Once again, we are reminded of the extreme force of the motions of the earth. A magnitude 6 earthquake struck northern Italy this weekend, killing at least six people. Italy is a region with a lot of tectonic activity, as the collision between northern Africa and Europe “crushes” the country. As a result, there are many volcanic eruptions and earthquakes such as the one on the weekend. The damage is exasperated due to the fact that many buildings are old and made out of loose brickwork, not designed to withstand earthquakes.
Looking at the technical details of the earthquake at the USGS Earthquake Hazards Program, the earthquake was almost purely compressional (i.e. the earth is pushing together). With the epicenter of the quake at only 5 km below the surface, the damage was focused and rapid. Earthquakes of this magnitude may only happen in this particular region once every few hundred years, so many people probably did not realize the risk.
The same could be said about the L’Aquila earthquake that hit central Italy in 2009. That particular earthquake caused significant controversy, when one person claimed to have predicted it. At this juncture there is no proven way to predict when an earthquake will happen. The only thing that that can be done is to reinforce infrastructure, and to educate the public about what to do if an earthquake strikes.