The tragedy unfolding in the aftermath of Tuesday's magnitude 6.2 earthquake in central Italy is a story we have seen before. As in Alaska, earthquakes are part of Italy's natural landscape. The motions of earthquakes built the mountains and rugged coastlines that draw people to both places. While Italy's population and infrastructure are very different from Alaska's, the similarities of our settings offer three important lessons.
First, magnitude has little relationship to damage. While the earthquake in Italy released just 1/20th the energy of this year's magnitude 7.1 lower Cook Inlet earthquake, the town of Amatrice shook far more violently on Tuesday than Anchorage did on Jan. 24.
The difference is many of the neighborhoods that collapsed in Italy were just a couple of miles from the epicenter. Our January earthquake occurred more than 150 miles from Anchorage and more than 75 miles deep. Had that earthquake occurred beneath Anchorage at a shallow depth, the damage could have easily rivaled 1964. Magnitude matters, but proximity to the epicenter can matter more. Alaskans often feel the distant rumbles of very large earthquakes, but that is nothing like the violent shaking that occurs close to the epicenter, even during earthquakes with unimpressive magnitudes.
Second, buildings kill people, not earthquakes. Stone buildings flattened to rubble dominate the images coming from Italy. Some of these had stood since the Middle Ages.
Alaska is fortunate not to have significant stone construction. Even brick, a considerable seismic risk in many parts of the Lower 48, is rare in Alaska. Our wood-frame homes can be extremely earthquake-resilient—when built correctly.
In the years following the 1964 earthquake, Anchorage was a leader in safe building practices. It took the rest of the country decades to catch up. Today Anchorage keeps pace, but lags somewhat in the adoption of the latest building codes. While Alaska's building stock is generally more resilient than Italy's, there are exceptions.
Surveys of aging construction, and seismic retrofits to structures known to be problematic, are particularly critical for buildings that concentrate lots of people, such as schools and municipal facilities. If we can retrofit our state capitol in Juneau, we should be able to retrofit our schools that need it.
The third lesson for Alaska is that history is an incomplete guide. Italy has a long and rich written history. We know more about earthquakes in the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago than we know about earthquakes in Alaska 200 years ago. However, the cycle between earthquakes is far longer than human memory and often longer than written history.
Tuesday's epicenter was just 25 miles from the L'Aquila region that ruptured in a similar 2009 earthquake killing 300 people and triggering a legal battle over a perceived lack of warning from seismologists prior to the quake. Yet an earthquake of this impact had not struck Amatrice and surrounding towns for many hundreds of years.
Some residents surely mistook the longevity of the city's buildings as a measure of their safety. It should be a warning to all Alaskans that in a place like Italy, with deep historical records and extensive research efforts, earthquakes still catch people unprepared.
It is easy to highlight all of the ways Italy is different than Alaska—dense city centers, masonry construction, etc. Indeed, the next earthquake catastrophe in Alaska is unlikely to include scenes like what we are watching this week. But it is worth considering what else will be different.
In Italy, emergency responders are working in warm, dry conditions. There is no snow or ice complicating the response efforts. The earthquake was not followed by a tsunami that further compounded the damage. The affected towns are accessible from more than one direction rather than being at the end of the road or off the road system altogether. And Italy's impressive response effort has been able to draw on the equipment and resources of tens of millions of people within a few hours' drive.
While Alaska does not share some of Italy's specific vulnerabilities, we have a host of other factors that can magnify and extend the impact of earthquakes.
Many Alaskans know the ravages of earthquakes firsthand, and we empathize with the citizens of Italy. As we watch from a distance, we should reflect on our own earthquake preparation and vulnerabilities. The lessons are quite simple.
Nearby earthquakes can be far more catastrophic, even if they are smaller. Safe construction practices save lives. And history is a limited indicator of what earthquakes will do in the future.
Michael West is a member of the Alaska Seismic Hazards Safety Commission and state seismologist at the Alaska Earthquake Center in Fairbanks.
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