Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk


Mt. Kinabalu’s Clipped Ear

I purchased this postcard in 2009 after completing my hike up Gunung Kinabalu, Malaysia’s highest mountain. It shows part of the route used by most climbers and the various peaks at the summit.

The profile of the mountain has altered slightly since this photo was taken. The magnitude 6.0 earthquake which occurred on 5th June last year caused one of the Donkey’s Ears to partially break off (the one on the left, I think).

You might recall that this quake, which caused 18 fatalities, was blamed, by followers of local beliefs, on a group of western tourists who unwisely stripped off at the summit, thereby angering the mountain spirits.

A more scientific cause of the earthquake would be Sabah’s proximity to seismically active plate boundaries.

Malaysia’s Earthquake Risk

Malaysia is not normally associated with earthquakes. West Malaysia is seismically stable although vulnerable to the affects of large earthquakes in Sumatra.

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The Indian Ocean plate is pushing under Sumatra, in the direction of Malaysia, at the rate of about 7cm per year. Large earthquakes occur periodically in Sumatra and have been known to cause buildings to shake in KL and Johor Bahru. Meanwhile the Philippine plate is moving westwards, towards Malaysia, at a velocity of around 8cm per year.


Sabah is classified as a moderately active area, seismically. The map above shows the location of earthquakes around Sabah in recent years. There have been 16 incidents in the past 20 years, mostly in the 4-5 magnitude range..  The biggest one ever recorded was a 6.2 magnitude quake in Lahad Datu in 1976.

Mt. Kinabalu’s 6.0 magnitude was not huge in earthquake terms but the energy released was still the TNT equivalent of 15 kilotons, similar to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Very frightening for the people who were stuck on the mountain at the time.

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This graphic helps put these events in perspective.

Mt. Kinabalu was closed to climbers for six months following the earthquake due to damage to the trails and facilities. It was reopened in December 2015 although the number of permitted climbers has been restricted to 120 per day. That will probably improve the experience – it was a little too crowded at the top when we went.