Field of Science

28 December, 1908: The earthquake of Messina

In the early morning of December 28, 1908 a 30-42 seconds long earthquake with a reconstructed magnitude of 6.7-7.2 hit the Italian cities of Messina and Reggio Calabria. The earthquake damaged 90% of the buildings and broken pipes fuelled a terrible firestorm; however one of the most unusual effects of this earthquake was an 8 meter high tsunami.

The earthquake and tsunami killed estimated 40.000 people in the two cities alone, 27.000 people along the shores of the Strait of Messina - some historic documents claim 100.000 to 200.000 victims – one of the deadliest natural disasters recorded during historic times in Europe.

Fig.1. Photo (December 28, 1908 ?) showing the destroyed promenade of Messina.

Southern Italy has a long and tragic history of earthquakes. The setting between the two larger continental plates of Europe and Africa and various microplates causes highly active tectonics.

In 1783, between 5. February and 28. March the Italian region of
Calabria was shattered by six successive earthquakes, causing widespread destruction and 35.000 fatalities.

Fig.2. Vue de l'Optique composition (=
Hand colored copper engraving used in the Laterna magica technique) showing sea ships and boats endangered in the rough waters of the Messina Strait disturbed by the 1783 earthquake.

The administration in Naples initiated a study, collecting eyewitness reports and hired experts to evaluate the destruction and damage of buildings. Two books were published, the collection of accounts by eyewitnesses with 569 pages and the report by the experts with 372 pages, covering the observations in 150 cities and villages.

The first map of seismicity of the Mediterranean area and an extensive report on earthquakes in Italy was published by the Irish engineer - and self educated geologist - Robert Mallet in the year 1862. 

He got interested by the subject of earthquakes in 1830. Observing a picture in a science book, displaying two columns twisted by an earthquake in Calabria, he decided to study and understand the forces behind these deformations. He noted that damages on buildings were distributed in specific "areas", setting out from a point of heaviest havoc. He noted that these epicentres of destruction were not randomly distributed, but found in "seismic belts" in the Mediterranean Sea.

Fig.3. An early map of the 1783 Calabria volcanoe and earthquake-areas plotted in the mid-19th century (from BERGHAUS 1845-1848).

Fig.4. Simplified tectonic map of southern Italy and map showing the reported intensity after the modified Mercalli-scale (after data released by the Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia) for the earthquake of December 28, 1908.


BERGHAUS, H. (1845-48): Physikalischer Atlas oder Sammlung von Karten, auf denen die hauptsächlichsten Erscheinungen der anorganischen und organischen Natur nach ihrer geographischen Verbreitung und Vertheilung bildlich dargestellt sind. Zu Alexander von Humboldt, KOSMOS. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung. 2. Bände - Verlag von Justus Perthes, Gotha: 188
LEWIS, T.A. (ed) (1982): Earthquake (Planet Earth). Time-Life Books: 134
KOZAK, J. & CERMAK, V. (2010): The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Springer-Verlag: 203

MALLET, R. (1862): Great Neapolitan Earthquake- The First Principles of Observational Seismology as developed in the Report to the Royal Society of London of the expedition made by command of teh Society into the interior of the Kingdom of Naples, to investigate the circumstances of the great earthquake of December 1857. Chapman & Hall, London: 399

1 comment:

  1. We just had another earthquake here yesterday: Eerily, at exactly the same time of the day and also around Christmas.


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