Italian Scientists Sent to Jail Because They Downplayed the Risk of an Earthquake

Six scientists and one former government official will do time for failing to accurately convey the risk of an earthquake

Rubble from the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
Rubble from the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. Brian Rosen

Six Italian scientists and one former government official, charged with manslaughter for failing to communicate the risk of an earthquake that struck the central-Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009 and killed 309, will do six years in prison, reports Nature News. The sentence carries even harsher terms than the four years sought by the prosecutors.

Writing for BBC Future, Ed Yong outlines all of the ways in which accurately predicting an earthquake remains a scientific impossibility. There’s plenty of research into the various things that may precede earthquakes (and may thus be one day used as a reliable forecasting tool), such as small “foreshocks” or emissions from the earthquake region.

But earthquake prediction remains little more than a dream for the future. A statement from the American Geophysical Union issued following the charging of the Italian scientists reads:

The criminal charges against these scientists and officials are unfounded. Despite decades of scientific research in Italy and in the rest of the world, it is not yet possible to accurately and consistently predict the timing, location, and magnitude of earthquakes before they occur. It is thus incorrect to assume that the L’Aquila earthquake should have been predicted.

The grounds for the scientists’ charging, though, did not hinge specifically on the failure to predict the deadly quake. Rather, says Nature:

Prosecutors and the families of victims alike say that the trial has nothing to do with the ability to predict earthquakes, and everything to do with the failure of government-appointed scientists serving on an advisory panel to adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population.

Nature says that the local people had been unnerved by a string of small earthquakes leading up to the main shock. The charge against the scientists was that they downplayed those fears. Allegedly, reports The Telegraph, one of the scientists said, “I would reject (the possibility) of an earthquake.” This, not the failure to predict the earthquake, is the crux of the trial.

ritics say that by downplaying the risks, they consigned hundreds of people to their deaths when the quake struck at 3.32am on April 6, 2009, reducing centuries-old buildings as well as modern apartment blocks to dust.

But, given all of the difficulties of earthquake prediction, the weight of this argument is not entirely clear. “Unnerving though these clusters may be,” says Nature, “experts agree that seismic swarms rarely precede major earthquakes.” That the risk seemed clear in retrospect does not make it so in advance. As suggested by the Great ShakeOut, a earthquake preparedness project that saw 14 million people practice earthquake safety last week, the only way to combat the risk of living within an earthquake-prone zone is to be ready to respond at all times.

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