The earthquake took place along a fault line that has tormented the Italian peninsula for centuries, making the country among the most quake-prone regions of Europe.
The magnitude 6.2 quake occurred within a band of “high seismic hazard” running along the axis of the north-south Apennines mountain range, according to the US Geological Survey (USGS).
Architecture is centuries old in the region, placing it at even higher risk of damage and deaths. “Many of the towns feature stone construction including a deep history of architecture dating back to Roman – and in some cases Etruscan – times,” the USGS said.
The event fell between two relatively recent earthquake sites along the same fault line. Back in 1997, a magnitude 6.0 quake left 11 dead and destroyed 80,000 homes in the Marche and Umbria regions of Italy, 50km to the northwest of last Wednesday’s destruction. And 30km to the southeast, in 2009, a magnitude 6.3 earthquake levelled the village of L’Aquila, leaving 295 dead, 1,000 injured and 55,000 homeless.
Robert Sanders, a USGS geophysicist, said the area marks a collision between Africa and Eurasia tectonic plates, with a fault line that crosses Sicily before running along the spine of the Italian boot.
While the geological conditions make Italy and Greece most at risk for earthquakes in Europe, those countries pale in comparison to other quake-stricken regions, particularly the Pacific Rim where nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Chile are at high risk of very strong quakes.
Apart from the size of an earthquake, a multitude of factors prove why one can to be more damaging and lethal than another.
“Building structure has a lot to do with damage we’ll see,” Sanders said. “For example, Chile has very high, very strict building codes because they’re so earthquake-prone and they get some of the largest earthquakes in the world. So (for) a magnitude 6.2 earthquake in Chile, we wouldn’t expect to see damage on this scale that we’re seeing in Italy.”
Many of the ancient homes of Italy didn’t have structural support added, and the quake occurred when most people were asleep in their bedrooms.
“That’s why we’re seeing a lot of these devastating pictures and videos ... where entire blocks and buildings are just in rubble,” he said.