Variations in early measurements are common, although either reading would be Morocco’s strongest in years. Though earthquakes are relatively rare in North Africa, a magnitude 5.8 tremor struck near Agadir and caused thousands of deaths in 1960.
“Earthquakes are not common in the area, but [this was] not unexpected,” said U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Anna Andreyev, who said the quake is the largest since 1900.
She added, “Based on the depth and the magnitude, we can expect significant damage.”
The USGS said the epicenter was in the Moroccan High Atlas Mountain range, about 46 miles southeast of Marrakech. It was also near Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa and Oukaimeden, a popular Moroccan ski resort.
The head of a town near the earthquake’s epicenter told Moroccan news site 2M that several homes in nearby towns had partly or totally collapsed, and electricity and roads were cut off in some places.
Abderrahim Ait Daoud, head of the town of Talat N’Yaaqoub, said authorities are working to clear roads in Al Haouz Province to allow passage for ambulances and aid to populations affected, but said large distances between mountain villages mean it will take time to learn the extent of the damage.
Local media reported that roads leading to the mountain region around the epicenter were jammed with vehicles and blocked with collapsed rocks, slowing rescue efforts.
The USGS said the epicenter was 11 miles below the Earth’s surface, while Morocco’s seismic agency put it at 5 miles down. The temblor involved movement of the Africa plate about 341 miles south of its convergence with the Eurasian plate, the survey said.