Category Archives: Geology

A geologist in the Italian earthquake

by Huw Goodall

Half awake, half asleep. The room is shaking. You realise you are not at home. You are in central Italy. Now the room is really shaking, you sprint over to hide under the desk as the floor moves under your feet, grabbing clothes as you go. The shaking continues, you put on the random assortment of clothes, pulling the bag you packed the night before, with the essentials to survive, close to you, wondering when the shaking will stop. Preparing mentally to be buried under the roof and hunker under the desk until the rescue team gets to you, you listen as the doors and windows rattle and bang. Then there is silence.

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People gathered in Ascoli Piceno town square, not long after the earthquake. Copyright: Huw Goodall

Pulling your shoes on (why didn’t you untie them last night!) you run into the corridor, your colleagues are out there, everyone is unhurt. Down the gloomy hotel corridor you all hurry out into the square, where slowly but surely the population of Ascoli Piceno gathers in the beautiful early morning sun. After an hour or so delay, including dashing back into the ancient building to grab field kit, interviews with the BBC and a delayed breakfast, you escape from the medieval town towards the epicentre of the earthquake.

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Dodging boulders on the drive up towards the epicenter. Copyright: Huw Goodall

Driving up the winding mountain roads, dodging between boulders that have been dislodged by the shaking, your team of 4 make their way towards the centre of the earthquake. As you approach, the tiny villages that dot the route show increasing signs of damage. Then you see it. The rupture. This is where the earth has been cut by the quake. The work begins. High precision surveys are taken from this site, after a brief discussion it is decided to return to where you were working the previous day and see if the fault has moved in the earthquake there too.

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Our first encounter with the fault rupture, south of Mt Vettore. Copyright: Huw Goodall

This involves driving through the isolated town of Castellucio, a stunning hilltop village, famous for its lentils. As you drive up the hill, the residents are in the street. Your Italian is only good enough to order food, but you can tell they are scared, confused and don’t know why you are there. You are probably the second car at most that has passed this way since the earthquake that morning. The destruction is clear, walls collapsed a pancaked building along the road, other houses simply gone. There is a helicopter landing in the street. People are everywhere.

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Before and after images of the destruction at Castelluccio.

Eventually the situation is explained in a hash of Italian and English and you are allowed to pass through, to continue to do your work as the people of the village continue to take stock. The next two weeks are non-stop field work, police checkpoints, late dinners and early starts. You measure how the fault has ruptured the surface, using a high-tech laser scanner, GPS, cameras and the good old fashioned ruler and notebook.

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The fault on Mt Vettore, the bad of pale rocks (red line) shows the amount of movement of the ground during the earthquake I experienced. Copyright: Huw Goodall

We spent the fortnight mapping new parts of the rupture as well as repeating measurements at some sites, to generate a picture of how the fault is moving in the days after the earthquake. This data set will be unlike any other in existence and hopefully will give us an insight into why earthquakes happen the way they do.


h-goodallHuw is a PhD student in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds. His work involves using precise chemical analysis of earthquake faults to understand how they have moved in the past.

The public misunderstanding of the geological subsurface

This is really really important and relevant to all areas of natural and environmental hazards.

Professor Iain Stewart goes over some of the problems in science communication and the public misunderstanding of the geological subsurface.

“We need to find a way to connect people to the subsurface.”
Professor Iain Stewart