Shaken Not Stirred

Prone to Earthquakes and Volcano Eruptions, Should Italy Prepare for ‘The Big One’?

A series of devastating earthquakes have killed hundreds and destroyed scores of towns and villages. But it may only get worse.

10.30.16 7:49 PM ET

ROME—Nobody died in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake that struck central Italy on Sunday morning because almost everyone was already gone. They left last week when twin earthquakes struck the same region along the border between the regions of Umbria and Marche. No one died in those seismic events either because much of the population was still living in tents and makeshift housing after their homes were destroyed in an August 24 earthquake that killed nearly 300 people. 

Sound like a pattern? It certainly feels like one.

One may ask why there are so many earthquakes in Italy lately, but the real question, according to seismologists, is why haven’t there been this many earthquakes for such a long time? Sunday’s event was the strongest earthquake since a 6.9 quake in 1980 killed around 3,000 people near Naples. In 1990, 19 people died when a 5.6 tremor hit Sicily. In 2002, 30 people died when a quake flattened a school in Molise. In 2009, 309 people were killed when a 6.3 magnitude quake struck L’Aquila. In 2012, two quakes nine days apart over 6.1 in magnitude killed 25 people. 

But that’s nothing. 

In 1783, five major earthquakes over 6.5 in magnitude struck Calabria over the course of two months, killing more than 50,000 people. Gianluca Valensise, a noted seismologist with Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Vulcanology, told Reuters that the recent events in central Italy are far more normal than the relative “quiet” the country has enjoyed for the last several centuries. 

“An earthquake measuring 6 or larger creates stresses that are redistributed across adjacent faults and can cause them to rupture,” he said. “This process can continue indefinitely, with one big quake weakening a sister fault in a domino process that can cover hundreds of kilometers.”

He told Reuters that there would definitely be aftershocks—and likely strong ones—for at least a few more weeks. And, he doesn’t exclude that a new seismic event somewhere else in the country that would have its own aftershocks. And so on. And so on.

Italy sits on the juncture of two tectonic plates and on top of two major fault lines. The Alps in the north of the country were formed by the African plate nudging up against the Eurasian plate. Fault lines from these two plates bumping into each other extend across the entire country and move at the rate of about three centimeters a year. After a while pressure builds and something’s got to give, causing the earth to quake.

As if Italy’s seismic tendencies aren’t enough, Italy also has some of the world’s most potentially dangerous volcanoes and, because it is surrounded by water, runs a risk of tsunamis caused by underwater earthquakes. In 1908, a 7.1 magnitude quake under the Straits of Messina between Sicily and the mainland was followed by a massive Tsunami that killed 80,000 people.

Italy’s volcanoes are, in fact, potentially much more dangerous than its earthquakes. Mt. Vesuvius, which last erupted in 1944, has been “overdue” to blow for years, even causing Italy’s civil protection agency to recently upgrade the evacuation plan for the city of Naples and the more than three million people who live in the red zone. 

Sicily’s Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, erupts with such frequency that the local airport in Catania often closes due to ashen clouds. But the real killer could be the massive super underground volcano called the Phlegraean Fields that could cause “a complete catastrophe at a global scale, with millions of casualties, strong climate changes, perhaps causing a small ice age, and sterilization [contamination] of several hundred thousand square kilometers of European land for centuries,” according to Giuseppe De Natale, head of the National Observatory for Geophysics and Volcanology. 

The area, also called the “burning fields” is an eight-mile wide crater that is under the outskirts of Naples and the bay of Pozzouli nearby.  In the city of Pozzuoli near the continuously smoking and steaming crater, the ground has risen more than a foot in the last decade due to a phenomenon called Bradism, characterized by intense pressure increasing under the earth’s surface there. 

As dangerous as it all sounds, one just needs to take a look around the country to see all the ancient structures and jewels of antiquity that have survived or been rebuilt for centuries of clearly turbulent times. Italy’s prime minister Matteo Renzi said on Sunday that the country “has the resources to rebuild the houses, churches and businesses that have been lost.” And it’s clear that the Italian people have the will to carry on, even while the earth keeps moving.