Earthquakes abound but are geologists becoming extinct?

Which country in Europe has the most earthquakes? Italy. Which country in Europe has the most landslides? Italy. And which country is failing to produce qualified geologists at the highest rate? You guessed it. Italy. These questions were posed, recently, on the front page of the Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, by one of its best reporters, Gian Antonio Stella.

According to statistics, today in Italy there only eight “pure” geology university departments in the country, down from 27 in 2000 and at the present rate of attrition, the number could soon decline to five: Milan, Rome, Bari, Florence and Padua. (A recent university reform bill supposedly designed to rationalize the university system worsened the situation by merging smaller geology departments with others that are at times totally different: In Chieti, in the Abruzzi, geology and psychology are now a single department).

When you think of Italy’s geological situation – it is between the African and Eurasian plates and is thus subject to the perils of compression –  it is clear that the country needs an army of geologists, not a dwindling number of patrols. Italy has ten active volcanoes within its borders as opposed to only one in France and one in Greece (the island of Santorini). Since 1861 when Italy became a unified country, there have been 34 very serious earthquakes and  86 smaller ones, with a total of at least 200,000 deaths and 1,560 cities that suffered significant damage. In addition, over 75% of Italy’s 8,047 towns and cities have serious hydrological problems and, indeed, 69% of the landslides that take place in the European Union occur in Italy.

No doubt partly because of on-going residential construction that has been allowed to run roughshod over geological constraints, the hydrological situation in Italy is worsening. There were 162 landslides (or mudslides) in Italy between 1850 and 1899. Between 1950 and 2008 there were 2,204! And yet. And yet between 2000 and 2014 the number of full professors of Earth Sciences has declined by 44%. Interestingly enough, the number of students enrolled in Italy’s earth science faculties is increasing; the tragedies of recent years – L’Aquila, Genoa, Emilia and Calabria – apparently have sensitized a growing number of young people. But very little effort is going in to making sure they have places where they can get a proper education.

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