The Italian Earthquake

by | Apr 6, 2009

The L’Aquilan earthquake is a huge tragedy and it looks like the death toll may rise further as the emergency services continue their search among the rubble. Already the blame game has started – a normal reaction to disasters like this. According to newspaper reports an Italian scientist, Giampaolo Giuliani, predicted the earthquake but was reported to the police for scaremongering.

Mr Giuliani told locals to evacuate their houses and posted a video on YouTube in which he said a build-up of radon gas around the seismically active area suggested a major earthquake was imminent. Several tremors had been felt in the medieval city of L’Aquila, around 60 miles east of Rome, from mid-January onwards, and vans with loudspeakers had driven around the city spreading the warning. But instead of heeding Mr Giuliani’s warnings, the local authorities reported him to police for “spreading alarm” and he was told to remove his findings from the internet.

It sounds worse but we should be careful not to read too much into the following snippet. Context is crucial here.

The local authorities are already facing serious questions over why they gagged Mr Guiliani rather than taking his findings seriously.  Italy’s Civil Protection agency held a meeting of the Major Risks Committee, grouping scientists charged with assessing such risks, in L’Aquila on March 31 to reassure the townspeople.

The civil protection agency argue that the tremors felt by the population from January onwards were part of a typical sequence which is normal in a seismic area like the one around L’Aquila.  So while it may not have been possible to predict the earthquake it should have been normal for organisations and communities in the area to prepare for its eventuality given Italy’s history and vulnerability to tragic earthquakes:

Italy is notorious among scientists not only as one of the most seismically active regions of Europe, but as a place with extremely complex geology that makes its earthquakes hard to understand. The peninsula sits at the foot of the Eurasian tectonic plate, at the point at which the African plate is pushing up against it, and such boundary zones generally have a high risk of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The situation in Italy, however, is further complicated because the peninsula is also being stretched in an east-west direction. This has left it riddled with faults, particularly along the north-south spine of the Apennine mountains, which were raised up by this seismic activity. John McCloskey, professor of Geophysics at the University of Ulster, said that Italy has “extremely complicated geology”, in which “the entire country is criss-crossed by lots of faults”.


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    Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.

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