indonesia with more earthquakes than others?

To put it plainly, there is not really a place in Indonesia that can be 100% spared from earthquakes.

However, the island of Kalimantan (Borneo) is much less at risk than all the others because it is the only large Indonesian island that is not directly on the Ring of Fire. Nevertheless, it could still be shaken in the event of a major earthquake with its epicenter near another island or experience a tsunami.

The Indonesian government's decision to relocate the current capital (Jakarta) to create a new one in Borneo (Nusantara) is partly motivated by the mitigation of seismic and natural risks in Jakarta. The current capital of Indonesia is indeed overcrowded, sinking, on the Ring of Fire, by the sea, and close to the very dangerous Krakatoa volcano. In short, a more than perfect storm (or a ticking time bomb even) in the event of a significant earthquake, a tsunami, or an eruption of the Krakatoa as in 1883.

Sumatra is also one of the areas most affected by major earthquakes, as well as the islands further north and east of the Indonesian archipelago such as Sulawesi or the Moluccas, but they are relatively sparsely populated and less dense.

Bali, Lombok, and Java are regions where seismic activity is significant but seem to have been somewhat spared by significant earthquakes in the last 100 years, even though the one in Lombok in 2018 was a painful reminder.

big earthquakes indonesia

What are the main risks of earthquakes in Indonesia?

Now that the facts are laid out, here are the main risks to be aware of if you ever find yourself in an earthquake during your holidays or life in Indonesia.

Having the building you are in collapse on you: by far the leading cause of deaths

Let's be clear, Indonesia is not Japan. There are very few buildings that adhere to earthquake-resistant standards, if any.

When you start to feel the earth shake, your first concern should be whether the building above your head has a chance of staying upright or not.

Unfortunately, if you are very close to the epicenter of an intense earthquake, or if the earthquake is massive, there is a risk that the building will not hold up for long. This is by far what kills the most people near the epicenters of earthquakes in Indonesia.

It's also important to keep in mind that an earthquake is completely unpredictable, unlike a tsunami or a volcanic eruption. So if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it's tough luck.

damage earthquake indonesia

Tsunamis caused by earthquakes: rare but potentially devastating

The 2004 tsunami clearly left significant scars on the Indonesian people and shocked the rest of the world.

The 2011 Japan tsunami (Fukushima), also widely publicized, drove the point home.

Yes, there are certain earthquakes that can cause tsunamis in Indonesia. But it is a small minority of earthquakes, fortunately. Following the 2004 tsunami, Indonesia equipped many of its high-risk areas with alarms intended to sound in the event of a tsunami.

In Bali, almost all beaches have signs indicating evacuation routes in case of a tsunami, as well as alarms.

So, theoretically, unless the earthquake is massive and very close to the Balinese coast, you should not be caught off guard by a tsunami in Bali.

Landslides: a little-known but relatively common risk

Landslides are a big issue during earthquakes, especially in mountainous areas or in more rural areas where they often cause the most deaths. When an entire village detaches from the side of a mountain or when the mountain comes crashing down on the village below… it's rarely a good outcome.

Most earthquakes do not cause landslides, fortunately, but again, if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time…

Landslides can also isolate you from certain roads or crossing points. Many hikers on Mount Rinjani were thus stranded on the volcano's heights because landslides from the 2018 Lombok earthquake had made the usual routes for the return impassable.

Panic: a component of almost all earthquakes in Indonesia

Many underestimate how contagious panic is. Unfortunately, if you are surrounded by a lot of people during an earthquake, it can be very difficult to stay clear-headed and keep your calm.

For a little anecdote, I was in a Bali mall during the Lombok earthquake, and when the (very big) building started shaking, people inside began screaming and running in every directions. It took me a good 20 seconds to realise what was happening; it was screaming so much around me that my brain first thought of a terrorist attack!

When I got outside into the streets, which were full of people, I noticed all possible human behaviours:

  • Calm people (rare)
  • Very worried but relatively calm people (the majority, especially among locals used to earthquakes)
  • People in absolute panic who were difficult to calm down (foreigners and locals alike)
  • People in tears, shocked paralysed by fear (mostly foreigners that were experiencing their first strong earthquake)

In short, not only can panic be dangerous in the event of a massive stampede and clearly cause deaths, but it can also impact your judgment and actions much more than you think!

As an illustration to this last point, during an aftershock at my former office, a coworker ran to the toilets (a dead-end obviously) instead of the exit... He knew the office upside down, but still. So don't expect to be more clever than normal once everything around you start shaking and people are freaking out!

Road accidents: another underestimated problem of some earthquakes

Generally, when the earth shakes a lot, people tend to stop relatively naturally. The sensation is similar to a flat tire or a steering problem that should normally alert your senses to some extent if you are not a driving or riding psychopath.

But the risk of road accidents, especially on two wheels, is clearly not to be taken lightly.

Soil liquefaction: rare but recently happened in Palu, Sulawesi

In some rare cases, the ground can liquefy during an earthquake. Unfortunately, this is what happened during the Palu earthquake in 2018, where certain areas simply liquefied, submerging inhabited areas and creating hundreds of deaths. In addition to a tsunami and the earthquake…

From which magnitude/intensity are earthquakes starting to cause damages?

richter scale damage

From a magnitude of 5, earthquakes can result in damage, especially near the epicenter, and especially in a country like Indonesia where constructions can be quite precarious.

From a magnitude of 6, not only will everyone feel it, but there can be significant damage near the epicenter.

Beyond 7, it's almost certain that there will be deaths, extensive damage, and the tremors will be felt far away.

Several things should be noted regarding the intensity of earthquakes:

  • The Richter scale is logarithmic. An earthquake with a magnitude of 6 is 10 times more powerful than a magnitude 5 earthquake. A magnitude 7 earthquake is 10 times more powerful than a magnitude 6 earthquake, and so on. From personal experience, a 7 is truly incomparable to a 6...
  • Intensity is closely related to the depth of the earthquake and its location relative to you. A "simple" magnitude 5 earthquake, but shallow and 20km from the epicenter, can shake you more than you think.
  • Some earthquakes are short, others very long.

What to do if you are a victim of an earthquake during your vacation in Indonesia?

As the philosopher Mike Tyson once said: everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face!

When it comes to earthquakes, it's the same. You're not in control of the moment. You don't know where the earthquake will occur, and your emotions are likely to be overwhelmed in the event of a significant earthquake, especially if you're surrounded by other humans, have children to take care of, if it's at night...

Here are some common-sense tips, nonetheless.

Try not to panic (too much): easier said than done

Avoiding panic is crucial to keeping a clear head and making decisions that might save your life.

For instance, the story with my colleague than ran towards the toilets in my former office made us smile at the time, but it's the kind of bad decision that can cost you your life if the building collapses.

As mentioned earlier, panic is also contagious. Don't worry; if there's a significant earthquake, everyone is afraid, and in some cases, everyone is downright terrified. But yelling, pushing others, running in all directions, or crying won't change much in the end. Standing in the wrong place may even cost you your life.

It's better to focus on what you need to do and ignore the rest: others, their panic, their actions, your own fears.

But yeah, very easy in theory, much harder when you are surprised, when you don't know how long it will last, what will be the maximum intensity or if the roof over your head will stand.

Exit if you can, take shelter in a sturdy structure if necessary

I don't live in Japan or an area where all constructions are earthquake-resistant. Here in Indonesia, and especially in Bali where most buildings are one story at most, I recommend exiting if you can. This is what most locals would do.

If you're in a dead-end inside a building, far from an easily accessible exit, if the exit is too crowded, or if you're on an upper floor, you can try to take shelter under a table or in a doorframe. These are two good options to protect yourself from falling debris.

Move away from the coasts if a tsunami alert is issued

If you hear the tsunami sirens, move away from the coasts as quickly as possible.

If you're unable to move away from the coasts, or if the roads are heavily congested, you can climb to the upper floors of a tall building. Don't choose to stay in buildings that are not tall or are too small.

On the beach, large hotels from major chains or malls are decent options and may even be safer than venturing onto roads that may be crowded and full of panicking people.

Should you expect aftershocks if you've already experienced an earthquake?

If you've just experienced a significant earthquake, it's better to prepare for aftershocks, which are often of lower intensity but can still be traumatic or exhausting.

Let's be honest, the likelihood of no aftershocks after a significant earthquake is quite low, and again, no one can tell you where and when the next tremor will be.

In 2018, following the Lombok earthquake, there were millions of us in Bali who didn't sleep very well at night, or even became paranoid for quite a few months.

The main earthquake was one thing, but the aftershocks in the following weeks were another! In the end, some people were exhausted and would get out of bed or leave their office without there being any shaking. I know for sure: I found myself in my underwear on my street at 3 in the morning just because my wife had moved in bed!

Useful applications and other resources to know in case of an earthquake in Indonesia

No app or trick can obviously shield you from an earthquake in Indonesia. However, some resources can still be helpful.

Download the BMKG app: the official Indonesian government application for natural disasters

The organization known as BMKG is responsible for mitigating the risks of natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and floods.

If they can't predict the date and location of the next earthquake, their app can tell you where the earthquake you felt occurred, give you its magnitude, depth, distance from you, and, most importantly, tell you if there's a tsunami risk or not.

The app is available on Google Play and the app store and is free. However, it's only available in Indonesian.

Here are some words that might help you on the app:

  • Gempabumi = earthquake. Indonesians often just say "gempa" orally.
  • Tidak potensi tsunami = no tsunami risk
  • Terkini = latest. Gempabumi terkini = latest recorded earthquake

For your information, the update in the event of an earthquake is quite fast. You have the intensity, location, depth, and tsunami risk in less than 5 minutes after feeling the tremors in most cases.

Register with your consulate if you are an expat in Indonesia and has this option

I am not sure how it works for every country on earth. But more often than not, your consulate or embassy allows its citizen to get register themselves while living abroad so that they can know where you are and help / evacuate you in case of big issues (think natural disasters, wars, pandemics and so on).

What have been the most significant earthquakes in Bali in recent years?

The most significant earthquake in recent centuries in Bali occurred in 1815. It was a magnitude 7 earthquake that caused a tsunami and a landslide, resulting in more than 11,000 deaths. Most of the deaths were recorded in North Bali in the Singaraja region, where a very significant landslide had occurred.

In 1917, another earthquake caused the death of more than 1,500 people, again due to several landslides.

In 1976, a magnitude 6.5 earthquake caused the death of 500 people and left almost 400,000 people homeless, mainly in the Buleleng region where buildings were heavily affected.

Since those dates, earthquakes in Bali have been milder, with much less damage and intensity. Let's hope it stays that way.

For my part, the strongest I've felt during my years in Bali was by far the one in Lombok (and all its aftershocks!) that reached 6.9 on the Richter scale. Despite the distance, buildings in Bali were shaking, people on the road were stopping, pools were overflowing, and there was a lot of panic. There were almost only material damages in Bali, except for a man who fell from a roof due to the earthquake.

But the situation was dramatic in Lombok, and it doesn't make me curious about experiencing earthquakes of the same intensity but closer, or earthquakes of a higher magnitude. I can hardly imagine what those who experience magnitude 8 or 9 earthquakes feel.

Conclusion

Yes, earthquakes are a real problem in Indonesia, and it's challenging to escape them if you stay there for a long time. Bali is by no means protected, neither from earthquakes themselves nor from the tsunamis or landslides they can cause.

It's very likely that the earth will shake during your vacation in Bali or the rest of Indonesia. It's also very likely that you won't feel it, or the earthquake will be relatively mild.

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