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Birkbeck researchers discover source of historic Italian earthquake that killed 80,000

New research from Birkbeck identifies, for the first time, the active fault that produced the most destructive and powerful earthquake recorded in Europe in the 20th century. The earthquake occurred in 1908, with the damage focussed in Messina, on the island of Sicily, and southern Calabria, in Italy. The findings have important implications both for the study of historic earthquakes and for Italian politics, as the fault is situated close to the planned location for the longest bridge in Europe, which would link the southern Italian island of Sicily to mainland Italy.

Aerial view of Sicily and southern Italy at night
The Messina Strait at night

The earthquake which struck Messina, Sicily, and Calabria on 28 December 1908 killed more than 80 000 people and measured 7.1 on the moment magnitude scale - the largest earthquake recorded in Europe in the 20th and 21st century. However, until now it has not been known which fault caused the quake, nor, therefore, the movement patterns and directions of the fault movement. The historic scientific literature about the earthquake makes several suggestions for the source of the quake, but these suggestions don’t correspond to the faults which have been mapped in the area on land and underwater in the 100+ years since the quake, and particularly over recent decades. 

The Birkbeck-led team used data from 1907-1908 to study the pattern of uplift and subsidence seen at the Earth’s surface in the Messina and Calabria region, which strongly resembled that resulting from other large earthquakes produced by normal faults. By comparing the size and direction of movement on well-known faults with the surface movements seen in Messina and Calabria the team was able to identify the probable active fault that caused the 1908 earthquake, as well as the size and direction of the movement. They discovered that the quake occurred on a previously mapped but understudied fault – the offshore Messina-Taormina Fault.

The findings are significant because this fault runs the length of the Messina Strait, which separates Sicily from mainland Italy and is the proposed site for Europe’s longest bridge.

Dr Marco Meschis, who led the study, said: “Italian society is still reeling from the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, in 2018. Italian architect Riccardo Morandi was also linked to the possible Messina Strait project in the past, which has been used as a political football for many years now. The discovery that the bridge would cross the fault that caused the most destructive earthquake in our continent’s last century will have ramifications for any political party grappling with a decision on the future viability and practicality of the project.

“As well as the political implications, there are lessons for our academic field from these findings too. They demonstrate that there is value in revisiting the historical record to link it with mapped faults and to enable us to benefit from the insights that the geology and geomorphology can bring.”

The results of this study were published in Scientific Reports (Nature). 

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