Tectonics and Structural Geology


Beyond Tectonics: How the tectonic events of 1783 were perceived by the population of Europe

Beyond Tectonics: How the tectonic events of 1783 were perceived by the population of Europe

This edition of “Beyond Tectonics” is brought to you by Katrin Kleemann. Katrin is a doctoral candidate at the Rachel Carson Center/LMU Munich in Germany, she studies environmental history and geology. Her doctoral project investigates the Icelandic Laki fissure eruption of 1783 and its impacts on the northern hemisphere.

“A Violent Revolution of Planet Earth” – The Calabrian Seismic Sequence of 1783
The 1783 “Year of Awe”

In 1783, a sequence of several strong earthquakes devastated Calabria, later that year the Icelandic Laki fissure eruption blanketed parts of the northern hemisphere with a strange, dry sulfuric fog. Contemporaries coined 1783 to be an annus mirabilis, a year of awe, that saw many unusual phenomena: A temporary “burning island” appeared off the coast of Iceland; earthquakes rocked parts of Western Europe and even the Middle East; there were erroneous reports of at least three volcanic eruptions in Germany (this news was later retracted); and in September, news of a volcanic eruption at or near Mount Hekla, Iceland’s most infamous volcano, reached the European mainland. All of these events inspired the notion that somewhere “a violent revolution of planet Earth” was underway (Münchner Zeitung 1783). The most popular theory at the time was that the earthquakes in Calabria had caused the sulfuric-smelling dry fog of 1783.

The volcanic eruptions in Iceland, and earthquakes in Italy are both caused by their respective geology. Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent boundary between the Eurasian and the North American plate, and on top of the Iceland mantle plume, making it very volcanically active. The Italian peninsula is dominated by a subduction zone – between the Eurasian and African plates – which reaches from Sicily to Northern Italy and causes many earthquakes.

How do we know the strength of these historic earthquakes, when they occurred before seismometers had been invented? Geologists estimate the magnitude of historical earthquakes from written reports that describe the damage caused. The Mercalli-Cancani-Sieberg scale (MCS), named after Giuseppe Mercalli, Adolfo Cancani, and August Heinrich Sieberg, is one scale to infer the magnitude of an earthquake from historical descriptions: the MCS scale reaches from level I (earthquake “not felt”) to level XII (“extreme”, causing total damage, waves seen on ground surfaces, objects being thrown upward into the air).


“The most terrible and destructive of any earthquake”

With the presence of the Calabrian Arc – characterized by normal faulting and uplift – and the volcanoes of Etna and Stromboli nearby, Southern Italy and Sicily experience regular earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. However, the earthquakes of early 1783 did not follow the normal pattern of one strong quake and weaker fore- and/or aftershocks. Instead, there was a seismic sequence of five strong earthquakes. A seismic sequence is an unusual event, in which one earthquake increases the stress on other parts of the fault system, which triggers subsequent earthquakes. This process is called Coulomb stress transfer.

 “The Earthquakes in Italy were, perhaps, the most terrible and destructive of any that have happened since the Creation of the World. Four hundred towns, and about four or five times as many villages, were destroyed in this dreadful calamity. The number of lives lost, are estimated at between forty and fifty thousand.” An Account of the Earthquakes in Calabria, Sicily, and other parts of Italy, in 1783. Communicated to the Royal Society [of London], by Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples, May 23, 1873.”

Today we know, these were not, in fact, the most destructive earthquakes of all time, although in 1783 these unusual earthquakes, and the hundreds of aftershocks that occurred throughout the year certainly seemed that way.


A contemporary print of the first of the 1783 Calabrian earthquakes. The earthquake caused severe damage and destruction in Reggio Calabria in the foreground, with the Strait of Messina in the background. Image source: Wikipedia.


The earthquakes in Calabria and their consequences

The print above illustrates the first of the Calabria earthquakes, which occurred on February 5, 1783, at noon, near Oppido Mamertina in Calabria, which was a XI on the MCS scale (Richter magnitude of 7.0). It gives us an idea of the extreme destructive force of this earthquake. The residents of Messina and Calabria were knocked off their feet by the shaking as they tried to flee, avoiding cracks in the ground, and falling trees and rubble (Jacques et al., 2001). Contemporary reports show the initial earthquake destroyed almost all of the nearby buildings, and the initial and subsequent earthquakes caused total casualties in the tens of thousands.


Map of the intensity of the first large earthquake on 5 February 1783, which reached a XI of the Mercalli scale, here symbolized in dark purple. A star denotes the point of the epicenter of the earthquake (credit CFTI).


The second strong earthquake, which also reached VIII-IX on the MCS scale (“severe” to “violent”), struck only half a day later, at 0:20 am. The first earthquake had scared many people in the region, and they did not want to spend the night in their houses. In Scilla (in NW Calabria), many people decided to camp on the beach overnight. This proved to be a fatal error: The second earthquake triggered a rockslide, which created a tsunami that killed 1500 people on the beach (Bozzano et al., 2011; Mazzanti et al., 2011).


The extraordinary weather phenomena of 1783

During the summer of 1783, another highly unusual phenomenon was present in Europe: A sulfuric-smelling dry fog hung in the air for weeks on end. Many naturalists and amateur weather observers around Europe noticed this phenomenon and speculated as to its cause. At the time, it was believed that sulfuric fogs were a precursor to strong earthquakes, a dry fog was observed in the days before the 1755 Lisbon earthquake – most likely produced by an eruption of the Icelandic volcano Katla. A similar fog was also reported in Calabria on February 4, 1783 (Kiessling, 1888; von Hoff, 1840).

We now know that the Icelandic Laki Fissure eruption, of 1783, released large amounts of gases and ash, which were carried towards continental Europe via the jet stream. However, news of this took almost three months to reach Europe, by which time the dry fog had vanished again, making it difficult to explain the phenomenon at the time.


The Southwestern part of the Laki Fissure in Iceland today (credit Katrin Kleemann).


How to explain earthquakes without the theory of Plate Tectonics

The sheer number of unusual subsurface phenomena observed during this time seemed overwhelming. Many theories were developed to explain the “year of awe,” one suggested the Calabria earthquakes had created a crack in the Earth, which was releasing the sulfuric fog observed over Europe. For a very long time, it remained only one theory among many.

In the late eighteenth century, it was believed that all volcanoes, most often coined “fire (spitting) mountains,” were connected via fire channels inside the Earth. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions were believed to be caused by chemical reactions—between gas or metals and water for instance—in subterranean passages and caverns (Reinhardt et al., 1983; Oldroyd et al., 2007). Today, we have the theory of plate tectonics and mantle plumes, however, even today, the geology of the Calabrian Arc seems very complex and is far from fully understood.


“Subterraneus Pyrophylaciorum“: Fire canals connecting all volcanoes on the planet, depicted in Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus, 1668 (credit Wikimedia commons).


Written by Katrin Kleemann
Edited by Hannah Davies


References/extra reading

  • Bozzano, F., Lenti, L., Martino, S., Montagna, A. and Paciello, A., 2011, Earthquake triggering of landslides in highly jointed rock masses: Reconstruction of the 1783 Scilla rock avalanche (Italy). Geomorphology, 129 (3-4), 294 – 308.
  • Graziani, L., Maramai, A. and Tinti, S., 2006, A revision of the 1783-1784 Calabrian (southern Italy) tsunamis. Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences, 6 (6), 1053 – 1060.
  • Hamilton, W., 1783, An account of the late earthquakes in Calabria, Sicily, &c. Colchester: J. Fenno.
  • Jacques, E., C. Monaco, P. Tapponnier, et al., 2001, Faulting and earthquake triggering during the 1783 Calabria seismic sequence. Geophysical Journal International, 147, 499 – 516.
  • Kiessling, K. J., 1888, Untersuchung über Dämmerungserscheinungen zur Erklärung der nach dem Krakatau-Ausbruch beobachteten atmosphärisch-optischen Störungen. Hamburg: L. Voss, 26.
  • Kleemann, K, 2019. Living in the Time of a Subsurface Revolution: The 1783 Calabrian Earthquake Sequence. Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (Summer 2019), no. 30. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/node/8767.
  • Kleemann, K., 2019, Telling stories of a changed climate: The Laki Fissure eruption and the interdisciplinarity of climate history. Edited by K. Kleemann and J. Oomen, RCC Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society no. 4, 33-42, doi.org/10.5282/rcc/8823. http://www.environmentandsociety.org/sites/default/files/03_kleemann.pdf
  • Kozák, J., and Cermák, V., 2010, The illustrated history of natural disasters. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
  • Mazzanti, P. and Bozzano, F., 2011, Revisiting the February 6th 1783 Scilla (Calabria, Italy) landslide and tsunami by numerical simulation. Marine Geophysical Research, 32 (1-2), 273 – 286.
  • Oldroyd, D., Amador, F., Kozáko, J, Carneiro, A, and Pinto, M., 2007, The study of earthquakes in the hundred years following the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Earth Sciences History 26 (2), 321 – 370.
  • Placanica, A., 1985, Il filosofo e la catastrophe: Un terremoto del Settecento. Turin: Einaudi.
  • Reinhardt, O., and Oldroyd, D. R., 1983, Kant’s theory of earthquakes and volcanic action. Annals of Science, 40 (3), 247 – 272.
  • Von Hoff, K. E. A., 1840, Chronik der Erdbeben und Vulcan-Ausbrüche: mit vorausgehender Abhandlung über die Natur dieser Erscheinungen 1 Vom Jahre 3460 vor, bis 1759 unserer Zeitrechnung. Volume 1. Gotha: Perthres, 108.

How Rome and its geology are strongly connected

How Rome and its geology are strongly connected

Walking through an ancient and fascinating city like Rome, there are signs of history everywhere. The whole city forms an open-air museum, full of remnants of many different times the city has known, from the Imperial to the Medieval times, the Renaissance, the Fascist period, and finally the present day version of Rome. For historians and archaeologists, unravelling the exact history of the city proves to be a major challenge, since things are only partly preserved or have been renovated or moved to serve a different purpose. This might sound familiar to geologists, since they deal with the same type of problems, just on much larger scales, both spatially and temporally.

Although you might expect to find the keys to the geological history of Rome and its surroundings outside the city, there’s actually a great deal of hints within the city itself. Let’s start with the roads you would walk on, during a visit to Rome. If you’ve ever been to Rome, you might remember the black cobblestones, which form the pavement for many streets in the historical centre of Rome. The Italians call them ‘sanpietrini’, cubic-shaped blocks made from volcanic rocks coming from the surrounding volcanic regions.


Volcanic activity

Two of these volcanic regions are the Alban Hills, southeast of Rome, and the Sabatini volcanic complex, northwest of Rome. They are part of a line of volcanic fields along the edge of the Italian peninsula, stretching from Naples, all the way to Tuscany. Eruptions in these areas were mainly explosive and created large volcanic plateaus and craters. One of those plateaus was formed by an eruption of the Alban Hills volcanic field and consists of volcanic tuff stone. Over time, erosion has altered this plateau and created a topography of valleys and hills, including the seven hills that Rome was built on. These hills are still remarkable features in the city today, for example when you climb the stairs to the Capitoline Hill and have a gorgeous view of the Imperial Forum or when standing on the Aventine hill in the south, looking down on Circus Maximus in the valley below you, and seeing the ruins of the imperial palaces on the Palatine hill in front of you.


Left: Map showing the regional relief and the two volcanic complexes north and south of Rome. Credit: modified from Funiciello et al., 2003 by Francesca Cifelli. Right: The seven hills of Rome. Credit: theculturetrip.com.


The volcanic rocks in the Roman area did not only shape the landscape, they also served (and still do!) as an important water supply to the city. Springs in the areas, but also freshwater lakes formed in the volcanic craters are important sources for the city’s water budget. In fact, last summer Rome was in a state of panic, since severe drought and extremely hot temperatures had a big impact on the water level of volcanic lakes providing water to Rome and city officials were considering rationing drinking water for the Roman citizens.


The Apennines

Another important water supply to Rome are the springs in the Apennines, a NW-SE trending mountain chain, also called ‘the backbone of the Italian peninsula’. This mountain chain is the result of a collision between the African and Eurasian plates, which was part of a series of complex collisions and extensions of the Earth’s crust in the Mediterranean region, lasting from roughly 100 million years to 2 million years ago.  During the last 20 million years, the Italian Peninsula rotated counter-clockwise, resulting in the formation of what we now call the Tyrrhenian sea. This period of extension also formed the onset of volcanic activity in the region.


Map of the Mediterranean highlighting the main tectonic processes. Credit: Introduction to the Geology of Rome.


The rocks in the Apennine mountain range are limestone, deposited in ancient shallow seas as long as 300 million years ago. These rocks became very important to Rome, since they formed major rock reservoirs, which have been used for water supply for many centuries. Many remains of ancient aqueducts carrying water to Rome can still be found nowadays, and some of them are still being used, like the Vergine aqueduct, bringing water to the Trevi fountain. Also the ‘fontanelle,’ little fountains on the streets everywhere in Rome, are part of this water supply system and always provide clear, cool, and drinkable water. And if you’ve ever spend a day in Rome during summer, you know how valuable these fontanelle are!


Left: view on the Imperial Forum from the Capitoline Hill. Many of the buildings at the Forum have been built with travertine. Right: remants of the Aqua Claudia, one of Romes many acqueducts bringing water from the surrounding regions to the city. Credit: Elenora van Rijsingen


The limestone that ended up in the Apennines often were converted into marble due to the high pressures and temperatures during collision. This marble  can be found everywhere in Rome, since they have been used as building blocks for various structures like the Pantheon and Trajan’s column. Another rock which has been used a lot for Roman buildings is travertine, which forms by the evaporation of river and spring waters. Many temples, aqueducts, amphitheatres, and monuments have been built with travertine, but the most famous one is the Colosseum, which is the largest building in the world constructed mainly of travertine blocks.

Have you ever wondered why part of the outer ring of the Colosseum is missing? It is actually also linked to geology, since the southern part of the Colosseum collapsed during a historical earthquake. The tectonic processes which formed the Apennines still produce irregular movement along all kinds of faults on the Italian Peninsula, generating frequent earthquakes. The reason why only the southern half of the Colosseum collapsed (fortunately!) is because it had been partly built on unconsolidated alluvial deposits. When shaken by an earthquake, these loose sediments amplified the shaking and therefore caused severe damage to the southern part of the amphitheatre.


The site effect: amplification of seismic waves due to the properties of the subsurface. Credit: Ciaccio and Cultrera (2014) Terremoto e rischio sismico.

The Tiber
These type of alluvial deposits can also be found at the floodplains of the Tiber, the river which passes through Rome and played an important role in the city’s development. Romans in the imperial times did not build any houses on the floodplains of the Tiber, because they knew the river would flood every once in a while. Instead, they built theatres, temples, and army training facilities which could easily be restored and would not harm the societies too much.

Another reason not to build along these floodplains is the same reason which damaged the Colosseum: the increased risk of earthquake damage due to amplification of the shaking. Unfortunately, nowadays, many areas close to the river are covered with residential areas and even though the risk of flooding has decreased due to the 12 meter high walls surrounding the Tiber today, the risk of increased earthquake damage still exists.

And now I think of it, I am living in one of those areas myself, in Testaccio, a neighbourhood just south of the Aventine hill. I guess this amplification of the shaking due to the alluvial deposits below my feet is the reason why I feel a slight shaking (even when living on the fourth floor!) every time a large truck passes by. Roughly 2000 years ago, Testaccio was not a residential area, but was used as the location for an olive oil warehouse along the Tiber. We even have an ancient garbage dump in our neighbourhood, which is now part of the local landscape and is referred to as ‘Monte Testaccio,’ literally meaning ‘Testaccio mountain’. Romans would pile up discarded amphorae, which were used to store the olive oil, leaving a hill composed of fragments of roughly 53 million amphorae.


Left: the Tiber river bounded by its 12 meter high walls, which should prevent the city from future floods. Credit: Elenora van Rijsingen. Right: millions of amphorae fragments piled up in an organized way and together forming the Monte Testaccio. Credit: Flickr.


Clearly, in Rome not only geological processes shaped the landscape, but also deposits called human debris played a role. Digging an imaginary hole below your feet anywhere in Rome might reveal more ancient houses, businesses, or roads, all buried during the continuous evolution of the Eternal City. And that’s one of the reasons why, for example, the work on the new metro line here in Rome is taking so long! Every ten meters, they stumble upon a new archaeological site, all revealing new hints about what the city was like hundreds to thousands of years ago.

Minds over Methods: studying dike propagation in the lab

Minds over Methods: studying dike propagation in the lab

Have you ever thought of using gelatin in the lab to simulate the brittle-elastic properties of the Earth’s crust? Stefano Urbani, PhD student at the university Roma Tre (Italy), uses it for his analogue experiments, in which he studies the controlling factors on dike propagation in the Earth’s crust. Although we share this topic with our sister division ‘Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology (GMPV)’, we invited Stefano to contribute this post to ‘Minds over Methods’, in order to show you one of the many possibilities of analogue modelling. Enjoy!


dscn0024Using analogue models and field observations to study the controlling factors for dike propagation

Stefano Urbani, PhD student at Roma Tre University

The most efficient mechanism of magma transport in the cold lithosphere is flow through fractures in the elastic-brittle host rock. These fractures, or dikes, are commonly addressed as “sheet-like” intrusions as their thickness-length aspect ratio is in the range of 10-2 and 10-4 (fig.3).

Understanding their propagation and emplacement mechanisms is crucial to define how magma is transferred and erupted. Recent rifting events in Dabbahu (Afar, 2005-2010) and Bardarbunga (Iceland, 2014, fig.1) involved lateral dike propagation for tens of kilometers. This is not uncommon: eruptive vents can form far away from the magma chamber and can affect densely populated areas. Lateral dike propagation has also been observed in central volcanoes, like during the Etna 2001 eruption. Despite the fact that eruptive activity was mostly fed by a vertical dike to the summit of the volcano, several dikes propagated laterally from the central conduit and fed secondary eruptive fissures on the southern flank of the volcanic edifice (fig.2). Lateral propagation can hence occur at both local (i.e. central volcanoes) and regional (i.e. rift systems) scale, suggesting a common mechanism behind it.


Fig. 2 Lava flow near a provincial road, a few meters from hotels and souvenir shops, during the 2001 lateral eruption at Etna. Credit: Mario Cipollini

Therefore, it is of primary importance to evaluate the conditions that control dike propagation and/or arrest to try to better evaluate, and eventually reduce, the dike-induced volcanic risk. Our knowledge of magmatic systems is usually limited to surface observations, thus models are useful tools to better understand geological processes that cannot be observed directly. In particular, analogue modelling allows simulating natural processes using scaled materials that reproduce the rheological behavior (i.e ductile or brittle) of crust and mantle. In structural geology and tectonics analogue modelling is often used to understand the nature and mechanism of geological processes in a reasonable spatial and temporal scale.

d_grad_dike57_080Field evidence and theoretical models indicate that the direction of dike propagation is controlled by many factors including magma buoyancy and topographic loads. The relative weight of these factors in affecting vertical and lateral propagation of dikes is still unclear and poorly understood. My PhD project focuses on investigating the controlling factors on dike propagation by establishing a hierarchy among them and discriminating the conditions favoring vertical or lateral propagation of magma through dikes. I am applying my results to selected natural cases, like Bardarbunga (Iceland) and Etna (Italy). To achieve this goal, I performed analogue experiments on dike intrusion by injecting dyed water in a plexiglass box filled with pig-skin gelatin. The dyed water and the gelatin act as analogues for the magma and the crust, respectively. Pig-skin gelatin has been commonly used in the past to simulate the brittle crust, since at the high strain rates due to dike emplacement it shows brittle-elastic properties representative of the Earth’s crust. We record all the experiments with several cameras positioned at different angles, taking pictures every 10 seconds. This allows us to make a 3D reconstruction of the dike propagation during the experiment.

In order to have a complete understanding of the dike intrusion process it is essential to compare the laboratory results with natural examples. Hence, we went to the field and studied dikes outcropping in extinct and eroded volcanic areas, with the aim of reconstructing the magma flow direction (Fig. 3). This allows validating and interpreting correctly the observations made during the laboratory simulations of the natural process that we are investigating.


Fig. 3 Outcrop of dikes intruding lava flows. Berufjordur eastern Iceland.