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Hazardous Living: Italian seismologists on trial for manslaughter

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Building damaged in the April 6, 2009, earthquake in L'Aquila, Italy.

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RaBoe/Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Megan Sever is managing editor of EARTH and writes the Hazardous Living blog.

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Jim Sever

Last June, EARTH reported that seven Italian scientists were under investigation and might be charged with manslaughter for not predicting (and warning the public about) the magnitude-6.3 earthquake that struck L’Aquila, Italy, in April 2009. By last fall, it looked like the charges might be dropped – with the support of many of the world’s seismologists. But this week, a judge decided that the case can move forward and that in September, the scientists will go on trial for manslaughter in the deaths of the 309 people who perished in the earthquake, according to a report in this week’s Nature News. They face up to 12 years in prison if convicted.

At issue is not so much that the scientists failed to predict the earthquake, but that they issued false – or overly optimistic – assurances that one wasn’t going to happen, Nature reported.

The L’Aquila region had been experiencing small tremors in the weeks preceding the main quake. They were not unusual in the region and no tremor had topped magnitude 4.0. It’s quite possible no one would have thought anything more about the tremors, except that as the tremors were occurring, a technician at a physics institute in Italy claimed (“predicted,” he said) that increased radon gas levels indicated that a major earthquake would strike before the end of March. Following his claims, Italy’s Civil Protection Department (pdf) issued a statement on March 31 saying that the tremors did not mean a major event was imminent: A large earthquake was “improbable, although not impossible.”

It was those words and an alleged stronger statement from Bernardo De Bernardinis, then deputy technical head of the Civil Protection Department, that convinced people that there was no danger and thus they did not need to take precautions, like leaving their homes. According to the Nature News report, De Bernardinis allegedly said: "The scientific community tells me there is no danger … because there is an ongoing discharge of energy. The situation looks favorable.”

From a personal standpoint, I understand that people are upset that so many died. But can we just face the facts here? First, scientists can’t predict earthquakes. Second, it was largely the collapse of unreinforced buildings that killed people. Third, in cases like this where nothing really out of the ordinary is happening, issuing statements that suggest that seismic risk is increased and that people should evacuate is just plain ludicrous!

Let’s play a hypothetical game. I would like to know what people would have done differently, if on March 31, researchers had said “Yes, there’s likely to be a big earthquake sometime in the near future.” Would they have left their homes and jobs in L’Aquila for a day? A couple of days? A week? A month? Only if they left for more than a week would it have mattered. Let’s say they left for a few days, but came back before the April 6 earthquake. Would the scientists still be at fault? What if the scientists issued such a statement but no earthquake occurred? Would they have been charged with issuing false statements and instigating false panic? Probably. We've certainly seen volcanologists get into trouble when they suggest a volcanic eruption is imminent and then one doesn't occur right away. It’s hardly even a fair hypothetical, however, given that the chance of seismologists saying “an earthquake will happen tomorrow in this location” and being right is so minimal.

When the case was first brought up last summer, scientists around the world were up in arms. More than 5,000 signed an open letter in support of the Italian seismologists. It was generally agreed that the Italian seismologists did nothing wrong. "The charges have no merit," says Tom Jordan, a seismologist at the University of Southern California. Jordan was involved with a report the Italian government commissioned to determine the current state of earthquake forecasting and to issue guidelines for civil protection actions. That report, by the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection as the international team is known, has just been finalized.

Many scientists suggest that the case presents an opportunity, however: “First, if we really don’t know something, we should say we don’t know … and not cloak that statement in hyperbole that might satisfy our fellow scientists but is of no use to anyone else,” wrote John Mutter, a geophysicist at the Earth Institute of Columbia University, in a comment for EARTH last summer. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, Mutter wrote, scientists need to tell people how to be prepared when an earthquake does strike.

Preparing for earthquakes certainly is the best approach, whether you live in an earthquake-prone area or not, Jordan told EARTH last September. If you live in an earthquake-prone area, make sure your house is as earthquake-safe as it can be and have an emergency kit stocked with a flashlight (and batteries), battery-operated radio, water, food, first aid, etc. And don’t just think because you don’t live in an earthquake-prone area that you don’t need to know what to do in the case of a quake: People everywhere should know what to do if you start to feel the ground shaking – hide under a table or sturdy piece of furniture or get in a stable doorway. You never know when or where an earthquake could strike. Case in point: Although I live in an earthquake-prone area, I experienced my first earthquake on vacation in Hawaii a couple of months ago.

The Italian scientists will go on trial Sept. 20. I wonder what lasting repercussions these charges might have on the geosciences community. Will researchers be even more reticent to offer scientific opinions, no matter how caveated? If so, that could leave the public even more in the dark – and I don’t think that’s to anyone’s benefit.

What do you think? Email us at earth@earthmagazine.org.

Megan Sever

Sever is managing editor of EARTH and blogs about natural hazards, climate and other geo-topics on Hazardous Living.

Thursday, May 26, 2011 - 19:00