Tabitha Tcheau | History 101 (32367) | Multimedia Project | Spring 2017


The Science Behind Earthquakes

Tectonic Plates

Developed in 1950s through the 1970s, plate tectonics is the theory that Earth’s outer shell, the lithosphere, is divided into several plates. These plates sit on top of the mantle, the rocky inner layer above the core, and are constantly shifting by incremental amounts at the seams. Like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, these tiny movements seem inconsequential. However, it is but a tiny shift under the ground that brings about earthquakes and the massive destruction that comes with it. A locked fault occurs when the plate is stuck because frictional resistance on the fault is greater than the shear stress across the fault. Normally, the plates are sliding past each other at an imperceptible rate, averaging out to the rate finger nails grow (0.6 inches per year). However, at times and in certain locations, the plates get locked because the friction at that point exceeds the shear stress created by the shifting tectonic plates. When the plates get locked, they cease to move. However, the force continues to build like rising water behind a dam. Eventually, the dam will not be able to combat the water pressure, and the water will rush out. At some point, the shear stress overcomes the friction and the plates make a sudden shift. The abrupt release of energy generates seismic waves which cause the ground to shake. This is the earthquake.

Through the Centuries

20th Century
Seismic Risk

Why are these discoveries so important?

Our understanding of Plate Tectonics resulted from the culmination of scientific discoveries dating back to the Scientific Revolution (1550-1700). Through the centuries, the studies made on the earth’s shape and continental drift have fed off of one another. Our knowledge of earth science continues to grow today. Because of information gathered all the way back to the Scientific Revolution, our geophysical knowledge is the strongest it has ever been.

Geophysicists have yet to discover a method to predict the occurrence of one specific earthquake, but if they look at earthquakes as a system, they become very knowledgeable about the system's behavior. For example, they know where earthquakes tend to occur. Ninety-nine percent of earthquake energy release occurs only along the active plate boundaries, which comprise a minuscule fraction of the world. Geophysicists know that it is common for earthquakes to occur in clusters--that is, one earthquake usually begets another. This was evident last year in Norica, Italy, where a cluster of earthquakes occurred in the span of three months.

Norica, Italy

October 30, 2016

While monks, priests, and nuns were making their way to their morning prayer services, an earthquake struck the medieval walled town of Norica. As the walls came plummeting down, the people had just enough time to evacuate. This was the fourth earthquake in central Italy that had occurred in the past thee months. Only in August, a smaller earthquake had occurred near the same region that had killed nearly 300 people. Even though the earthquake in October was bigger, with a magnitude of 6.6, no one died that Sunday (partly because many had already evacuated following the previous earthquake), but the damage was colossal about 100,000 people were left homeless or had to seek state aid. About 20 people were injured. This October earthquake was the biggest earthquake in Italy that had been experienced in the past 36 years, and was felt 100 miles away from the epicenter.

October 20, 2016

The Basilica of St. Benedict was the 13th century church built atop the birthplace of St. Benedict. The father of Western monasticism, St. Benedict, established a set of guidelines for how monks should conduct their lives, deeming him the most influential figure in Western Christendom. On October 20, the beloved Basilica collapsed to the ground, leaving only the remains of the gothic façade and St. Benedict’s statue. The destruction of the Basilica marked a significant heritage loss for the Italians. While it seems as if the destruction of this iconic Catholic monument would shatter the Italian's faith, on the contrary, it did the opposite.

Where is God?

"(We have) started to accept once more that our life is not our own and God has altered our path once again."—Father Benedict (one of the monks belonging to a destroyed church).

Rather than question God's existence, or why God would allow the destruction of places of worship, the religious people remained steadfast in their faith. During this difficult time, they sought God even more through prayer and the sacraments. Father Benedict Nivakoff, Subprior of the Norcia monastery wrote, “Around 7:40 AM, a powerful earthquake struck close to Norcia. The monks are all safe, but our hearts go immediately to those affected, and the priests of the monastery are searching for any who may need the Last Rites. The Basilica of St. Benedict, the historic church built atop the birthplace of St. Benedict, was flattened by this most recent quake. May this image serve to illustrate the power of this earthquake, and the urgency we monks feel to seek out those who need the Sacraments on this difficult day for Italy.”

Amidst the aftermath of the earthquake, the monks knelt by the remains of the Basilica, dust brewing in the air. These earthquakes did not stir the faith of the religious people, but instead it strengthened their faith and reliance on God. When six nuns of the Monastery of the Poor Clares of Santa Maria della Pace were forced to evacuate their cloister and stay with Benedictine nuns, the catastrophe itself was not as concerning for them, as was the idea of a different schedule. "They live differently in other cloisters. They don't get up to pray at night. It makes me sad to leave because this is our cloister, our life is here," said Sister Maria Chiara Vittorie, one of the nuns of Poor Clares.

Nuns forced to leave their cloisters.

Familial Effects


Because of the repetitive earthquakes that had occurred in the recent months, thousands of homes were destroyed or deemed structurally unsafe. The people had to evacuate the villages and towns near the mountainous regions. Over 15,000 people received assistance from the national civil protection agency, but the majority of the residents took refuge with their friends and families. The disaster strengthened relationships because it forced families and friends to help one another cope with the chaos, causing the sense of community and friendship to grow.

Those Who Stayed

The CRI, Croce Rossa Italiana (Italian Red Cross), set up a support team to deal with the psychological trauma that the earthquake had inflicted. Della Longa of the CRI explained, “These people who had just begun to feel better, to start anew. Then they were hit all over again and it’s back to square one.” The families who did not want to give up on Norica, set up tents so they could stay in the area and help rebuild the city instead of relocating to hotels further away. Gentilina Loretucci and her family of eight were among these people. Loretucci believed that leaving was not an option, “I love Norcia. I've lived here for 40 years, it's a happy place, a safe haven. Many people are going away, saying there is no future in Norcia, but the future is us. Norcia needs us. We cannot leave her alone.” Loretucci and her family of eight had been living in a 130sq foot wooden shed without a kitchen or bathroom. But she remained optimistic, “I feel lucky now because I am safe, my children are with me. We need to be brave, we need to be strong, but everything can begin again. I hit rock bottom many times, but I never gave up." Thinking of her family and imagining a better future for them, allowed her to persevere, “To me home is the family that gathers there. Even if we are eight people in 40sq m, knowing my family is closer to me and everyone is OK—that’s the most important thing.”

Geological Instability versus Cultural Richness

Italy’s list of hydro-geological and environmental hazards is endless. Natural disasters are waiting to happen all over the country. Italy is filled with volcanic areas, potential landslide, flood, and coastal erosion regions, and numerous towns rest on top of geological faults and magma chambers. This is something Italians are well aware of, yet Italy remains the 23rd most populated country in the world. One possible explanation is that the country’s cultural richness makes up for the geological instability. The country is filled with historical architecture; medieval history echoes in every city. People are enticed by Italy’s ancient sites and Gothic churches. But the reoccurring natural disasters continue to remind the people of Italy that nature could take away their precious art in an instance. This reminder was reiterated loud and clear when the October earthquake destroyed the Basilica of St. Benedict, taking thirteen centuries of history with it.

Ruins of the Basilica of St. Benedict


The devastating destruction that occurred in Norica, Italy reminds us of the sheer power of earthquakes—their unpredictability arguably making them the most threatening of all natural disasters. In the case of the earthquake in Norica, where the magnitude was a whopping 6.6 on the Richter scale, it was a miracle that there were no deaths, but the demolition of infrastructures was colossal. Thousands of homes were obliterated, and treasured churches and other precious historic monuments were turned into ruble. As repair plans are currently in place, the chaotic aftermath of the earthquake is still being experienced today. The fact that the earthquake can be attributed to a small movement under the ground, reminds us that "something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wings can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world."


Primary Sources:

BBC News. "Italy quake: Powerful tremor near Norcia destroys buildings - BBC News." YouTube. YouTube, 30 Oct. 2016. Web. 30 Mar. 2017. <>.

Binnie, Isla. "Religious life turned upside down by Italian earthquake." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

Catholicnewsagency. "Basilica of St. Benedict destroyed in earthquake." YouTube. YouTube, 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

Dewan, Angela, and Lorenzo D'Agostino. "Italy earthquake: 15,000 people in shelters." CNN. Cable News Network, 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

"Italy Earthquake." ABC News. ABC News, 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

McKenna, Josephine and Cameron Macphail. "Italy earthquake." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 30 Oct. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

Nivakoff, Benedict, Father. "The Basilica is destroyed." Monks of Norcia. N.p., 01 Nov. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

Persio, Sofia Lotto. "In the earthquake-hit town of Norcia, people are left with nothing but themselves." International Business Times UK. N.p., 07 Nov. 2016. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. <>.

Secondary Sources:

"Explore Plate Tectonics." National Geographic. National Geographic, 22 Mar. 2017. Web. 29 Mar. 2017. <>.

Hough, Susan Elizabeth. Predicting the unpredictable: the tumultuous science of earthquake prediction. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 2010. Print. pp. 222-225

Oskin, Becky. "What Is Plate Tectonics?" LiveScience. Purch, 21 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <>.

Stille, Darlene R. Plate tectonics: earth's moving crust. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point , 2007. Print.

Woods, Michael, and Mary B. Woods. Earthquakes. London: Lerner, 2008. Print.

Additional Sources:

Jones, Jonathan. "Italy's earthquake affects us all." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 27 Mar. 2017 <>.

"Plate tectonics." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2017. <>.


Created with images by cwwycoff1 - "Butterfly"

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