Sunday, December 04, 2016

Earthquakes part 2

[This blog started out in the first week of November as a reflection of the week following the 6.6 earthquake we had on October 30th. But not long after that, several events dwarfed its newsworthiness and provided a distraction that prevented its completion: first, the political earthquake in the US on November 8th, then the big "natural" earthquake in New Zealand on the 13th, and finally the 6.9-7.4 (depending on which report you read) Japanese event on the 21st, which interestingly was experienced by two friends who happened to be in Tokyo. (One of them is from this area and was here during all our recent earth movements, and the other is a South African who just happened to be on the throne when his hotel building started swaying.) But now I've come back to it, having absorbed the added dimension of the significant seismic happenings in various places around the globe, along with the similarly-significant aftermath locally of the 24th August and 30th October quakes.]

About 10 days ago I wrote to a friend that, after a week or so of mild but numerous shakes - almost all of which we didn't feel - things were quietening down (tectonically). So much so that we moved from sleeping in the safety of our wood house back into our stone-walled bedroom. Naturally, that was a signal to the gods of the profound earth to nudge my complacency. Since then, we've been reminded daily - more than once on most days - that things are unlikely to be quiet when you live in a country whose very shape is more or less defined by the disharmonious meeting of several tectonic plates - the African, moving north at a rate of a cm or two per year and subducting under the massive Eurasion plate in the Mediterranean Sea, along with the Adriatic "microplate", which broke off from Africa plate some time ago (by way of understatement), and which is moving in an anti-clockwise direction; in fact the Apennine mountains - Italy's backbone - were formed by the Adriatic plate subducting under the Eurasion, which essentially scraped up the mountains as the two plates ground against each other.

In any event, the shocks have been coming, and after numerous 3-plus events (including a 3.9 on 27th Nov which made the house shudder), we had a 4.4 last Tuesday, which bumped its shoulder against the house and sent waves running through it for more seconds than I would have liked. A 4.0 followed on Thursday, in the dead of night yesterday morning there was a 3.8 (which I slept through), and from midnight until 10am this morning there have been a total of 40 shakes in our earthquake zone with a magnitude greater than 2.0. According to the local Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, in our area there were 7,816 seismic events in October - an average of more than 250 a day - of which 32 were between 4 and 5 in magnitude, and nearly 400 between 3 and 4. Of those that we feel, most tend to be a bump and shudder, with the odd creak as the stone and woodwork flex themselves. In short, we're reminded on a daily basis that things are not "quietening down".

Life has changed. In social circles, the vernacular has grown to register instant recognition when conversation tends towards single-digit numbers with one decimal place. If you hear someone saying "4.4" or "5.7" or "3.6", you know they're talking about things seismic rather than a wan, wishful hope for the growth of Italy's economy in percentage terms.

As an aside, the local online gravitation towards the Italian earthquake site ( - which  now holds a permanent position on many browsers in the area, including mine - has served to educate at least me, if not many others. I grew up thinking of earthquakes being measured against the Richter scale, so I was more than interested to discover that it was replaced some time ago by the Moment Magnitude and Mercalli Intensity scales. It seems that, to the uneducated masses (such as yours truly), these contemporary measurements are not that different from those of the Richter, making it somewhat confusing when trying to distinguish readings from the different scales. However, at the same time this similarity also tends to remove this layman confusion, ushering in blissful ignorance in its place. These new measures have also retained Richter's relative scale - a one-step difference in the scale (e.g. 4.0 to 3.0) is produced by a shake that is 10 times the magnitude, but 32 times the intensity in terms of energy released. Given its logarithmic nature, that means a 7.0 quake releases around 1,000 times more energy than a measly 5.0.

Back to the thread - life has changed. It's no wonder that earthquakes continue to be the major topic of conversation around here. The number of people that can't (or won't) sleep in their houses due to their being declared uninhabitable, or simply being deemed unstable, is in the many, many thousands. Just in my own municipality of Tolentino, 11,000 are staying in caravans, gyms, tents, and other undamaged centres, as well as sleeping in their cars; the town's total population is only around 20,000. It didn't even make the national and international news, which has justifiably focused on epicentres such as the village Castelantangelo sul Nera (which, I heard recently, cannot be rebuilt on its current location because it lies directly over the newly active fault that flexed its muscles on 30th October).

One of our neighbours, Sergio, moved from his digs just a few hundred metres from us to the town of Colmurano, visible from our house some 3,5km distant, after the 24th August earthquake. But after the 6.6 shock on 30th October, his rental in Colmurano was declared uninhabitable, leaving him homeless. Claudia Maria, in her generosity and unique position of caretaking several houses of mostly-absent owners, managed to find him a caravan on one of the properties to sleep in. Another neighbour moved into the same property owner's house last week, having scrambled around for somewhere to live since the beginning of November. A good friend who lives near San Ginesio, about 15km away, has had to rent a house since her own will need to be demolished and rebuilt before she can move back into it. Another's house near Servigliano faces the same fate as the one in San Ginesio. The list goes on...

Then there are those that have also lost their livelihoods - stores, restaurants, bars in the red zones of cordoned-off city centres, as well as ex-pats whose whole existence here is predicated on the summer rental of properties that have now been declared uninhabitable. In the small town of Urbisalgia just a few km from here, 150 people from its biggest employer are now out of work after its premises were declared unusable. These are just the anecdotal cases.

When will this bout of tremors end? It's anybody's guess. In the meantime people try to find reasons and make predictions. Catholic priest Giovanni Cavalcoli suggested it was God's punishment for Italy's recent legalization of gay marriage; Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Ayoub Kara claimed that the quakes were divine retribution for Italy’s abstention on a Unesco resolution about the status of Jerusalem’s holy sites; and others raise their eyebrows at offshore drilling in the Adriatic as a destabilizing factor (after wastewater disposal from fracking was directly connected to increased seismic activity in Oklahoma, which included a 5.0 on 5th November). Elsewhere, CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva has also been linked to the earthquakes: apparently, new super high energy experiments have been sending neutrinos underground from the LHC to the Gran Sasso nuclear physics laboratory in Italy's central Apennines, some 400km away and a stone's throw from this year's biggest quakes. As for me, I'm more apt to ascribe it to the same origins as those expressed in deadpan fashion by a keen vulcanologist friend of mine: "Tectonics happens" (sic).

Online earthquake predictor Dutchsinse has also become something of a regular on our computer screens, having displayed some degree of accuracy with his forecasts. For example, he was extremely accurate in terms of timing, location, and magnitude with the big shake in New Zealand, and frequently gets our local 4-pluses relatively close. There are those that dispute his accuracy (as one would expect in the mishmash of an online world), and I must confess that his verbosity, manner of delivery, and constant defence of his predictions require a certain degree of patience and tolerance to wade through in order to get to the useful info. One of his basic theories is that deep, low-magnitude upheavals below the earth's crust tend to manifest themselves in the subsequent 24-72 hours with stronger, shallower shakes in the crust itself, following the fault lines from east to west (in our case; they travel west to east in the Americas). So, for example, if there is some relatively significant seismic activity anywhere from Greece to Iran, we can expect something in the Apennines in fairly short order.

Dutchsinse aside, experts in the field of geophysics and vulcanology universally refer to the geological and tectonic activity of the Apennine region as "complex". In a field that has made several quantum leaps over the past four decades, there is still an honest amount of head-scratching when it comes to explaining - much less predicting - earthquake activity. So there's that ...

So the best we can do is simply acknowledge the fact that it has been (and still is) a strange, eventful year, from Japan to New Zealand, and Peru to Italy. And that's just seismically; woe betide us if we also factor in the human impact ...   

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Earthquakes part 1

Literally as I started writing this, the house shook, ever so slightly. We've become "sensitized" to these movements over the past couple of months. Naturally the main earthquake events - the ones that make news - are the ones that become etched into memory, but it's the aftershocks that set one on edge, jumping at every little sound - a breeze blowing a door closed, glasses clinking in the dishwasher - and spawning an attitude of ultra-readiness, of permanent alertness, primed to go scarpering for the safety of the garden at a moment's notice.

When the whole house shook this past Sunday morning, waking us to full consciousness instantaneously, dreams, past, future all gave way to the immediate present, the now. Claudia Maria scrambled for the door to get outside, I hauled myself up into the well-reinforced window frame behind my pillow as the plaster rained down from the ceiling and the quake, barrelling loudly and vibrating like a speeding train, eventually petered out after about 15 seconds. The silence that followed was heavy, suggestive, eerie.

And in that moment, the terra firma contract of security was broken and replaced with uncertainty. The earth feels different now, at least in our minds, and the solid terrain that we took for granted as an unquestioned, grounded haven has developed a new side to its character - it most certainly lives. Sinister? Only if you want it to be. Unsettling? Indeed. Exhilarating? Unquestionably.

This new realization was both confirmed and emphasized in the half-hour after the Sunday morning quake with 7 shocks ranging from 4.0 to 4.6 in strength. After the initial 6.6 shake at 7:40am, during the rest of the day until midnight, we had a total of 16 aftershocks of 4.0-4.6 and 172 of 3.0-3.9 magnitude. All of the epicentres were in the area between Norcia in Umbria and Visso in Marche, a distance of about 30-40km from our house as the crow flies. Close enough.

Of course, Sunday's event came on the heels of last Wednesday evening's two quakes of 5.4 and 5.9, which struck just 2 hours apart, and were enough to shake us up considerably (pun intended). These caused enough damage in themselves - the mayor of Ussita (near the epicentres) said his village is "finished" - but it's the proximity in time of those two and the third big one on Sunday that has been most unsettling. And coming just 2 months after the 6.2 quake that levelled nearby Amatrice (amongst other villages) and killed some 300, one can imagine the population's sense of insecurity.  This past Sunday both Claudia and I were left walking around in a dreamlike daze, as if we weren't quite present, and I uncharacteristically took several wrong turns on my way to & from watching Julius play rugby in Abruzzo, adding considerable time to an already-long journey.

But we've been fortunate. Our house has developed a number of hairline cracks, which aren't structural (we hope), but five of our good friends have had their houses declared uninhabitable - in several cases they can't even go inside, at least not without fireman. Along with thousands of others, they are now forced to find other accommodation. I read that 15,000 are now in temporary shelter organized by the civil defence authorities, and that excludes those, like our friends, who have found places on their own.

It's going to take years to recover from this. Towns like Visso, Preci, Castelsantangelo sul Nera, Castelluccio, Ussita, Norcia, Camerino are not only destroyed, most of them are deserted save emergency workers sifting through rubble. The University of Camerino has been closed indefinitely, and a friend from the town suspects that it won't be able to open again for at least 2 years. General restoration is likely to take closer to 10. Many of the people from those mountain villages have spent their entire lives there, as their parents and grandparents did, tending their vegetable patches and drinking their coffees in smoky conversation at the local Bar Centrale. Many have now been relocated to the Adriatic coast - yes, far from the threat of earthquakes, but even further way from the lives that they know. If we're in a daze, what state must these people be in, many of them in their sixties and older?

And it's not over yet, at least as far as the analysis and predictions foretell. These are new faults, or at least offshoots of the main fault lines that spawned the August quake. [More on this in a subsequent blog.] So we've taken to sleeping in our seismic-proof wooden cottage. For good reason too - this morning as we were having breakfast in the main house, we were hit by a 4.8 shake that sent us scurrying outside for safety. Small tremors have continued throughout the morning. Turns out that these epicentres are about 10km closer to us. Gulp...