The Appenines region of central Italy has been struck by a deadly earthquake, with a magnitude of 6.2. The quake, which had an epicentre roughly 10km southeast of Norcia, Italy, occurred just over seven years after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake that killed more than 300 people only 90km away.
The latest earthquake occurred at 3:36 am local time. The number of fatalities is unknown at time of writing but already exceeds 30. Buildings have collapsed in nearby Amatrice and residents are reportedly trapped in rubble.
This earthquake is no surprise. Italy is prone to earthquakes; it sits above the boundary of the African and European plates. The oceanic crust of the African plate is subducting (sinking) under Italy, creating iconic natural features such as the volcano at Mount Vesuvius. These plates are converging at a rate of around 5mm each year.
Both the L’Aquila and Norcia earthquakes were located below the central Appenines, which form the mountainous spine of Italy.
The Earth’s crust under the Appenines of central and western Italy is extending; eastern central Italy is moving to the north east relative to Rome. As a result, this region experiences normal faulting: where one part of the earth subsides relative to another as the crust is stretched.
The fault systems in the central Appenines are short and structurally complex, so the earthquakes are not large by global standards, the largest almost invariably hover around magnitude 6.8 to 7.0. But because the quakes are shallow and structurally complex, and because many of the local towns and cities contain vulnerable buildings, strong shaking from these earthquakes has the potential to inflict major damage and loss of life in urban areas.
This region also seems to be particularly prone to earthquake clustering, whereby periods of relative quiet are interrupted by several strong earthquakes over weeks to decades.
Both Norcia and L’Aquila feature prominently at either end of a zone of large Appenine earthquakes. This zone has produced many strong earthquakes. The latest Norcia earthquake occurred only around 90km northwest of the L’Aquila earthquake and very close to the epicentre of the 1979 Norcia earthquake, which had a magnitude of 5.9.
But the area’s earthquake history can be traced back over seven centuries. During this period, this region has been hit by at least six earthquakes that have caused very strong to severe shaking. Amatrice, so badly damaged in the most recent quake, was severely damaged in 1639. A few decades later, in 1703, roughly 10,000 people were killed in Norcia, Montereale, L’Aquila and the surrounding Appenine region in three magnitude 6.2-6.7 earthquakes.
Parts of Norcia were subsequently built upon the surface rupture created in the 1703 earthquake. Another earthquake in 1997 killed 11 people.
In this most recent event, an estimated 13,000 people would have experienced severe ground shaking, probably lasting 10-20 seconds.
The estimated damage of this latest earthquake will almost inevitably exceed US$100 million, and may top US$1 billion. Amatrice appears to be among the populated areas that were most severely affected.
The region now faces a prolonged and energetic aftershock sequence; over the first 2.5 hours following the mainshock, at least four earthquakes of around magnitude 4.5 were recorded in the region by the US Geological Survey. More than 10,000 aftershocks were recorded following the L’Aquila earthquake in 2009.
We note that within the region, there is excellent and continuously improving scientific information about the hazard. But the knowledge of the hazard has not always translated well into measures that directly reduce economic loss and fatalities in earthquakes.
Following the L’Aquila earthquake, six scientists were convicted of manslaughter for failing to inform the public adequately of the earthquake risk. Although the charges were subsequently dropped, this marked a major development in the way blame is apportioned after large natural events, particularly with regard to effective hazard communication.
Numerous vulnerable buildings remain, and the recovery process is commonly plagued by long disruptions and inadequate government funding to recover rapidly. Both the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake and this most recent quake highlight just how important it is to translate hazard assessments into improving the resilience of infrastructure to strong shaking. The focus should remain on linking science, engineering and policy, this is often the biggest challenge globally.
Brendan Duffy, Lecturer in Applied Geoscience, University of Melbourne; Mark Quigley, Associate professor, University of Melbourne, and Mike Sandiford, Chair of Geology & Redmond Barry Distinguished Professor, University of Melbourne
How did one of the world’s most-successful multicultural countries made up of refugees and immigrants end up harming children who came to us seeking protection and help? One of the answers to this question is secrecy.
Successive Australian governments, both Labor and Coalition, have dehumanised refugees and kept Australians in the dark about what really goes on in the offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
The cornerstone of the strategy is to limit public access to information. The policy started by the Rudd Labor government in 2013 has been put into overdrive by the Abbott and Turnbull Coalition governments.
There are three pillars to the secrecy strategy:
outsourcing the centres to other sovereign nations;
outsourcing the centres’ operations to private contractors; and
imposing a gag on current and former detention staff through the Border Force Act.
Australian journalists have found it very difficult, bordering on practically impossible, to obtain visas to visit Nauru. Applying for a media visa for Nauru comes with an A$8,000 fee – which is non-refundable even if the application is rejected.
The only journalists to be granted visas in the last two years filed stories that did not properly investigate or challenge the Nauruan and Australian governments’ versions of the situation for refugees.
This means the two governments directly and indirectly control who is allowed onto the island to tell the refugees’ stories of how they are treated. This leads to speculation that serves no-one – not the refugees nor the Australian government nor the public.
The second issue with outsourcing refugee processing to another country is that neither Nauru nor Papua New Guinea has Freedom of Information (FOI) laws. This means an important journalistic tool is missing when it comes to seeking information.
This, combined with the poor FOI history of Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection (and its predecessor), which have repeatedly blocked and delayed requests, makes obtaining raw and unspun information about offshore refugee processing a time-consuming and frustrating task.
Wilson Security is contracted to provide security in the offshore centres.
The 2010 amendments to the federal FOI Act significantly strengthened the requirement on government agencies to obtain information from a private contractor when asked to do so.
However, contracting out adds another layer of complexity to using FOI effectively. The practical consequences are longer processing times, delays and the increased possibility of the contractor claiming the information can’t be released due to commercial-in-confidence issues.
In July 2015, the Australian Border Force Act came into force. Its controversial disclosure offence section extended the questionable Australian tradition of limiting public servants’ right to public speech and participation in public debate.
The section effectively stops current and former staff, including those from volunteer organisations such as Save the Children, speaking out about conditions in refugee detention centres.
It is nigh-on impossible to see how this gag section can be in the public interest. But it is easy to see how it is in the government’s political interest.
The consequence of the fortress of secrecy built on these three pillars is that Australians don’t know what is being done in their name on Nauru and Manus Island.
It also means the refugees are dehumanised. Suffering children and families become numbers instead of human beings.
Every one of the nearly 1,300 refugees currently on Nauru and Manus has heartbreaking and crucial stories to tell. If Australians were allowed to hear and see those stories, the centres would have been closed a long time ago.
If offshore detention is to continue, the Australian government should:
stop outsourcing to private contractors. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should run the centres to allow for proper accountability;
be completely transparent about the centres’ operations. Redact personal information, but publish as much as possible, including incident reports;
facilitate access to the centres for journalists and members of the public; and
scrap the gag section on detention centre staff, current and former, in the Border Force Act.
We don’t need a Senate inquiry or royal commission to figure out what needs to be done. More than enough evidence is available thanks to the Nauru files, former detention centre staff sharing their experiences, and the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report on children in immigration detention. The government must do the decent and right thing by the refugees and the Australian public.