Earthquakes and eruptions

On shaky ground

Massive earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are anticipated in parts of southern Europe. Millions of lives are at risk. Although the data speaks for itself, experts struggle to get their warnings heard and heeded.

Vesuvius sputters behind Naples. (Image: iStock)

The same fate looms for the residents of three major European cities – Naples, Lisbon and Istanbul. Thousands of them will be buried alive, leaving the survivors severely traumatized. Their cities will be devastated by an earthquake or volcanic eruption. The current residents may be long dead by the time disaster strikes. But their death knell could also ring tomorrow.

Our superterranean world rests on huge continental plates floating on a viscous layer. When the plates become wedged together, danger is never far away. To understand what happens then, we can simply snap our fingers: we increase the pressure between our thumb and middle finger until the latter gives way. The same occurs with the plates deep below the earth's surface. Except that this "snap" unleashes enough energy to take everything above with it. Houses, offices, schools, factories, power plants, bridges, hospitals – simply everything.

The greatest danger to Europe lies at its southern perimeter, where the Eurasian plate meets the African plate and the Anatolian plate pushes in from the east. Millions populate this area – in cities like Naples, Lisbon and Istanbul. How do the authorities go about protecting residents from the impending disaster?

Mount Vesuvius is one possible cause of Naples' future destruction. "If it erupted tomorrow, there would be no strategy to save the people," says Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo, a volcanologist at the Osservatorio Vesuviano. Beneath the volcano, the African continental plate is sliding in under its Eurasian counterpart and melting. At some point it will shoot up as magma through the crater. But nobody knows when. And guesswork won't help anyone sleep better.

For decades, seismologists had hoped to identify common precursors that would allow clear predictions of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. They drew a blank. So far, statistics are all they have to go on, and using them to calculate large intervals is scarcely reliable. And mistakes have consequences. If the scientists jump the gun, they can expect chaos and hugely expensive evacuations. If their warnings come too late, they risk countless fatalities. For this reason, most experts keep their cards close to their chest. Mastrolorenzo is the exception with his plain speaking. He, too, can only guess at the date of the next major eruption, but he knows it is on the way. "What happened in the past will continue to happen in the future," he asserts.

Just like 4,000 years ago, when Vesuvius wiped out everything in the region and the remaining layer of ash made human life impossible for 230 years. And as was also the case 1,900 years later, when an eruption destroyed Pompeii and killed thousands. Today, more than three million people live in the volcano's vicinity. Until 1995, not even an emergency plan had been prepared for them. And it was only in 2001 that the civil defense agency designated an area where residents were permanently on standby. This so-called "red zone" was expanded in 2014. The 700,000 occupants inside its perimeters would be in severe jeopardy in the event of an eruption. If one appears imminent, the authorities plan to bus them to safety within 72 hours. Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo considers this unrealistic, partly because the plan is tailored to a relatively small event. "There is no scientific justification for this," says the volcanologist. Volcanoes can simply erupt without warning. The 72-hour evacuation window is more fantasy than certainty.

And that isn't even Naples' biggest headache: in the west of the city, the Phlegrean (ancient Greek: burning) Fields, a slumbering supervolcano, rage underground. "Danger is part of our identity," says Giuseppe Di Roberto, one of the many residents of its huge crater. On three occasions – 15,000, 29,000 and 39,000 years ago – the Phlegrean Fields exploded with between ten and eighty times the force that Vesuvius can muster. The eruptions buried the entire region, and the ash particles in the atmosphere triggered a volcanic winter in large parts of the planet – which lasted for years and may have contributed to the extinction of the Neanderthals. If a repeat of this magnitude were to occur, three million people in the Gulf of Naples would be in peril. Despite this, the authorities are only planning for a relatively small eruption and could only evacuate 450,000 residents if the unthinkable happened.

Destroyed by a massive earthquake in 1755, Lisbon’s old town could soon be hit again. (Image: iStock)

Yet the past ought to serve as a warning – not to underestimate the forces our planet can unleash. On All Saints' Day 1755, the good folk of Lisbon were crowding into their churches when the ground began to shake. It was an earthquake measuring 8.5 to 9 on the moment magnitude scale. The tremors were so powerful that most places of worship collapsed on their congregations. Many people fled to the banks of the Tagus River, only to find a tsunami racing up it towards them. The city burned for a week; it was the ultimate nightmare. The philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote afterwards: "It was necessary sometimes for earthquakes to affect the ground under our feet; but there was no need for us to build magnificent residences above it. Man must learn to submit himself to Nature, but he prefers Nature to submit itself to him."

More than 250 years later, there is still no early warning system off the Portuguese coast. And: "We still aren't 100% sure what caused the 1755 quake," concedes João Duarte. That said, the geologist may now have discovered the missing link. According to his research, a new subduction zone is forming off the coast: the Eurasian continental plate is breaking in two and one part is sliding under the other. Until now, the Atlantic has kept expanding. Given Duarte's discovery, it might start shrinking now.

This conclusion is causing a tumult in the world's scientific community. The problem is that, beyond this small circle of academics, hardly anyone appears concerned. Non-experts don't understand its implications. But scientists would be well advised to enlighten the residents of Lisbon. "There will be another major earthquake at some point and it will kill a lot of people," Duarte says. When asked about the city's preparations, Lisbon's disaster management chief remains tight-lipped.

In all probability, a devastating quake will strike the city on the Bosphorus in the next few decades. (Image: iStock)

The North Anatolian Fault has the potential to devastate the city of Istanbul. On one unknown day in the future, a 51,000 cubic kilometer landmass will suddenly slide five meters westward. The quake is projected to last a minute or so, but it will kill between 30,000 and 90,000 of the Turkish capital's 15 million residents.

The chances of a 7.4 magnitude quake just off the coast of Istanbul during the next thirty years are higher than 60%. When it comes to responding to probabilities, there are two categories of people: those who will pack an umbrella given a 60% chance of rain, and those who won't – even if they are likely to die rather than get drenched. Nusret Suna is a man seeking to convince his fellow humans that umbrellas matter. The 64-year-old is the President of Istanbul's Chamber of Civil Engineers. "We sometimes feel like the Cassandra of Istanbul. We issue warnings that nobody wants to heed," he laments. The bad tidings? "Istanbul is not prepared for the impending earthquake." The organization estimates that half of the city's houses are illegally built and unlikely to meet safety standards. Up to 50,000 will be severely damaged in a quake, and up to 6,000 will become tombs for their residents.

Is he preparing for the earthquake himself? Making his apartment earthquake-proof or stocking up on drinking water? Suna shakes his head. In the field of risk research, this phenomenon is called the perception paradox: people understand the extent of the threat, but have no confidence that the authorities will protect them. Personal precautions are a waste of time because, ultimately, there is no prospect of survival. And so, despite the warnings of disaster, people simply watch and wait.

A human life is just a fleeting moment compared to the grinding pace of tectonic plates. Researchers have determined that the risk is only truly appreciated shortly after a disaster, while recollections of the destruction and suffering are still fresh. As a University of Prague study has shown, this takes 25 years. During this period of caution, people demonstrate a reluctance to live near the flooded areas. After two generations, an event ceases to impact our behavior. There is no learning effect that lasts long enough to make us ready for the next catastrophe.

So knowledge of upcoming catastrophes exists, but how can we translate it into effective action? Scientists have been warning of a worldwide pandemic for decades – but nobody prepared adequately for COVID-19. Global warming is already devastating huge areas – but we still aren't reducing greenhouse gas emissions quickly enough. The wholesale extinction of species may be threatening humankind's long-term survival – but we aren't willing to alter our lifestyles. The experts in Naples, Lisbon and Istanbul are constantly warning from the wings, but nobody is listening. Risk communication experts argue that we need constant reminders of the inevitable physical and psychological trauma – by sharing stories about the disasters. The more moving, the better. And if we take them to heart, we really can prepare for the worst before it happens.

Svenja Beller freelances for a range of magazines and newspapers. She lives and works in Hamburg and Lisbon.
Julia Lauter lives in Hamburg and works as a journalist and author.

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