After enduring two tragic earthquakes within a span of nine days, residents of northeastern Italy are both distraught and mystified. As emphasized in news reports, that region had not experienced a significant earthquake for hundreds of years. Yet, this industrial valley stretches between the Apennines and the Alps, mountain ranges that owe their very existence to the collision of the African and Eurasian Plates.
This tectonic collision, though too gradual to witness during our brief life span, has been going on for at least 40 million years, producing the varied landscape of southern Europe. A quiescent period of seismic activity in any given area, even lasting hundreds or thousands of years, is to be expected as pressure along the collision zone shifts from one region to another. While we may understand the geologic cause for the earthquakes, our inability to accurately predict the timing of such events has become all too clear over the past few decades; nevertheless, scientists in Italy are facing manslaughter charges for their failure to predict the 2009 quake in the Apennines, east of Rome, which killed more than 300 citizens.
We humans have a tendency to blame others for the misfortunes that we endure, even when they arise from the uncontrollable and, to date, unpredictable natural forces that mold our planet. We also tend to interpret our Universe, distant galaxies or local geography, from the narrow perspective of our human life span. Anyone who resides along the active plate margins of Planet Earth cannot afford to ignore the realities of its past and ongoing geologic evolution, however remote the risk of catastrophe might seem at the present time. After all, the Africa-Eurasian collision has been underway for 40 million years, 400 times longer than our own species has walked the planet.