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Active plate boundary explains earthquake risk in Southern Italy

"We know about the seafloor and its structure in detail, the better we can estimate where the probability of natural hazards is particularly high," said researcher Heidrun Kopp.

By Brooks Hays
Active plate boundary explains earthquake risk in Southern Italy
Rescuers inspect the rubble and debris as they continue to look for victims of an earthquake in the central Italian town of Amatrice on August 27, 2016. More than 290 were killed when 6.2 earthquake hit the region on August 24, 2016. File photo by Marco D'Antonio/ UPI | License Photo

Jan. 24 (UPI) -- Researchers are beginning to understand why the Mediterranean is disaster-prone. As new research revealed, the history of earthquakes in the region can be explained by the ongoing activity of the subduction boundary between the Eurasian and African plates off the coast of Southern Italy.

Until recently, scientists have struggled to pinpoint the source of tectonic activity in the region.

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"Unfortunately, the tectonic situation is very complicated, since there are many different fault zones in this area," Heidrun Kopp, a geophysicist at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, explained in a news release. "This makes an exact hazard analysis for certain areas very difficult."

But thanks to a series of research expeditions over the last decade, researchers now have a much improved understanding of the region's fault system. The most important revelations have been provided by seafloor surveys off the coasts of Sicily and Calabria, conducted by researchers aboard German research vessel METEOR.

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"From historical natural disasters we know about the geological processes in this area, but so far the causes have not been well known," Kopp said. "Now we are beginning to understand them better."

In a new paper, published this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, a team of researchers from across Europe summarized the findings of the METEOR expeditions.

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New seismic technologies allowed researchers to image the structure of the seafloor. Seismic imaging allowed researchers to penetrate 18 miles beneath the surface of the ocean floor. The findings suggest the subduction zone between the Eurasian and African plates remains active.

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"Of course, with the new findings, we can not predict if and when a severe earthquake will occur," Kopp concluded. "But the more we know about the seafloor and its structure in detail, the better we can estimate where the probability of natural hazards is particularly high. Then actions for hazard mitigation and building regulations can reduce the risks."

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