Earthquakes in Italy

28th January, 2017: The seismic activity in Italy which started in August, 2016 continues in Central Italy. Ten days earlier – 18th January there was an earthquake in Central Italy, the tremors and earth movement sent shock waves through the region, resulting in an avalanche that engulfed a hotel. The force of the avalanche displaced the hotel downhill by tens of meters. Almost thirty people lost their lives. This is all part of a continuing seismic pattern that has seen tens of thousands of quakes in Central Italy since August of last year.

30th October, 2016: Two months ago I wrote an article about earthquakes in Italy following the catastrophic earthquake of Wednesday, 24th August when the town of Amatrice was destroyed. Hundreds of people lost their lives. Since then Central Italy has been jostled and rocked by thousands of tremors and several strong earthquakes. On 26th October, there was a large earthquake west of Visso, hundreds of people were evacuated to the coast for their safety. Then this morning, 30th October, another huge earth tremor occured just to the north of Norcia, Umbria. This morning’s quake registered 6.6 on the Richter scale. Ever since the quakes have continued, shaking the hills and small towns of this mountainous area. I can’t even imagine how frightening and concerning these ground movements are for the local people. Let’s hope that the people living in theses areas stay safe and that the seismic activity ends soon.

30th August, 2016: For a lay person’s guide to Italy’s earthquakes – I wrote:

Every few years there is an earthquake in Italy that makes the news. Towns and villages in ruins fill our TV screens. The latest of these was a tremor that struck in the early hours of Wednesday morning burying many people forever as they slept. The epicentre of the earthquake was about 10 miles north-east of Norcia in the picturesque hills of Umbria. It is a beautiful region of forests, waterfalls and charming villages. This is a mountainous area where the regions of Lazio, Umbria and Le Marche meet. The area is about 90 minutes drive from Rome.

Italy is a long peninsula of ancient rock that runs approximately north to south, from Austria and Switzerland to Sicily and the coast of North Africa. The Mediterranean Sea is a huge basin that is being gradually squeezed between the two gigantic continental plates of Europe and Africa. The backbone of Italy is a range of mountains called the Apennines. There is a tectonic fault line that runs down much of these mountains. If you think of the Earth’s surface as a series of plates moving in relation to one another, a bit like a 3-D puzzle or the bones that make up the skull of a new born baby, then you can visualise the edges of these plates, pulling apart in some places and pushing together in others. The plate boundaries are generally areas of construction or destruction. These plate boundaries are frequently associated with volcanoes and earthquakes. From the plate boundaries run fault lines, often at right angles to the plate edge, these fault lines complicate matters greatly. Pressure can build up along these fault lines until dramatic movement occurs which results in an earthquake. Movement along the San Andreas Fault in California is monitored constantly in an attempt to predict future quakes.

Italy’s fault line is very active in geological terms. In the last twenty years there have been three major earthquakes and numerous smaller ones. The beautiful town of Assisi was hit in 1997 by a quake which damaged the famous Basilica of San Francisco. It took years to restore the church and it’s medieval frescoes. In 2009 there was a quake in L’Aquila which destroyed the town and killed hundreds of people. Just yesterday an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale destroyed Amatrice, a pretty little mountain town known all over Italy as the birthplace of a special pasta dish – Pasta al’Amatriciana. Not far from Modena in Emilia Romagna there was an earthquake in 2012 which shook the buildings so hard enormous wheels of Parmesan Cheese fell from the shelves in the drying houses where they are stored to age for ten to fifteen years.

Italy - seismic activity - framed
Italy – a map showing seismic activity and the likelihood of earthquakes. Red-orange shading is most dangerous, yellow less dangerous, grey unlikely. In Italian this is ‘livello di pericolosita’.

So why do people live in ‘earthquake prone’ areas? Well they live here for many reasons. Volcanic rocks produce, over time excellent, fertile soils that are wonderful for farming. Let’s take Vesuvius as an example – this is a huge volcano, an active volcano, located on the Bay of Naples. It will probably erupt again at some point in the future. After Milan and Rome, Naples is one of Italy’s largest cities. In the event of a volcanic eruption there would be a massive ejection of gases and rock into the atmosphere. The vacuum created by the explosion would create very strong onshore winds as air rushes in to fill the void. These strong winds would prevent people leaving the area by sea. The motorway around the bay would become gridlocked within an hour with cars trying to flee. The result would be catastrophic. However people, especially Italians, love to be near family. Family connections and relationships bind individuals to a town, a village, even a street. Familiarity is reassuring it provides us with security and predictability.

As the Apennine Mountains have been contorted and twisted through geological time. So this has led to the formation of beautiful metamorphic rocks, especially the marbles of Carrara. The Carrara Marble quarries just north of Pisa have the finest, whitest marble. Famously used by Michelangelo when he sculpted ‘David’ in the 16th century. This Apennine marble was also used to decorate the Cathedral of Florence, interiors of palaces and aristocratic homes. Marble was brought from Pistoia, Prato and Carrara. Each town was known for the colour and perfection of its stones. Green from Pistoia, red from Prato and white from Carrara.

I’ve been working in Italy for thirty years. The Italians are resilient people. They will rebuild and they will survive. The Italian peninsula  is one of the most beautiful, rich and diverse landscapes of Europe. This is the land of olive oil, fine wines, cheeses, hams and delicious fruits and vegetables. A land of skill, design and ingenuity. A land of literature, art and culture. A land of profound humanity and kindness. Italy will endure and we can support the Italians by continuing to visit and showing that we care.

Notes:

  • Livello di pericolosita in Italian means ‘level of danger’ in English.
  • The USGS – United States Geological Survey does an excellent job monitoring seismic activity globally. It also has an informative web site, full of detail and live up-dates. The address is www.usgs.gov
  •  In Italy there is a National Centre for Earthquakes showing quakes and tremors, their location, depth and power  Italy’s ‘live’ seismic activity monitoring service
  • Updated: 30-10-2016
  • Updated: 29-01-2017

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