Six Italian scientists and one government official are set to go to trial today in Italy (Sept. 20) on charges of manslaughter for not warning the public aggressively enough of an impending earthquake that killed more than 300 people in 2009.
While such a trial is unlikely on U.S. soil, experts say, American geologists and seismologists are watching closely, surprised at a legal system that would attempt to criminalize something as uncertain as earthquake prediction.
"Our ability to predict earthquake hazards is, frankly, lousy," said Seth Stein, a professor of Earth sciences at Northwestern University in Illinois. "Criminalizing something would only make sense if we really knew how to do this and someone did it wrong."
Henry Pollack, a professor of geology at the University of Michigan, echoed Stein's concerns.
"The whole thing seems bizarre to me," Pollack told LiveScience.
A deadly quake
The case has its roots in 2009, when a swarm of small earthquakes shook the central Italian region of Abruzzo in Italy. The region is seismically active, but knowing whether little shakes are leading up to a big temblor is impossible, seismologists say. A 1988 study of other quake-prone Italian regions found, for example, that about half of large quakes were preceded by weaker foreshocks. But only 2 percent of small quake swarms heralded a larger rupture. [See Photos of L'Aquila Earthquake Destruction]
Enzo Boschi, the then-president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology and now a defendant in the case, seemed to allude to this uncertainty in a March 31, 2009, meeting in L'Aquila, a medieval city in Abruzzo. Comparing the situation to a large quake that struck L'Aquila in 1703, Boschi said, "It is unlikely that an earthquake like the one in 1703 could occur in the short term, but the possibility cannot be totally excluded."
In a press conference after the meeting, however, Department of Civil Protection official Bernardo De Bernardinis, also a defendant in the case, struck a more soothing tone, saying that the situation posed "no danger" and urging residents to relax.
Less than a week later, on April 6, a 6.3-magnitude quake struck in Abruzzo. L'Aquila's medieval buildings crumbled, killing 309 people and injuring more than 1,500.
The case against the scientists and De Bernardinis states that they did not do their duty in communicating risk to the citizens of L'Aquila and holds them responsible for manslaughter. A guilty verdict could carry up to 15 years in jail. The families of the dead are also seeking millions of dollars in civil damages.
But geoscientists say that asking the Italian scientists to predict when and where a quake might strike is like asking them to look into a cloudy crystal ball for an answer. [Natural Disasters: Top 10 U.S. Threats]
"I think that what people don't understand is just how low the risk was. These swarms of earthquakes do happen all the time," said John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Washington. "We have swarms in my state, Washington, all the time, and I'm not sure of a single one that's ended with a large earthquake."
Although scientists — and cranks — have tried, there's no way to predict an earthquake days or weeks in advance. You'd have to fully understand the stresses deep in the Earth, Vidale told LiveScience, and you'd have to know exactly which parts of the crust are so weak that those stresses are going to cause ruptures.