A 6.2-magnitude earthquake hit central Italy near the town of Norcia early Wednesday morning. Rescue teams are still searching for survivors but at least 73 people have been confirmed dead.
It’s one of Italy’s deadliest earthquakes in recent memory, but by no means the worst in the country’s turbulent history: Recorded history of fatal Italian earthquakes dates back to 1169, when an earthquake in Sicily killed at least 15,000 people. Italy has experienced over 400 significant earthquakes, according to some counts, and they won’t stop any time soon.
Italy’s geological conditions are ripe for earthquakes. It’s widely attributed as the most seismically active region in Europe for its near-daily minor tremor and quakes.
Southern Italy is located precariously close to a major fault line between the Eurasian and African tectonic plates, which move about an inch every year in relation to each other.
“It is expected for earthquakes of that size to occur there. Not every decade nor every year, but there is definitely a potential,” UK seismologist Dr. Silvio De Angelis told TIME.
Basically, Italy sits on a very weak part of the planet, tectonically speaking. The regional tectonic plates are constantly shifting, creating complex folds in the earth’s crust that contribute to the area’s active volcanoes and seismic tension.
What travelers should know
Before this incident, the most recent major earthquake struck in 2012 in Northern Italy. The earthquake and its aftershock killed 27.
In the early 20th century, thousands of people were killed in Italy’s numerous earthquakes. But in the later half of the 20th century, the death toll in earthquakes started to decrease, when Italy advanced its building codes with a mind towards the quakes. However, that has not kept tragedy completely at bay.
Earthquakes often come in pairs. After the initial tremor, an aftershock always follows, generally about one magnitude point less than the original quake. So, Italy can expect a magnitude five earthquake to strike in response, but it could take up to five years to hit.
Italy’s advances in construction and building codes have resulted in modern structures that are better able to withstand the impact of earthquakes. But in many of Italy’s historic towns and villages, it’s not possible to protect old buildings and their heritage.
The U.S. State Department informs travelers to Italy about the country’s unpredictable fault lines and volcanoes, but does not warn them against visiting.
Flights to and from Italy are operating unaffected after Wednesday's earthquake.