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Error and Trial: Italian Scientists Face Prison as Earthquake Manslaughter Hearing Resumes This Weekend

Six renowned geophysicists are on the hot seat, but is it for failing to predict an earthquake or failing to clearly communicate their findings?
earthquake, Italy, seismic, geology



Courtesy of TheWiz83, via Wikimedia Commons

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Did scientists and public officials encourage residents of L'Aquila to let their guard down prior to a tragic April 2009 earthquake that killed 309 people in that central Italian city? That is what an Italian court will consider Saturday as it resumes an unprecedented manslaughter trial of six Italian geophysicists and one former government official.

The defendants were part of Italy's National Commission for Forecasting and Predicting Great Risks that held a special meeting in L'Aquila the week before the earthquake to address concerns over recent seismic activity but, according to prosecutors, provided "incomplete, imprecise and contradictory information." As a result of this information, communicated largely via a press interviews before and after the meeting, many L'Aquila residents felt no need to abandon their homes, prosecutors allege. The magnitude 6.3 earthquake ended up leveling about 20,000 buildings in and around L'Aquila.

Scientists, more likely to serve as expert witnesses than defendants in court, are still coming to terms with the legal problems facing their Italian colleagues. If convicted, the defendants are looking at up to 15-year prison terms in addition to a civil suit seeking more than $30 million in damages.

"When they were indicted in June 2010, I was surprised," says Thomas Jordan, director of the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) and professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California, where SCEC is headquartered. "When that judicial review was ordered to trial, I was surprised. So I guess I'm getting used to the fact that this thing has legs." Now, he adds, "it looks to me based on what I have heard that there are liable to be some guilty verdicts coming out of this phase of the trial."

A debate has risen as to whether seismology itself is on trial. Whereas prosecutors argue that it is not, an open letter sent last year to Italy's president, Giorgio Napolitano, and signed by more than 5,000 members of the scientific community claims that the defendants are being persecuted for failing to do the impossible—predict the time, place and magnitude of an earthquake.

Such protestations are "a little off base in that they don't really get at the main issues of the trial," Jordan says. Regardless, the outcome of this case is likely to send tremors throughout the scientific community, particularly among disciplines such as seismology that seek to better understand and forecast natural disasters. "The public is in some ways becoming more demanding," Jordan says, adding that they want fast access to accurate scientific information gathered in as transparent a manner as possible.

Look no further than last year's Gulf oil spill for evidence of this. "People were really very angry, feeling that they were in some sense being deceived by BP and to some degree by the government for not providing information about how bad that disaster really was," Jordan says.

Whereas answers to tough scientific questions such as when and where a major temblor will strike are elusive today, it is not for lack of trying. Jordan chaired the International Commission on Earthquake Forecasting for Civil Protection formed by the Italian government in the aftermath of L'Aquila to assess the scientific knowledge of earthquake predictability and provide guidelines for effectively gathering, updating and disseminating information to the public. The commission, which submitted its findings in May, recommended several measures, including real-time, interagency sharing of seismic data and the development of new earthquake forecasting methods.

The commission also cited efforts already underway to test earthquake forecasting, in particular the Collaboratory for the Study of Earthquake Predictability (CSEP). CSEP is a network of collaborating laboratories set up near active fault systems in the western U.S. as well as Italy, Japan, New Zealand and elsewhere to perform earthquake prediction experiments and determine how such experiments should be conducted and evaluated. "This type of forecasting apparatus is prospective, meaning the forecasts are fixed and blind and the performance is tested in a rigorous way," Jordan says. "We started the first testing in California in 2007. Italy began testing about five months after the L'Aquila event." (A team of researchers published the results of California's Regional Earthquake Likelihood Models test of quake forecasts last month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.) (pdf)

None of this assures earthquake forecasting improvements in the near future, and some scientists worry that public expectations will outpace scientific capabilities. "One of the issues in L'Aquila was how much attention should have been paid to the foreshocks leading up to the earthquake," says Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus in geoscience at Oregon State University in Corvallis and co-author of the article "Hidden Earthquakes" in the June 1989 issue of Scientific American. There are plenty of examples of foreshocks, including those near the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State that never lead to temblors, Yeats says.

One of the best remedies is for scientists, and those speaking on their behalf, to choose their words more carefully, Yeats adds. One of the most egregious violations of this tip came when Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice director of the Department of Civil Protection, spoke at a pre-quake press conference to discuss the commission's meeting. De Bernardinis reportedly downplayed the danger of an imminent earthquake. When a reporter asked whether residents should then relax with a glass of wine, he is quoted as saying "Absolutely, absolutely a Montepulciano doc," referring to a type of red wine. De Bernardinis's lawyers claim he was making a joke, but prosecutors have seized on this statement nonetheless.

Still, scientists are a hearty lot and not easily silenced, Jordan says. "What is important is that we put together systems for gathering and transmitting that information to the public that are better," he adds. "I think the main impact of L'Aquila will be to underline the need for this kind of information transmission and public notification, raising public awareness."

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