Italy: Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do

Italy has once again been struck by a deadly temblor that, to date, caused 290 deaths and thousands of injured. This is the seventh deadly quake in Italy in the last 40 years, with most of the tremors concentrated in central-southern Italy.

The deadly, M 6.2 jolt, hit around the epicentral area of Amatrice (In the municipality of Rieti), where many of the older buildings ollapsed entirely, claiming more than 220 victims in a small town that, until today, had been world-renowned for its famous “Amatriciana sauce“.

Everybody knows that the Italian peninsula is one of the most seismically active in the world, crushed between the European and African tectonic plates.

After decades of research, Italian geologists, seismologists and civil engineers, in 2003 came up with a detailed map that subdivided the Italian territory into four levels of seismic hazard.

Amatrice and Accumoli, two of the towns worst hit by the August 24 jolt, had been classified as belonging to zone 1, the most hazardous in terms of magnitude of a possible seismic event.

In level 1 and risk level 2 zones, edifices should be built (or restored) according to building codes that, in turn, depend on the level of seismic hazard in any given area.

Why was the April 16 mainshock in Kumamoto, Japan, much less devastating in terms of loss of life, even though it measured  7.2 on the Richter Scale and, hence, released an energy more than 30 times greater than the Amatrice earthquake? And why has Norcia, a town about 13 km away from the epicenter, been able to withstand the jolt without suffering any casualties?

The answer is prevention, an issue that in Japan and the U.S. is among the top national priorities but which, in Italy (as well as in Nepal and Turkey, just to name a few Countries prone to seismic hazard), does not appear to be one of the main concerns of the Government. This is even more surprising if we consider that Italy, over the last 40 years, has been battered by scores of destructive earthquakes.

Norcia had been hit two times by temblors in the last 37 years; in that town, houses, schools and hospitals had been re-built or reinforced so as to enable them to remain standing during earthquakes, even in case of powerful mainshocks like that of August 24.

Italy desperately needs a national plan to reduce the level of seismic risk: However, it won’t be easy to do what has been done in Norcia, across the whole Italian territory.

In fact, according to the Italian Committee of Engineers, 93 billion euros would be needed to enhance the security of buildings, 63% of which were built before 1971, without taking account seismic risk.

Nevertheless, prevention, to be really effective, has to be grounded public awareness of geological hazards and related risks: That’s why the Italian Ministry for University and Research has recently financed a project led by Prof. Alessandro Tibaldi (structural geologist at Milan-Bicocca University), aimed at teaching the basics of geological processes by way of breakthrough, virtual reality technology.

High-resolution images captured by drones in geologically active areas in Italy and Europe, will be merged together to recreate geological landscapes: Henc,e students will have the unique chance  to learn about geological risks without moving from their classroom.

Prof. Tibaldi underscores the novelty and potential relevance of this interactive approach for mitigating seismic risk in Italy and other sesmically active Countries: “It is key to train new graduates in Earth Sciences, who may be able to work in areas prone to seismic hazard. We don’t know in detail all the areas that could be hit by an earthquake yet; at the same time we have to do our best to gain a better understanding of the areas that have already been recognized as seismic”.

The focus is not on predicting earthquakes, as Prof. Tibaldi highlights: “The ultimate goal is educating new generations of scientists that are capable of mitigating potential damage brought about by temblors. As we know, earthquakes cannot be predicted: Our only option is to build stronger houses in areas where we know that, sooner or later, nature will make its course”.

Federico Pasquaré Mariotto (Insubria University, Varese, Italy)