Few holidaymakers in Armatrice for its annual festival - to celebrate the famous local bacon and tomato sauce specialty ‘amatriciana’ - could have imagined the picturesque, historic town would be reduced to rubble overnight.
Italy, like New Zealand, is no stranger to earthquakes
Central Italy’s massive 6.2 magnitude earthquake devastated a string of isolated, centuries-old towns and villages that cling to the Apennine mountain range – destinations that swell with tourist numbers over the summer months.
It’s a timely reminder of the huge importance of what the UC Quake Centre does. A commitment to partner the best of worldwide academic and industry knowledge in seismic research solutions to save lives and preserve buildings.
Not unlike Canterbury’s 2010 4th September quake (that struck in the early hours of the morning) Italy’s latest 24th August violent tremor at 3:36am, caught everyone off-guard with it’s sudden, pounding arrival in the still of the night as people slept.
Italy has reeled from a death toll of more than 290 with numerous injuries. The quake’s epicentre was nearest the town of Norcia, 100km north-east of Rome, with the ancient towns of Amatrice, Arquata, Accumoli and Pescara del Tronto the worst affected.
Powerful aftershocks measuring up to 5.4 rocked the region, terrorizing already dazed, disorientated residents and hampering desperate, precarious rescue attempts to reach the voices under the rubble before it was too late.
Experts agree such earthquakes are ‘no surprise’ are ‘to be expected.’
Italy is one of the most seismically active countries in Europe, driven by the mighty collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, much like New Zealand feels the squeeze in the clash between the Pacific and Australian plates.
Central Italy’s fault lines are compounded by ‘crustal extension.’ Eastern central Italy is moving to the northeast relative to Rome, essentially ‘pulling apart’ along the Apennines mountain range.
The overall result is a major fault system that runs the length of Italy, with a series of smaller faults fanning off to the sides. And the foundations of many historic buildings perch vulnerably on top of it all, most without modern earthquake engineered strengthening in place.
Thousands have died over the centuries as a result of quakes of similar magnitude to Central Italy’s latest event. A trio of magnitude 6.0 shakes in 1703 killed at least 10,000 people in the region, while in 1915 a 6.9 quake claimed 30,000 lives.
More recently a 6.3 earthquake that shook the Central Italian town of L’Aquila in 2009 killed 308 and destroyed thousands of homes and a university.
Thankfully, due to more robust, modern building standards, better resilience preparation and a more co-ordinated emergency response we tend not to see deaths from earthquakes that run into the thousands in Italy anymore.
A modern response that is thanks, in large part, to earthquake engineers like New Zealand’s very own University of Canterbury Professor Nigel Priestley, who has some very strong links with Italy.
The late Dr Nigel Priestley co-founded the internationally renowned Reduction of Seismic Risk (ROSE) School in 2002 in the peaceful, historic Italian town of Pavia.
Considered “the godfather of earthquake engineering” Dr Priestley transformed the way the world thinks about seismic solutions with his fresh approach to engineering problems, seismic design and building codes.
It was at the ROSE school in Pavia that Quake Centre Director, Dr. Robert Finch attended the annual ‘International Nigel Priestley Seminar’ to chair a session at the May 2015 event.
“Connections such as our links to Italy’s ROSE School are vitally important, especially in terms of research and changes in thinking regarding seismic engineering,” says Dr. Finch. “Obviously we cannot change the geological cause, but what we can do is make improvements in earthquake engineering to help community resilience.”
Contemporary building infrastructure is now much safer thanks to advancements in earthquake engineering but Italy, like New Zealand is still on shaky ground. And as witnessed by Central Italy’s latest devastating quake many, especially older, buildings are not strengthened to modern standards - with tragic consequences.
Voted one of Italy’s most beautiful, historic towns in 2015, Armatrice now lies in ruins. It seems unlikely that it, or any of the other ancient towns that have stood for centuries on the Appenines, can ever be rebuilt as they were. Hundreds of years of history toppled in an instant.
The UC Quake Centre is proud to be a contributing part of earthquake research and engineering to help lay the foundations for better community seismic resilience in New Zealand, Italy and around the world.