Hazardous Living: Italian seismologists tragically convicted of manslaughter

by Megan Sever
Monday, October 22, 2012

Today, six seismologists and one government official were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to six years in prison. The seismologists and official had been on trial for not adequately warning the public about the danger of a potential earthquake prior to the L'Aquila earthquake in April 2009 that killed 309 people. This ruling makes the earthquake and the aftermath a double tragedy. It was tragic enough that people lost their lives as a result of the natural disaster. Now the court has compounded the tragedy. What it will mean for seismology and hazards mitigation everywhere remains to be seen — but the implications are troubling.

On April 6, 2009, a magnitude-6.3 earthquake struck near L’Aquila, Italy. Buildings collapsed and people were buried in the rubble. Prior to that event, small tremors had been shaking the region for several weeks and one vocal person — not a seismologist, but a technician at a physics institute — claimed that increased radon gas levels in the area suggested a major earthquake would strike before the end of March. Because the public was growing concerned and asking for answers about this so-called prediction, the seismologists and officials of the Civil Protection Department issued a statement suggesting that ongoing tremors didn’t indicate that a larger quake was imminent. The problem, according to the prosecution, was that this statement (falsely) reassured people and thus they didn’t evacuate and 309 people lost their lives.

Today, the Italian judge (in L’Aquila) ruled that the seismologists and government official can be held liable for not telling people to evacuate. In addition to six years in prison (two years longer than the prosecutors even requested), the seismologists and government official are banned from public service for a year and owe money to the victims' families for compensation, an amount averaging €100,000 for each of the 29 victims named in the indictment, according to a report in Nature.

The ruling is ludicrous.

First and foremost, scientists can’t predict earthquakes. They can’t — and won’t — say there is no risk of an earthquake happening, and they can’t — and won’t — say that one will happen. Only after a large event can anyone say that any seismic activity before that event might have been foreshocks. When the scientists were first indicted, more than 5,000 scientists from around the world signed an open letter supporting the Italian seismologists. Today, the blogosphere and Twitterverse are full of statements in support of the scientists.

Second, in a case like this (and as we explored last year), the scientists would be “damned if they do, damned if they don’t.” If the scientists had said something more forceful about an earthquake being imminent and then one hadn’t happened, they’d have been in trouble for potentially inciting panic and causing people to leave their homes and work for what would have been some indeterminate amount of time.

What kind of precedent does a ruling like this set? For one, says Tom Jordan, a seismologist at the University of Southern California and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, it tells scientists not to say anything at all. (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 was issued last year.)  “I'm afraid that many scientists are learning to keep their mouths shut. This won't help those of us who are trying to improve how risks from natural hazards are communicated between scientists and the public,” Jordan says. 

How do we move on from here? First, we hope that this verdict is overturned on appeal. Second, we hope that Italy (and other places) can develop better systems for communicating risk. However, Jordan says, although “we know that the system in Italy for communicating risk before the L'Aquila earthquake was flawed, this verdict will cast a pall over any attempt to set up a better one.” That certainly doesn’t bode well for future hazards mitigation, which is yet another tragedy.

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