Friday 26 October 2012

Magnitude 5.3 quake in southern Italy kills at least one person.

On Friday 26 October at 1.05 am local time (11. 05 pm on Thursday 25 October, GMT), the United States Geological Survey recorded a Magnitude 5.3 Earthquake at a depth of 3.8 km, roughly 5 km west of the small town of Morano Calabro, in the Calabria Region of southern Italy. This is a fairly large quake at a shallow depth, which leads to a high risk of damage and casualties, and this quake is known at the time of writing to have caused at least one death and damage to buildings over a fairly wide area.

The location of the 26 October Earthquake. Google Maps.

Italy is in an unusual tectonic setting, with the west of the country lying on the Eurasian Plate, but the east of the country lying on the Adriatic Plate, a microplate which broke away from North Africa some time in the past and which is now wedged into the southern margin of Europe, underlying eastern Italy, the Adriatic Sea and the west of the Balkan Peninsula. This, combined with the northward movement of the African Plate into Italy from the south, leads to uplift in the Apennine Mountains that run the length of the country, and makes Italy extremely prone to Earthquakes. 

Map showing the boundary between the Eurasian and Adriatic Plates in Italy. Columbia University.

Historically Italy has suffered a number of devastating Earthquakes that lead to large numbers of casualties, though in recent decades the country has made serious attempts to prevent this, with better warning systems and tighter building regulations, though the large number of historic buildings in Italy, which cannot easily be replaced (and any attempt to do so would be unlikely to succeed due to their high cultural value), meaning that the country is unlikely to be completely risk free any time soon.

This has been complicated by an ongoing series of corruption scandals in the Italian construction industry, and, alarmingly, the decision by a court earlier this week to gaol six leading Earth scientists for failure to predict a quake. It is unclear how this will affect Italy's future ability to deal with geohazards, as it is likely that scientists will refuse to participate in programs that might result in prosecutions. It is also rumored that a number of other scientists in related agencies have resigned their posts, either in protest or because they feel their positions have been to badly compromised by the implied loss of scientific freedom for them to continue.

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