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Earth Sense: Earthquakes are scary, unpredictable, deadly
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Of all the possible natural disasters, earthquakes have to be the most frightening.

Hurricanes move slowly. Tornadoes show up on radar several minutes before touching down. But a quake rocks the ground without any warning sign, and destroys solid buildings in mere seconds.

Efforts to provide earthquake warnings are handicapped by the fact that a quake isn’t predictable. A warning can only be issued when the quake is already happening, and it’s only useful for locations at a sufficient distance from the epicenter. An earthquake wave travels about 2 miles per second. This makes it possible to give places a dozen or more miles away an instant warning to stop trains and other traffic. But there’s never enough time for removing people from fragile buildings, and its buildings that kill people, not the shaking of the ground.

The Mediterranean region was hit hard this year. Following the devastating August quake, which killed 300 in the central Italy town of Amatrice, a massive magnitude 6.6 event struck the same region on Oct. 30. That’s almost as powerful as the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, stretching from Santa Cruz to San Francisco, Calif. I remember the horror of cars crushed by a collapsing freeway in Oakland.

The structures that make Italy such a picturesque tourist destination, old stone houses and churches, are also the most vulnerable. They lack the steel spine found in modern high-rise buildings, which enables even the tallest ones to sway when the ground is moving. Tokyo, Japan, has those. Central Italy doesn’t. In the town of Norcia, the Basilica of San Benedetto and other historic buildings were destroyed.

The Apennine Mountains form a central spine running through all of Italy. In a simplified way, they can be imagined between a hammer and an anvil. There’s pressure between the Eurasian Plate in the north, and the African Plate in the south. As a result, towns built in the center of the country are exposed to hazards of earthquakes and landslides. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Friuli Quake, which rocked the Venice region with a magnitude of 6.5 and took over 900 lives in 1976. Other than providing aid to the currently stricken areas of Italy, there is nothing that can be done. Science hasn’t found a clue yet that would allow for earthquake prediction.