What makes Italy so frighteningly vulnerable to earthquakes

A tragic déjà vu.
A tragic déjà vu.
Image: Reuters/Remo Casilli
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This item has been corrected.

On the night of Aug. 24, a 6.0 earthquake destroyed the towns of Amatrice, Accumoli, and Pescara del Tronto in central Italy. It killed at least 268 people, injured hundreds, and severely damaged the homes of 2,500 people. Over 200 smaller quakes—a so-called earthquake swarm—have followed the main tremor, and are continuing to shake the area, adding further damage to the already tragic situation. Some of these are as strong as 4.2 on the Richter scale.

It was the largest seismic event to hit Italy since 2008, when a 6.3 quake struck L’Aquila—also in central Italy, along the Apennine mountain range—killing 308. Neither of these were isolated events: since 2000, well over 100 earthquakes of magnitude 4 or higher have occurred in Italy. And last century, earthquakes killed about 160,000 Italian civilians—more than World War II.

Every few years, a large earthquake strikes Italy, unleashing what’s now a sad routine: death, emergency rescues, thousands of people left without homes for years, rebuilding efforts, cities emptied of their souls. Politicians talk about implementing new policies that would prevent it from happening next time, but then the emergency is forgotten and nothing much changes—till the next quake hits.

Italy, compared to its European neighbors, is particular vulnerable to the devastation of earthquakes, due to a combination of three major risk factors: the country’s geodynamics, its architecture, and its culture.

A crash of plates

Seismic risk in Italy.
Seismic risk in Italy.
Image: Photo courtesy of Protezione Civile Italiana

Italy is at the point of contact of two large tectonic plates. It’s a geological situation that’s clearly visible: volcanoes dot the fault line in Sicily and the islands around it. The Eurasian plate, in the north, covers all of Europe and most of Asia (with the exception of the Arabian and Indian peninsulas). The African plate to the south covers Africa all the way to Antarctica.

About 30 million years ago, the African plate bumped into the European one, and birthed the Alps. At the same time, the Indian and Arabian plates pushed up against Europe; the interactions between these plates is the origin of the mountain ranges from the Pyrenees all the way to the Himalayas.

This movement hasn’t stopped since. It’s why the Alps—and the Himalayas—keep growing every year: the plates keep pushing against one another and forcing the mountain peaks higher and higher. It’s also the a main reason why large earthquakes are so common in Italy.

There’s also a a smaller fault line coinciding with the Apennine range, which starts northwest in Liguria where the Alps end and runs like a vertebral column down the center of the country for 1,200 km (745 miles) all the way to Calabria, in the very south.

Combined, these two fault lines put most of Italy at high or very high risk of large seismic events.

There are other European countries—Greece or Iceland, for instance—that share a relatively high likelihood of being hit by earthquakes,. But Italy’s development and population density makes it particularly vulnerable to high death tolls, especially since many of the highest-risk areas in the country are mountainous, which means ruinous landslides are common.

Earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do

Geodynamics alone can’t justify the hundreds who’ve died in Italian quakes. Earthquakes of much higher intensity in populated areas of Japan, for instance, typically don’t cause the same death toll.

There’s an old refrain in the world of seismic hazard preparedness: earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do. And Italy’s buildings are particularly murderous.

When you think of Italy, you probably think of ancient Roman structures, gorgeous Renaissance churches and palazzos, and historic piazzas teeming with tourists. That’s exactly what makes the country so vulnerable, says Valter Fabietti, a professor of urban planning at the University of Chieti who has been studying Italy’s earthquake vulnerability in relation to its architectural landscape for the past 35 years.

“The better part of Italy is earthquake prone,” he says, and where the buildings are ancient, the risk tends to be higher. Many Italian cities and towns have a mix of cultural landmarks, public property, and private housing dating mid 1800 or earlier. These centuries-old buildings, one of the country’s biggest assets, are also a liability because of their risk of crumbling in a quake. Further, housing built before 1976 didn’t have to conform to any anti-earthquake norms, and may be at risk of damage.

But old buildings aren’t necessarily destined to crumble during an earthquake—there are interventions that make them safer. Structural safety can be improved, Fabietti says, through structural improvements that increase the resilience of the original building. “In some cases you can’t get to complete safety, though I am convinced we must intervene where we can.”

The Italian Organization of Civil Engineering has estimated earthquake-proofing Italy would cost around €36 billion ($40 billion). That’s a lot of money, obviously. But when put in perspective, it’s pretty reasonable: between the immediate emergency and post-quake reconstruction, the cost of L’Aquila’s earthquake has so far been about €10 billion. Previous catastrophes have cost so much to Italy that Italians still pay additional taxes on fuel to compensate for the money spent on emergencies in the past fifty years.

The obstacles to preservation

A consolidated plan to protect Italian buildings would have to tackle logistical, political, and cultural challenges.

The state is directly responsible for public buildings, which means ensuring the safety of a private building relies on owner initiative. Currently, homeowners living in high risk areas can get a tax abatement for structural improvements made to improve a building’s resilience to quakes. But that still chiefly relies on a property owner having the financial means and motivation to invest in such improvements.

Italians, Fabietti says, resist changes that impact the original structure of an antique building. ”There is a conservative attitude,” he says. That means, for example, they might reject simple improvements like metal straps to reinforce old walls or adding reinforced concrete structures because it may change their original look.

But the problems extends to new buildings, too, which may not be built according to the legal requirements because of carelessness, corruption, or simply a laissez-faire attitude towards earthquake risk. An emblematic example is the grade school of Amatrice, destroyed (link in Italian) in the Aug. 24 earthquake: opened in 2012, it should have adhered to the latest seismic engineering requirements, set by a regulation (link in Italian) implemented after L’Aquila’s earthquake in 2008. An investigation has been opened to verify the reasons of its collapse, though experts believe its construction was faulty.

“It’s difficult to demand from a government a conclusive measure,” says Fabietti. Since 1971, he says, incremental regulations have tried to address the situation, but nothing comprehensive has been put into place. Fabietti isn’t sure that such a complete plan is even feasible. But at the same time, he argues, more should be done at a policy level to avoid further catastrophes. For instance, the government could add further incentives for homeowners willing to perform seismic upgrades, such as paying for accommodation if they have to leave their homes while work is in progress (something that, Fabietti says, has been done in some areas of Turkey). An even stronger measure would be to make the improvements a legal requirement.

History, however, suggests this sort of large-scale change is unlikely. “I have been following this since 1980,” says Fabietti, “I have seen a lot of words, but not many provisions.”

Correction: The victims of earthquakes in the 20th century in Italy were more than civilian deaths in Word War II, not both World Wars.