Italy shaken by ‘apocalyptic’ earthquake

Quaking: The residents of Amatrice fear that some are still buried under the rubble. © PA

In the early hours of yesterday morning, Italians in the Apennine mountains woke to a violent earthquake. Italy has suffered similar disasters for centuries. Why are they so hard to predict?

The ground in central Italy began to shake at 3.36am. Over just 20 seconds, a 6.2 magnitude earthquake brought buildings in rural villages crumbling to the ground. At least 80 aftershocks followed over the next few hours, and there could still be more to come. ‘The roads in and out of town are cut off,’ said the mayor of Amatrice, a historic town in the Apennine mountains close to the quake’s epicentre. ‘Half the town is gone,’ he mourned.

Throughout yesterday, locals and emergency services rescued as many people as possible. But so far, authorities say that the earthquake has claimed at least 247 lives, and left hundreds homeless.

The Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi offered some words of comfort. ‘When things don’t go well, the whole of Italy demonstrates its most beautiful aspects,’ he said. ‘We will make sure that we won’t leave any families or communes on their own.’

This was far from Italy’s first earthquake — thousands of lives and buildings have been lost over the centuries. This is because the country rests on the seams between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, making it extremely vulnerable to tremors as the earth shifts. Meanwhile, scientists say the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west is slowly ‘opening up’, pulling apart the Apennine mountain range where yesterday’s disaster struck.

But while Italy experiences small earthquakes almost every day, it cannot predict when true disaster will strike.

This is, understandably, a source of much distress. When a similar earthquake killed 309 people in 2009, six scientists were jailed for telling residents not to worry beforehand. And yet they were giving the best advice they could; the tremors which preceded it should have made a major event less likely, not more.

The problem has puzzled scientists for hundreds of years. They have tried studying radon levels, electromagnetic waves, even unusual animal behaviour. But nothing is reliable. And in the meantime, lives continue to be destroyed.

Seismic waves

We must not give up hope, say scientists. Testing theories, failing, and trying something new is the history of almost all scientific achievement. It can feel frustrating when the answer eludes us, but we are getting closer all the time. One of these days, we will crack it — and thousands of lives will be saved.

Others are unsure. Perhaps the reason we cannot find reliable signs of natural disasters is that they simply do not exist. Instead, researchers should look for ways of coping with earthquakes when they do strike, particularly in vulnerable areas. Many lives have been saved by new quake-proof buildings in Japan, for example. We should apply that knowledge to reinforce older buildings too.

You Decide

  1. Should earthquake scientists (seismologists) focus on predicting disasters, or coping with them when they arrive?
  2. Will earthquakes always remain a mystery?

Activities

  1. Draw a map of Italy, showing where and why it is vulnerable to earthquakes.
  2. Watch the video by The Economist under Become An Expert. Then design your own earthquake-proof building.

Some People Say...

“In science, there is no such thing as a failed experiment.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How much should I worry about earthquakes?
It depends where you live. In Britain, they are relatively rare, and never too destructive. But in places where tectonic plates meet — such as Japan, Nepal, and India — there is a higher risk. The danger also depends on the infrastructure of the city you live in; wealthier countries can afford to quake-proof their buildings.
Could more have been done to protect Italy this time?
It was lucky that the earthquake happened in the middle of the night, as the death toll could have been much higher if people were in the streets. However, some are beginning to complain that Italy should have done more to strengthen vulnerable buildings after the earthquake in 2009, and to improve the lax building laws which often lead to fairly flimsy constructions.

Word Watch

6.2 magnitude
Using the moment magnitude scale. Each increase of 1 unit releases around 32 times more energy.
Epicentre
The centre of the earthquake; in this case, it was around 25 miles north of Amatrice. It was only 6.2 miles below the earth’s surface, which is fairly shallow, making its effects feel even stronger.
Shifts
In this case, the African plate moves around 2cm north every year.
Jailed
The scientists were convicted in 2012 for six years, but released in 2014 after they won their appeal. A government official who was also put on trial with them had his sentence reduced.
Radon
An atmospheric gas which some believe is released prior to earthquakes; however, scientists have found ‘no significant correlation’.
Electromagnetic waves
Small changes in the Earth’s magnetic field have been recorded before earthquakes. However, they do not always mean that an earthquake is coming.
Animal behaviour
Since Ancient Rome, there has been anecdotal evidence of animals fleeing an area days before a major earthquake. However, modern scientists have struggled to prove a link.

Subjects

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